A Change of Pace – Chapter 101

<Twenty-fours spent doing nothing but sitting on my ass.> Angela silently fumed in her little corner of the gym.

Her negative emotions hovered over her like a black thundercloud. People sensed it and kept away. The teenage shifter was pretty sure she’d aced her finals. She’d been stern and unyielding when needed but also considerate and compassionate. She knew a Hero required both, and she’d delivered.

And then the real deal happened. The city had gone to hell in a hand-basket, and she’d been given a mask in case she needed it. It felt like every fiber of her being tingled when she touched that small piece of comfortable plastic.

<This is what I’m meant to do.> No matter what anyone told her, she knew this was the life for her.

And then she’d sat on her ass while it all happened.

Roads and bridges turned to rubble. The power plant blown up…again. TV and radio stations hijacked or demolished so the enemies’ message of fear and hate could be spread. The airport was a flaming wreck with the smoking skeletons of 737s still lying dead on the tarmac. Lots of people had died too. Civilians caught in the crossfire all over the city, hundreds of them. The Orlando PD had done their best, but they’d taken their own losses. A few dozen cops killed in the line of duty. The department was reeling.

The DVA was on scene and investigating in force for the time being. They were bolstering the PDs ranks and sharing some of the burdens until the next class graduated from the police academy at the end of the summer. But even then, there would be a lot of rookies with fewer veterans to show them the ropes than any time in recent memory.

The DVA was also looking into what was being called Lander’s Crucible and seeing if the two attacks were related. So far, there didn’t seem to be any link between the Sons of Progress and Seif al-Din’s terrorist organization, but they were still digging.

They also had to look into their deployment protocols. Even on different sides of the country, with totally different circumstances, Lander’s attack pulled a disproportionate number of Hero responders compared to Orlando.  Granted, some of it was due to the chaos and breakdown in communication. Lander had just dropped off the grid and that was a clear red flag. Orlando had rapidly descended into chaos, but the city’s leadership had been slow to make the distinction between possible gang violence and a terrorist attack. The Protectorate and DVA having their hands full didn’t help getting information to the right people.

Despite the needs for improvement for the local authorities, there was no denying that the bad guys had planned things perfectly. They’d dispersed the local defenders all across the city. They’d started a natural disaster up north, and all so when they found Seif al-Din they only had a small strike force that wasn’t able to take him down.

They were also looking into that because lethal force had been authorized but not used. A lot of people wanted to know why.

While all of that was important, none of it mattered to Angela because she’d been stuck underground the whole time. And now they weren’t even being allowed to help in the clean-up.

“Everybody turn in your masks.” Coach McMillian was making the rounds to collect the school property.

She saw him watching everything closely. A lot of the students thought he was the good cop to his and Coach Meyers’ good cop bad cop routine. They thought he was the one that would go easy on them, and he might just do that, but there was always something going on behind the speedster’s eyes.

Coach McMillian was sharp, and she could tell he was watching all the students and evaluating how they went about giving up their first piece of almost real Hero action.

“I heard the students at Lander got to help.” Angela held onto her mask when the coach came by.

“Where’d you hear that?”

“People talk.” She left it at that.

“Yeah, they got to help, but it was a different situation.”

Angela bit her tongue and nodded. Arguing with the close combat coach wouldn’t do her any good. But, like always, the man noticed.

“They were directly under attack. They were the targets of the Sons of Progress. We were not. The terrorists specifically left us alone, for the same reason the Sons should have left Lander alone. Most of the terrorists and most of the Sons that participated in the attack are dead now. They might have showed that an HCP could be attacked, but they also showed that an HCP would fight back. With no backup, and no intel, Lander’s professors and their students took down several enhanced Supers. It was a pretty big show of force. Something we didn’t need here.” The coach’s eyes were thoughtful but stern.

“I just wish I could have done something to help. “Angela tried to recover.

“Don’t be so eager to jump right into things, Angela. Lander’s students got a taste of what the Hero life was like, but they got a taste of the good and the bad. They lost someone.”

Angela didn’t know that, and she thought about what she would be feeling right now if they’d run off to help and Becca had been killed.

Dr. Johnson would be proud of how she handled herself. She approached the problem, admitted what she was feeling to herself, came to grips with that, and figured out a way past it. All while taking deep breaths and keeping her emotions in check. If this had been a few months ago, she probably would have just started punching something.

“Ms. Martin.” Dean Ditmar stepped into the gym for the first time since this whole ordeal started.

The HCP leader looked tired, like he’d been fighting bad guys all day, and cleaning up all night. But there was still a smile on the older Super’s face, and she took that to mean everything was ok.

“Please come with me.”

<Anything to get out of sitting here for one more minute.> She jumped to her feet and worked the kinks out of her legs and neck as she crossed the distance to the gym’s double-door entrance.

She followed the Dean through the maze of sci-fi corridors that didn’t look any different than the first day she walked out of the lift and into this life. She followed him all the way to the entrance to the library where an all too familiar woman was standing.

“I’ll give you to a moment.” The Dean smiled and left Angela with her mother.

The both stood eyeing each other for a minute before Angela final spoke. “Jesus, Mom. What happened?”

Sophia Martin was in a worn pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Her eyes were red, she wasn’t wearing any make-up, and she was favoring one side.

“Rough day at the office.” The unshifted Hero Seraphim chuckled before taking a step forward and wrapping her arms around her daughter.

Angela froze for a minute, ready to counter any grapple the Hero tried to pull on her, but none ever came, and she slowly relaxed into the embrace. “What happened?”

“The bad guys weren’t exactly better than us, but they were better prepared. We walked right into their ambush and we lost some people. I made it out, but just barely. The DVA healer patched me up, but he’s not HCP quality, so I’m on medical leave for the next few days.”

Then Sophia did the impossible, she hugged Angela even harder. Angela returned the gesture and felt something in her chest. It wasn’t a heart attack, she was too young for one of those. It could have been from all the stress, or her irritation about this whole situation up until right now. Either way, she’d have to ask Dr. Sanderson about it. But for the moment, she just wanted to be content. She couldn’t remember the last time her mother hugged her like this.

“Well.” Her mother’s voice shook like she was holding something back. “I’ve got one more thing to show you before we go home for summer break.”

“You’re taking me home…” Angela waited for the “but”, but it never came. For some reason her mother was taking the exact opposite approach than what she’d decided to do when dropping her off at the beginning of the year.

<She wasn’t the one that dropped me off.> Angela shut that line of thought down hard before it could fester. Things were going really well with her mother, and she didn’t want to ruin it.

“In here.” Sophia pushed open the door to the school’s library and waved her through, but didn’t follow. “Third aisle on the left. I’ll be here when you’re done.”

Without another word, her mother closed the door behind Angela with a hint of a smile on her face.

<They’ve got to have her on pain meds.> It was the only explanation.

She walked down the few dozen feet to the third aisle and turned left like she’d been instructed. There was somebody else there. A large somebody who was preoccupied with running their hand underneath one of the shelves. Whoever it was didn’t notice her at first, and she wasn’t sure what to do.

<Just asking some random somebody if my mother just set us up isn’t exactly what I thought this was all about.> Really, she had no idea what was going on.

The person sat there for a few more moments, running their fingers underneath the shelf before standing up. They were bigger at their full height, at least half a foot taller than Angela, and it was obviously a guy. Angela’s thought process went from possible set-up to possible ambush in a nanosecond. Her eyes scanned the rest of the library looking for more threats when the man started to laugh.

<Wait…> Angela froze. Despite all her training, everything she’d been taught for eighteen years. She still froze like a deer in headlights when she heard that familiar laugh.

“Don’t worry, Angela, it’s just me.”

Before she even knew what was happening she was sprinting toward the hulking figure and throwing herself into his open arms. She couldn’t speak. She was laughing, she was crying, and she was just trying to wrap her mind around what was happening.

“Daddy!” She buried her face in his chest and never wanted to let go.

“It’s ok, honey. I’m ok. Everything is going to be ok.” He pulled her close, and the feeling was mutual.

 

***

 

“So that was kind of a bust.” Mason handed in his white mask and stood their awkwardly with his hands in his pocket. He’d been dreading this moment since he wrapped up his last final.

“Better a bust than us being called out there.” Kyoshi didn’t look happy, which meant she was hearing things from everyone around them and not liking it.

“You’re right,” Mason chided himself and put a lid on his disappointment.

<Us going out there would mean the brown stuff was well and truly flying everywhere. That’s not what this city needs, and that isn’t what we need. We forget that we’re still kids.> 

Kyoshi turned toward him with a smile as she dropped her own mask in the container that Coach McMillian was passing around. “Let’s not dwell on the bad, but think about the good.” She wrapped her arms around his neck.

To date, she was the only girl he’d ever dated that was able to do it.

“So…summer break?” Mason didn’t look her in the eye, but he was sure she could read his thoughts like an open book.

The title of the book would be “Mason doesn’t want to spend three months away from the woman he loves” in all caps with a hundred exclamation points at the end.

Kyoshi smiled as she read as much off him. She didn’t really need to read his mind as much as his face and body language, because hers was a mirror image of his. She didn’t want to spend time away from him either.

“What are you planning?”

“Honestly, I want to keep training. I know I did well enough on the finals that I think I’ll make it back, but I need to be stronger. Strongmen are a dime a dozen. If I want to make it into junior year I’ve got to be at my best and figure out new uses for my ability.”

“Mason.” She placed a hand on either side of his face to make sure he was looking at her. “If you don’t get to become a Hero then none of us should.” She meant that with all her heart. “You are kind, considerate, compassionate, strong, courageous, and a selfless person. There is no better future Hero out there than you.”

“Except you.” Mason’s reply made Kyoshi blush scarlet.

“Let’s just agree to disagree on that point.” They both smiled at each other.

“But the summer?” Mason brought them back on point.

“Well, you need to see your grandmother,” Kyoshi stated.

“And you need to see your parents,” Mason reminded her of her own commitments.

“You have to drive back home in that beater and I’ve got to fly.” Kyoshi outlined their travel arrangements.

“That’s right.”

“So how about this.” Kyoshi adopted a thinker’s pose. “Let’s road trip up the east coast to Brooklyn. We can take our time, see some sites, and spend quality time together. Once we hit New York, we’ll stay for a few weeks and spend time with your grandmother. You can introduce me to your boxing coach and I can build on my hand-to-hand skills by training with a new opponent. Plus, I’ve got a technique I want us to try out that could be really cool.”

Mason nodded fervently. Any extra time he got to spend with his girlfriend was time well spent in his mind.

“After we do some time in New York. We’ll fly out to see my parents. If you want a strongman to train you and teach you some new tricks there is no one better than my father. Don’t worry.” She saw Mason pale a shade or two at the mention of training with the famous German Hero. Of all the boys I ever brought home he likes you the best.”

“You brought a lot of boys home?” He didn’t get an answer, just a coy smile.

“Well, sound like a plan?” She raised an eyebrow, daring him to come up with something better.

“Nope, you’ve always got the best ideas.” Mason settled for hugging her close and thinking about how the next few months could go.

It could be awesome. They could learn more about each other, their families, and how they were together outside a school environment. Of course, it could also be awful, but he highly doubted it. He’d never met a woman quite like Kyoshi Schultz, and he knew how to hold on to a good thing when he had it.

“Ok, it’s a date then.”

“A three-month date.”

They both smiled and exchanged a brief kiss as the double doors opened and they were released for the summer.

 

***

 

“Becca!”

“Ani!”

The hospital hallway parted like the red sea as the two teenage Supers made a beeline for each other. They collided just beyond the crowded nurses’ station. Arms and lips locked while tears flowed freely.

“I thought I’d never see you again.” Anika held Becca tight and squeezed. If Becca had been human she probably would have broken a rib or two.

“I just woke up and you were gone.” Becca chuckles were mildly hysterical, and she kept stroking Anika’s arms to convince herself she was real.

“I’m never going anywhere ever again.” Anika gripped her even tighter.

“I’m sorry to say, but that isn’t exactly true,” a familiar voice spoke from just behind them.

Despite the relief, both women were on edge, and both rounded on the voice determined to protect the other.

“Easy there,” the woman held up her hands to show she had no bad intentions. “I’m the DVA agent assigned to get Ms. Kemps home safe.”

“Wait, you’re the one who talked to us after Angela…” Becca let the sentence trail off. If this was the woman then she knew why she’d been there.

“Yes, I’m Agent Phillips.” She pulled out her badge for good measure.

“You’re taking me home?” Anika repeated with a raised eyebrow.

“That’s what my plane ticket says.” The agent flashed two plastic slips.

“Why?”

“You’re a smart girl, Ms. Kemps.” The agent pocketed her badge and the tickets. “You were the target of all of this.”

Like someone hit the unmute button on a TV, Anika and Becca suddenly realized what was happening all around them. There was organized pandemonium. A constant stream of victims with everything from minor lacerations to burns covering a large portion of their body were everywhere. Beds with groaning patients were starting to stack up in the hallways. The nurses all looked harried and frantic, and the doctors had noticeable stress lines. This was a hospital after a disaster.

“I didn’t want all of this to happen.” Anika unknowingly grabbed Becca’s hand and squeezed. “I just didn’t want to go back.”

“Don’t let your mind go that way.” The agent took a step closer and placed her hand on Anika’s shoulder. “You were a victim of this just like everyone else.”

“But all these people. And the bad guys?” Anika looked to the DVA agent for some sign that they’d captured her psychotic father.

“We put down most of the terrorists. Captured a few, and a few got away. I’m sorry Anika, but that’s why I’m taking you home.”

“Can’t you pump the ones you got for information. You’ve got all those interrogation techniques. Find out where that butthead is and get him.” Becca’s face was fierce as she thought of any plan to save her girlfriend.

“That’s not how it works. We can’t just…”

“Did you get her?” Anika cut the agent off.

“Ms. Kemps…”

“Did you get her?” Anika asked again forcefully.

The DVA agent looked around like she was making sure no one was eavesdropping. “Yes, we got her.”

“I want to talk to her.”

“Absolutely not.” Agent Phillips put her foot down. “We’re still building a case against her. Lawyers will come by for your testimony, but until then you will not be seeing Wraith.”

“You guys caught Wraith. Awesome!” Becca squeaked in delight. “What did she do in all of this?”

“She’s the one that drugged you and kidnapped me.” Anika stated before Agent Phillips could tell her to zip it.

“Drugged me…But there was no one else there but you, me, and…” Her eyes went wide. “OH MY GOD!”

Agent Phillips gave them both a stern looked that in no uncertain words told them to shut up, but Anika still managed to mouth, “I told you so” to Becca.

<Always trust your gut.> Anika would never make that mistake again.

“We need to get going.” The DVA agent looked at her watch. “It’s a commercial flight out of Daytona since Orlando is pretty much a smoldering wreck now. So we’ve got a drive and then a long set of flights ahead of us.”

“What about our stuff.”

“Your stuff will be shipped to the new address.”

“My stuff?” Anika asked.

“New address?” Becca followed up.

“Ms. Kemps.” The DVA agent lowered he voice. “Like I said before. You were the target. The DVA is taking all necessary measures to protect you going forward, and that means WITSEC is moving your whole family to a new location.”

“And…” Becca wasn’t reading between the lines because she considered herself practically family.

“Ms. Whitfield will not be able to join us.” The older woman finally had to spell it out.

“The hell I ain’t.” Becca looked ready to speedily put her foot up someone’s ass.

“Hey.” Anika touched the blue-haired speedster’s arm and she relaxed a bit. “They just want to get me moved and get me settled. Then I’ll call you and we can meet up.” Anika glared at the DVA agent, daring her to say that even that wasn’t allowed.

Agent Phillips put up her hands again in a clear “I’m not getting in the middle of this” motion.

“But what about our summer of plaid?” Becca deflated, and new tears threatened to leak from the corners of her eyes. “We had it all planned out.”

“It’s going to be the half-summer of something new.” Anika tried to make the situation better. “Maybe it’ll be sun dresses. Maybe it’ll be copious amounts of SPF 50. Maybe we’ll have to get you some stylish parkas.” Anika smiled as Becca giggled at that one. “Whatever it is, wherever I am, I’ll be with you soon. I promise.”

Anika pulled her smaller girlfriend closer and locked lips for an explosive kiss.

“I’m going to hold you to that.” Becca replied breathless some undeterminable amount of time later.

“Count on it, babe.” Anika gave her one last hand squeeze and turned to Agent Phillips.

“Ok, lead the way.”

The still unclassified teenage super wasn’t looking forward to spending half her summer packing and moving out of Montana and into a new identity, but she’d do anything to stay away from her father.

<And anything to keep Becca safe.> There was that too, because what happened between her, Becca, and Liz was never going to happen again.

 

***

 

A black SUV with thick tinted windows had driven up to townhouse 117 and asked for Seth to come with them. It wasn’t as much a question as an order, and Seth had been in the HCP long enough to know when to just say yes and do what he was told. He didn’t know the two guys in suits who accompanied him on the ride back, but they both had pistols in holsters on their hips.

“Any chance you can tell me what the hell is going on?” He just got a shake of the head from the suit in the passenger seat.

The drive from West Private University downtown didn’t show a lot of what had gone down. For the most part, things didn’t look so bad. There was a lot of smoke in the air from the fire that was now under control in the north, so everything had a haze to it.

Occasionally, they’d come across a building or structure that looked like it should be in the middle of a Syrian warzone, not Orlando. They were ridden with bullet holes, had all their windows blown out, and large chunks of masonry missing where something a little stronger than 5.56 rounds had smashed into it. And those were the lucky ones. A few buildings were nothing more than a pile of rubble.

The driver seemed to be taking a round-a-bout way to their destination, because they seemed to pass by every building like that. Finally, they ducked into a garage next to a building identified as police headquarters, and went underground into a full motor pool full of everything from more SUVs to armored vehicles.

The vehicles looked like they could use some TLC. Some were covered in dust or ash depending on where they’d been deployed. Others had bullet holes, and a few looked like they’d had to been towed back here. A big vehicle with SWAT written on the side of it in white looked like its whole front end had exploded.

<Is that blood?> Seth didn’t have time to ask before the two suits walked him over to an elevator and hit the button for the top floor.

They emerged into a madhouse. Phones were ringing off the hooks, people were yelling into those phones, yelling for other people to shut up, running around with paperwork stacked up to their shoulders, or running in full tactical gear to get somewhere. Seth had to flatten himself again a wall as a squad of SWAT officers ran past looking ready for war.

“This him?”

Seth didn’t even see the man appear. He was old, exquisitely dressed, and wearing a mask. But most importantly the suits deferred to him.

“Yes, Sir.”

“I’ll take it from here.”

The man didn’t grab him and haul him away, which Seth got the impression he wanted to do, but he pointed impatiently toward a steel door across the room.

“My name is, Mr. Morningstar. I’m the leader of the Protectorate, the…”

“I know what the Protectorate is.” Seth cut him off. “Galavant came to talk to us earlier this year.”

If the interruption made the man angry he didn’t show it. “Very well. Follow me.” Without any pomp or circumstance, he pushed open the steel door and led the way into a dark room.

“Back for more, Morningwood.” A half-crazed voice laughed. “For a veteran Hero, your attempts have been pretty pathetic so far. How’d they let someone as incompetent as you run this joint?”

“I have my moments.” Mr. Morningstar replied calmly, but Seth saw his posture tighten at the insults. “Like right now. I brought you a guest.”

“I don’t want to see anyone.” The other voice immediately became wary. “Take them away.”

“You don’t make the rules, Wraith.”

<Holy shit they caught Wraith!> Seth’s eyes bulged and he looked at Mr. Morningstar.

The man waved Seth forward. He wanted Seth to see.

Seth couldn’t lie, this had tickled his curiosity. After writing a paper about the villain there was a certain amount of natural intrigue. Seth wanted to know all about this recently famous villain.

He stepped up to the cell, he hadn’t noticed this was a jail until Wraith’s name had been brought up, and the lights of the cell flickered on. The villain was sitting with her back to him. She had tucked herself into a corner and was showing no signs of wanting to interact.

“Hello, Wraith.” He saw his voice made her visibly stiffen.

“Go away!” The villain grunted.

“I’ve got to say I never thought they were going to catch you. I wrote a paper on you.” He left the HCP part out. “I thought you had them all outsmarted. No one knew who you were, or anything more than you were female between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five.”

He got no reply.

“So how’d they catch you? Please, I’m dying to know.” A little bit of haughty swagger had crept into his voice.

“Go away!” she grunted again.

“Now…now…Wraith. Where are your manners? Engage with the boy. He wants to know all about you.”

Somehow, things seemed to have flip-flopped in the last few minutes. For some reason, Mr. Morningstar held the power now, and he literally had the villain cowering in the corner.

“Go away!” This time it was a feminine scream, not a grunt, and something about it tickled his memory.

“No, Wraith. You brought this on yourself. Or should I call you…”

“NO!” The woman whirled around and threw herself against the barrier.

She bounced off it like a rubber ball hitting concrete and sprawled on the floor temporarily dazed. As soon as she got control of herself she rolled back onto her stomach.

But not before Seth caught a glimpse of a familiar cheekbone, an eye he’d looked into most nights over the past six months, and lips that he’d kissed a thousand times before.

“There is it.” Mr. Morningstar sounded cruel as Seth stumbled backwards in shock. “Now you see the truth.”

“No!” Liz threw herself against the barrier again, fully revealing herself, and the metal collar they had locked around her neck.

“L…Liz.” Seth felt like a strongman had sucker punched him in the gut. His legs gave out and he conveniently collapsed right into a waiting chair.

A chair on wheels which was then immediately rolled right up to the barrier and his crying girlfriend.

“No, Seth. No!” She was frantically pounding on the barrier trying to get to him.

“Yes, Seth. Yes.” Mr. Morningstar squatted just to his right. “Ms. Aretino here has been infiltrating the HCP since the day you met. Earlier today, she drugged Rebecca Whitfield and kidnapped Anika Kemps on behalf of the man who attacked this city. She killed two ForceOps soldiers that we know of, fired rocket propelled grenades into a residential neighborhood, and led Heroes into an ambush that resulted in death and serious injuries to members of that team. My team.” The Hero’s voice had dropped to a predatory growl by the time he finished.

“No! Don’t listen to him, Seth. That’s not the whole story. It isn’t all true. Please! PLEASE!”

Seth didn’t know what to think. But he knew he was in shock. All he could do was look into Liz’s wet chocolate eyes. Eyes that looked so different and yet so similar to the eyes he’d gazed into as they made love.

“Why?” He managed to mumble after a minute.

Liz seemed to have an emotional breakdown at the word. She cried, kicked, screamed, and tried to tear the metal collar from her throat. She alternated between threatening Mr. Morningstar and profusely apologizing to Seth. It just made things more confusing.

“I can’t be here.” Seth finally got up and looked around for the door.

“Please, Seth. PLEASE. He’s trying to turn you against me. I love you. I’ve always loved you. Nothing in the world can change that. Please, just please don’t give up on me. Don’t listen to them. I LOVE YOU!”

Seth couldn’t listen anymore. He half walked, half stumbled toward the door. His chest felt tight and his head was swimming. He barely made it out of the room before he puked all over the floor. There were a few startled gaps as people took evasive action to avoid the filth, but everyone was too busy to stop, or even ask if he was ok.

“I’m sorry you had to see that.” Mr. Morningstar emerged behind him. Cutting off Liz’s continued screams as he shut and sealed the door.

“No, you’re not.” Seth straightened up, feeling a hollowness in his stomach and chest.

Mr. Morningstar didn’t reply.

“You wanted me to see that. You wanted to break her. You used me. At least give me the courtesy of being truthful.”

“We need to break her down so we can get all the information she knows about other very bad people. You’re training to be a Hero, Mr. Abney. This is part of the job.”

Seth didn’t know how to answer that. “Can I go now? I’ve got things to pack before I head home for the summer.”

“Yes,” Mr. Morningstar straightened his tie. “Congratulations on completing your first year. The gentlemen who brought you will take you home.”

Whatever townhouse 117 had been, it wasn’t home now. Seth had just had everything he knew and loved turned on its head. He hoped this was all a bad dream and he’d wake up in bed with Liz, preferably on some tropical island midway into their summer break.

He waited for it, but nothing happened.

So he took one step, and then another, and then a third toward the door. He didn’t know what the fuck he was going to do, but he didn’t want to be here, and he didn’t want to be sober.

All he wanted to do was forget the last ten minutes had ever happened.

 

***

 

The smoke from the fires had cleared just the other day, so the sun was able to rise into a cloudless sky. It was going to be hot. Spring had officially become summer, and summer in Orlando led to swamp ass and proliferous BO.

<I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.> Daisy stood at the entrance to the hospital and took a deep breath.

She thought about where she’d been a year ago, and where she was now. She’d been practically a homeless vagabond, drinking herself to death and not able to do what she had been born to do. Now she was back in action. She was teaching the next generation of Heroes, and she was still able to help this city when it needed her.

New York City would always be home, but this place wasn’t too bad. And a big part of that had to do with the man inside this building.

She exhaled the deep breath, and marched into the build. The nurse at the desk waved her through before disappearing to be anywhere else. Doctors scattered at her approach. She had a reputation in this place.

She smiled to herself as she found the room and knocked softly. If he was asleep she didn’t want to wake him. She popped the door open a tad and looked in.

Topher was sitting on his bed, his chest wrapped tight, and watching the boxy TV hanging from the wall. He looked over at her and smiled that smile that made her heart flutter.

“Please tell me you brought a hamburger. This hospital food is going to kill me.”

They both grinned at each other as Daisy pulled a paper bag from behind her back.

“That’s my girl.”

Topher had faced his own difficulties during the terrorist attack. He’d been in a raid against a jihadist strongpoint that had left another cop dead and two more shot. Topher had taken a round to the vest. His vest had stopped it, but the AK’s 7.62 round broke three ribs in the process.

“Wait.” She pulled the bag away from him and put a finger to her lips. “Payment first.”

She leaned down so he didn’t have to strain himself, but the kiss was anything but restrained. Topher even worked his hands around to her butt.

She playfully slapped it away and got a dramatized grimace for her trouble.

“Shut up and eat your hamburger.” She handed over the bag, and he dug into it like a little kid trying to find the hidden toy inside.

<Life could be worse.> She took her customary seat next to the bed, their hands found each other’s, and they spent the afternoon watching the TV and talking.

Despite everything that had happened. The detox, the adaption to a new environment, getting her memories back, being slapped on the wrist by the DVA not once but twice, being given back temporary Hero authority for a bit, and nearly getting killed by Seif al-Din after he stated he wanted to make god-like babies with her.

<It’s been a hell of a year.> But sitting in the hospital room with Topher was worth it. <So much for a change of pace.>

She wondered what would happen next year.

End of Season 1

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 96

“It was horrible…so much blood,” Liz sobbed as her mind worked furiously for a solution to her problem.

<Cops, heroes, and Seth. This whole thing is going to turn into a shit-show if someone farts at the wrong moment.> Her stomach gurgled from the anxiety, and she used it to improve her performance.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“You’ve gone through a traumatic experience, young lady. Everything is going to be ok. You are safe and no one if going to hurt you.” The cop taking her statement looked like he was a father, and the sympathy on his face was clear.

<Works for me.> Liz buried her face in Seth’s chest and was able to cut back on the waterworks.

His strong chest was strangely comforting even though she wasn’t upset in the slightest about what had happened inside townhouse 117. It just felt good to be this close to him.

Then an army guy showed up out of nowhere. He started talking with the Hero Liz was pretty sure was the blonde bombshell that had been having coffee with the cop back at Sprout, and had foiled her father’s attempt to grab Anika last year.

<Fucking ForceOps is in on this too. They’ve got a real hard-on for this bad guy.> And she wasn’t referring to herself.

“Abney when you get finished get back to the gym. We’re pulling in all the students.” The Hero spun back around midway through leaving with the army officer. “No, your girlfriend can’t come. Have her head over to the dining hall and shelter in place with everyone else.”

<Fine by me.> Despite wanting to stick with Seth, Liz needed to get out of there and back to the action. Her job wasn’t done yet.

Grabbing Anika was the biggest part of her job, but it was just phase one. Her next mission was to harass the enemy and distract them for long enough that Seif al-din could fuck a few people up and get away. Then he’d grab his daughter and go. After that, Liz could get back to her life. A life with Seth in it.

“I don’t want…”

“It’s ok.” Liz cut off Seth’s retort as she rubbed the last tears out of her puffy red eyes. “I know you need to do this. I’ll see you when it’s all over. Stay safe.” She planted a big kiss on his lips that promised much more later.

“You’re the best woman in the world.”

“I love you too.” Liz let a small smile creep onto her face.

The Hero and army guy vanished, Seth took off for the HCP’s hidden entrance in the dining hall, and she was left with the paternal cop who insisted he give her a ride to the student center.

“Thanks so much officer, but you don’t need to.” She politely refused him. “It’s right there. I’m sure there are other things you can be doing with everything that’s happening.”

He gave her an apprehensive look but then nodded. “Go right there and shelter in place,” were his departing words as he hopped back in his cruiser and sped off with his lights and siren blaring.

Liz walked in the direction of the student center until she was sure he was out of sight. Then she detoured into the alleyway and pulled out her phone.

“Nano.”

The teenage technopath picked up on the first ring.

“It’s me.” She made sure her voice conveyed the importance of the situation. “Are you ready?”

“Yep, I’m in. I just need the finalized location?” He replied.

“The dining hall.” She looked down at her watch to see how much time had passed. She didn’t want to be on the phone any longer than was absolutely necessary. The government had to be listening in on everything right about now.

“Gotcha, we’re good. And…” He stopped just short of saying her name. “We’re even now, right?”

He was referring to the loan she’d given him after the diamond heist. A loan she’d agreed to forgive for this business deal.

“We’re square, big guy. I’ll be gone for a bit, but I’ll talk to you when I can.” She didn’t say goodbye, she just hung up.

She’d come up with a plan to give her plausible deniability during the shit-storm that had descend on Orlando. Despite being a teleporter, she couldn’t be two places at once, and right now she had to be out kicking ass. What she needed to make everything work was to have something showing that while Wraith was out being a badass, Liz Aretino was where she was supposed to be.

Having a technopath in her back pocket really helped. Mika would hack into the school’s surveillance systems and create an electronic trail of Liz’s movements through the entirety of the city’s siege. Its brilliance was its simplicity. When all the dust settled, she could look and say, “Yeah, I was in the dining hall like I was supposed to be. Look at the video.”

She doubted they’d dig that far, because there was going to be so much cleaning up to do that one college girl’s whereabouts wasn’t going to be high on anyone’s list. Still, the hacked video would prove she wasn’t Wraith, and then she could run away with Seth for the summer. Hopefully, things would blow over a little in three months and then they could get back to the business of being together without the guillotine that was her mission looming over her head.

<That would be fucking awesome.> She thought with a smile as she stowed her phone and disappeared in a flash of shadow.

She reappeared across the country in her underground bunker.

“And the crowd goes wild with that stellar performance.” She made crowd noises and waved to the imaginary crowd who was applauding her Oscar-worthy rendition of the scared and frightened school girl.

“I’d like to thank God, because without him nothing is possible. Then there’s my dad for teaching me to be such a bad ass, Uncle Curtis I haven’t forgotten you, and of course Seth for his endless support and encouragement.” She gave an impromptu acceptance speech as she pulled on all of her Wraith gear. “But most importantly, I’d like to send a message to all the young girls out there. When life’s got you down, or you feel like the man is sticking it to you; just kick him in the balls and tell him to go fuck himself sideways.” She finished as she pulled on her grinning volto mask and gave one last wave to the imaginary crowd. “That’s all the time I’ve got. Now let’s go fuck shit up.”

She grabbed the electromagnetic rifle from the table and vanished in another blast of black.

The stillness of her underground lair was replaced by the shouts of people gathering and an endless wailing of sirens. She kept low as she stalked around looking for a position that provided decent cover and concealment. The place she found was already occupied.

“Shit, Wraith. I almost shot you.” Armsman clutched his heart like he was having a heart attack.

“You’re not that sloppy.” Liz grinned at her Uncle behind her mask and settled in next to him. “What’s the situation?”

“The cops, ForceOps, and Heroes have an assembly area a few hundred yards from here. Hellgate and Seif al-Din are luring them into Wadeview Park. Once they’ve got them where they want them they’ll engage and execute a fighting retreat to the East toward Dixie Bell. Damascus is still out there wreaking havoc, and the hope is that once it’s clear we’re falling back the Heroes will divert some of their strength to finding and stopping him.”

“So we shoot and move.” Liz knew their job was pretty straightforward.

“Yeah, and you’re the secondary teleporter if your father dies. You’ll grab al-Din and get him to safety and his daughter.”

The thought of her father dying today stopped Liz cold. She’d never even considered the possibility…ever. Her father had been a supervillain for decades. He was of the most wanted men in the country, and he’d convinced most of law enforcement he was dead. Those he hadn’t convinced, were in a political fight for resources against the people who did believe he was dead and buried. Him and Uncle Curtis had even gone up against Captain Starlight and got away. They’d nearly killed the President of the United States. He’d taught her everything she knew. There was no way her was going to bite the bullet on a mercenary job in Orlando, Florida. Even if they were getting a seven-figure payday out of it.

“Yeah, no chance in hell that’s happening.”

“Damn straight,” Armsman nodded his agreement. “Anything happens to your Dad we’re getting the hell out of here. We ain’t dying for their cause. They can take a dick for all I care.”

It wasn’t quite what she meant, but she appreciated the old supervillain’s fervent devotion to her and her father over the terrorists. In the days to come she doubted anyone else would make the distinction between them.

She resisted the urge to pop her head up and get a quick look of the assembly area. That would just give away their position. Instead, she accepted the binoculars that Armsman handed her. She pressed them to her eyes and got a pretty good view of the Heroes through the miniature cameras he’d seeded the area with before the Heroes arrived.

It had always been their plan to lure the good guys to this area. It was away from downtown, and away from the HCP, so she could do her part of the job, and the nice middleclass neighborhood in the surrounding areas would give them cover as they fell back to the next prepared position. Nothing was a bigger deterrent to Heroes than innocent civilians, and they’d capitalize on that.

She focused in on the Heroes she recognized from her research. The blonde was there looking at the park with a mix of disdain and trepidation. A giant metal guy, Iron Giant, who’d busted in to Sprout and saved the day, was there too. She also recognized the tuxedo guy as Mr. Morningstar, the leader of the Protectorate. The guy in the armor was Galavant, and the girl with the fire shield was Matchbox.

<Five against two…well four.> She grinned.

There were a number of uniformed ForceOps soldiers present, so the numbers were solidly in the Heroes favor, but this was Seif al-Din. Liz knew they’d be seeing if all the rumors about him were true or not very soon.

“Targets?” She asked. To seniority went the ability to choose who you wanted to shoot first.

“Don’t bother with Iron Giant. Nothing we have will even tickle him. It might just be my old mind playing tricks on me, but the blonde might be Reaper.”

<Reaper!> Liz had heard the name mentioned in whispers. People were a lot more afraid of her than Seraphim. <And she put her hand on my shoulder and still didn’t figure me out.> Liz was never in need of an ego boost, but that thought sure as hell gave her one.

“Don’t bother with her either, but stay close to me.” Armsman moved over and touched his shoe to hers. “This way she won’t be able to kill you.”

“What about Dad?”

Armsman just shrugged, either not knowing the answer or not wanting to say anything.

“I’ll take fire girl and tuxedo man. That thing you’re packing looks like it’ll deliver more punch than mine, so you take the armored guys and…”

As if on cue, Seraphim dropped from the sky and landed heavily next to the other five Heroes. Their location kept them hidden from her overhead approach, but Liz still held her breath for a solid fifteen seconds to see if the flying demon would start charging in their direction.

“That bitch is mine.” There was no room for argument in her statement.

Armsman just shrugged before chuckling slightly to himself.

“What?”

“Did I ever tell you about the time me and your father did that currency transfer job back in the 90s.”

Liz settled in to wait for the action to start while getting juicy details of what her dad was like before she was born. It was a win-win.

 

***

 

“What’s the plan?” Seraphim didn’t waste any time in getting straight to the point.

That seriously annoyed Daisy, even if she was the same way.

There were a lot of chiefs and not a lot of Indians in the small strike team that had been assembled to take on the most wanted terrorist in the world. So just figuring out who would be in-charge took a minute. Supers might have superpowers, but they were still human…sort of, and they all had egos.

Daisy wanted to be in-charge. She’d faced Seif al-Din before, although no one but John and Colonel Ford knew it. She also had the best chance of taking him down for good, but even trying that was risky.

Seif al-Din was an adaptive healer not that dissimilar in most ways from Titan. But al-Din’s ability manifested in a shifted form. So when someone punched him and broke his bones, the terrorist healed those bones stronger than before. The same was true of his skin when he was cut, his muscles when they tore from overuse, and his brain when the Saudi government tried to kill him with an aneurism. An idea they got from the DVA. Everything that hurt the evil man just made him stronger.

So there was no capturing the man. There was only killing him, which was where Daisy came in. And there began the dilemma.

Healers had a natural resistance to her reaping ability. They could hold out longer and fight back more than anyone else. They’d eventually succumb, just like everyone else, but it wouldn’t happen quickly, and that was just with a normal healer. Seif al-Din, and his particular ability, put him in the top tier of the top tier of healers. As far as Daisy knew she was the only Super in the US, maybe even the world, who had a chance of taking down the terrorist.

<What if he gets away before I finish him off? What if my power doesn’t work? What if it does, but he gets away and adapts against it?> Those were the questions running through her head.

Ultimately, it wasn’t her call.

“Reaper, this is Dispatch. Are you prepared to receive your briefing on force usage?”

“As ready as I am every time you tell me the same information.” The tension in the air was hitting Daisy’s bitch-reflex.

Dispatch didn’t respond to her jab, the emotionless voice just started in on the very technical language of what the temporary Hero could and couldn’t do. The gist of it was simple, everything up to Daisy’s reaping was on the table, but she needed special authorization to kill. That was how it had always been, and she didn’t see any problem with that.

<So if this doesn’t work it’s not my fault.> The thought didn’t help, and it wouldn’t ease any guilt if innocent people died and she could have done something about it.

“The plan is to form a perimeter and keep Seif al-Din contained.” Iron giant started to explain.

As the strongest person present and the one least likely to get taken out, the big metal man made a good choice to be the tactical leader. His decades of experience, and current position as the HCP dean also gave him superiority in the minds of their DVA handlers, and they signed off on it. Mr. Morningstar wasn’t too happy since he was the local team leader, but everyone knew he would be largely useless in the fight to come.

“Galavant and Mr. Morningstar will hold the perimeter. I will go in for close combat against him along with Reaper.” John gestured at Daisy as she walked back into the group. “Seraphim attack from the air, but be careful. He’s far stronger than you. Matchbox, same goes for you. Hold the middle ground between Reaper, me, and the perimeter. If you see an opening, take it. Use your speed, but don’t take any risks. Even a glancing blow from him will kill you.”

“And the guy he’s with? It looks an awful lot like Hellgate if you ask me,” Daisy stated in an “I told you so” tone.

The DVA had put her report of Hellgate at Sprout on the backburner when everything went to shit in Orlando, and now it was coming back to bite them in the ass.

“That’s still unconfirmed,” John replied diplomatically. “But if the second subject does reveal themselves to be a teleporter with fire powers then Matchbox will shift her concentration to him with Galavant as assistance. Your gear is fireproof, right?”

“Fire resistant, but I’ll be fine.” Galavant replied, practically vibrating with rookie excitement.

“Don’t get barbequed, Galavant.” Daisy stepped in as the veteran. “Take it slow and easy. Back up Matchbox. Her speed and fire resistance are the best counter to Hellgate we have.”

The junior Hero nodded her appreciation, but she was in the zone and focused on the park.

“Any questions?” John sounded uncharacteristically nervous, and that didn’t sit well with Daisy.

<We’ve got ForceOps backup, but none of them are in the same weight class as any of us. Ford will move people around, but that still leaves us vulnerable. We’re not bringing enough people to this fight.> Daisy concluded, but it didn’t matter.

They had to do the job with what they had available, and whatever was happening at Lander meant they didn’t have much. What reinforcements they were able to get were hunting the RPG teams and other terrorist Supers rampaging around Orlando.

But this was all part of being a Hero. You did your best with what you had, you did the job, or you died trying. She’d seen a lot of people go out with a bang, and if today was her day then she’d go supernova on the jihadist’s ass.

“Ok, let’s go.”

The group didn’t put their hands in and do a last-minute cheer. They weren’t a high school football team. But they did give each other nods as they broke up and moved away.

And that’s when Galavant got shot in the head.

 

 

***

 

“Wait for them to make the first move,” Armsman whispered.

Liz rolled her eyes, taking her attention off the binoculars for a second. “This isn’t my first time.”

“And this is about my five-hundredth time.” Armsman snapped back, pulling his attention away from his scope. “So listen to me, kid.”

Liz didn’t like being called a kid, but she conceded the point. Armsman was a pro at this.

Seraphim had shown up a few minutes ago, and was talking with the other Heroes. Iron Giant was making tactical gestures with his hand, which gave her and Armsman an idea of what they were doing.

“Hellgate, this is Wraith.” All she heard was sizzling static.

“ForceOps is jamming all frequencies.” Armsman had settled back into his prone shooting stance. “We’ve only got line of sight to work with now.”

<That sucks.> Liz sighed, and went back to watching the binoculars.

Unlike her Uncle, she would have to pop up over the edge of the roof to fire at the Heroes. He’d secured the only firing position with a line of sight to the assembly area while still remaining concealed.

“Why don’t they have their own snipers in position? This is a pretty sweet spot,” she wondered out loud.

“They’re getting there.” Armsman replied. “But they’re focusing on fields of fire into the park, not their assembly area.” He directed her attention to some trees and other nearby buildings where she could make out barrels pointed toward the park.

<I can’t believe I missed that.>

“Still,” she felt far less secure on the school’s roof then before. “This is still a great spot.”

“I’m sure they’ll be here any minute.” He replied as his breathing slowed and he focused on his target.

“Then what the fuck are we still doing here?” She hissed back, reorienting her rifle toward the roof access door across about thirty feet from them.

“We’re here to initiate the ambush. If anyone comes through that door deal with them. Then we relocate to our secondary position.” He slid a picture across the gravel for her to look at.

She looked back through the binoculars and saw the Hero group begin to break up.

“Almost there.” Armsman spoke to no one in particular. “Almost there.”

Then, at the worst possible moment, Liz heard the click of the roof door being unlocked. <You’ve got to be shitting me!>

She dropped the binoculars and brought the rifle up to her shoulder just as the two ForceOps soldiers walked out onto the roof. Armsman’s rifle went off with a thundering BOOM. Fifty caliber rifles weren’t exactly quiet, and that caused the two soldiers’ heads to snap in their direction.

But it was already too late for them.

Liz fired a quick shot into the nearest one’s center of mass. The first soldier stumbled back as the electromagnetically propelled round hammered into his gut.

<A fucking strongman!> Liz screamed internally, as she fired a round into the second target.

That result was much more satisfying.

The soldier’s chest exploded in a jamboree of blood, bone, muscle, and pulverized internal organs. A cloud of pink mist wafted away from the man as he fell to the ground already dead.

But there wasn’t any time to celebrate. The strongman was recovering and he was pissed.

<I would be too if I just watched my buddy get turned into a donut.> she was already on her feet and charging the bent over man.

She dropped the rifle and drew her Glock. She fired rapidly, pulling the trigger, and tracking shots up his legs, all over his chest, and finally into his face. The smaller rounds didn’t pack half the punch of her rifle, but it was enough to annoy the shit out of the guy. He swatted at the cascade of bullets smacking into his face like an angry hive of bees.

While he was distracted, Liz grabbed a grenade with her other hand, and thanked god it had an electronic detonator and wasn’t one you had to pull the pin on. Any movie that showed a person pulling the pin out with their teeth was a load of horseshit. Those things were rammed in them like a motherfucker, and pulling them was a two-handed job. Two hands were something Liz didn’t have the luxury of at the moment.

She flipped up the protective barrier, so she didn’t blow herself up by accident, and hit the ominous red button. The grenade beeped its destructive acknowledgement, and she knew she had three seconds before things went boom boom.

<Sixteen.> She counted as the last bullet exited the barrel.

The soldier was still on his feet, and the look he gave her was pure murder, so it was a good thing the explosion of sense-depriving blackness robbed him of his sight. Liz appeared behind him before he even knew what was happening, shoved the grenade in the small of his back between him and the tactical vest he was wearing, and then she teleported him back down into the assembly area. Lastly, she teleported back over to Armsman, who hastily grabbed her hand.

“Don’t leave my side again, understand!” He had to yell over the ensuing explosion the rumbled through the building’s foundation.

The grenade she’d chosen was some military-grade shit that was designed to take down strongmen. So if the soldier wasn’t dead, he was going to need some intense healing if he ever wanted to take an unassisted piss again.

“Geez,” she shot back. Peeking over the roof a second before bullets started to chew away at the concrete.

They’d figured out their position and were doing their best to turn it to rubble. They’d start using more than guns in a second, but that wasn’t the worst thing.

“You missed!” She half-screamed, half-laughed in Armsman’s face as she remembered the quick peek she’d gotten of the assembly area.

“Hey!”

She couldn’t tell but she was sure the veteran was blushing.

“The flame girl stopped and turned just as I pulled the trigger. There was no way to compensate.”

“HAHA. You still missed.” She didn’t bother keeping it down as louder booms started to echo up from below and larger chunks of the roof began to fall away.

It sounded like ForceOps was bringing their own fifty-cal to the party. <Took them long enough.>

“I hit the armored guy in the head.” Armsman defended his marksmanship. “And if you haven’t noticed he hasn’t gotten back up yet.”

Galavant was still lying face down in the dirt, but that wasn’t the point. “A miss is still a miss.” She tightened her grip on the older man. “If you miss again you’re buying me beer for a year.”

This wasn’t the time for banter, but she just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bust the legendary villain’s balls.

“Fine, deal.” Armsman relented.

She couldn’t hear him exhale over the roar of returned fire, but that all died away as they teleported to their next sniper’s nest.

The unlucky cameraman who thought he was recording the fight from a safe distance became the leading actor in a live-streamed murder when Armsman shoved his Katana through the guy’s heart.

Liz picked up his camera, which was still streaming, and filmed herself gazing silently into it for several seconds.

Her grinning mask did all the talking.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 95

Anika felt like someone had hooked her behind the naval and pulled. The sensation wasn’t doing her balance any good. She felt like she was in the middle of a horrible drinking game. The one where you chug out of a plastic yellow bat, put your forehead on it, spin around a dozen times, and then try and walk to something. She’d played it once and promptly fallen straight on her ass. That’s what she felt like she should be doing now, but she wasn’t.

She felt the sensation of motion, but her feet were firmly planted. She wasn’t falling or anything. The movement was horizontal. Not that she could tell what was really going on. Everything around her was pitch black.

Out of her peripherals she swore she could see something moving, but the second she turned her head there was nothing there. <This is fucking creepy.>

She didn’t panic. There was a split second, “what the fuck is happening” moment, but she quickly pulled herself together. She’d figure out what happened and why it happened when the time came. What she really needed to be ready for was what happened when the lights came back on.

Whatever was happening, and whatever the darkness was, it didn’t last long. She didn’t keep count of how many seconds passed, but it wasn’t more than three. In the darkness, it felt like a lot longer.

One second she was thinking about what her opening move would be when she could finally see again, and the next she came to a crashing halt. The world came back into focus, but it was dimly lit, and looked nothing like the sunny townhouse she remembered she’d been in. Worst of all, when the lights came back on she felt her stomach leap into her throat. She stumbled, gagged, but didn’t throw up. A couple deep breaths and she was standing up and studying the new surroundings.

“Sorry about the surprise trip. If you brace for it, you don’t feel a thing. Did you feel like a nun was grabbing you by the nose and dragging you along? People have told me that’s what it feels like the first time.”

<I know that voice.> Anika snarled and whipped around the see Liz standing in a corner of the room. About fifty feet separated them. <I bet I can get to her before she can yell for help.>

<I bet you’re thinking about yelling for help.> Liz’s thoughts wandered across Anika’s mind and she did a double-take.

She’d ever been allowed to read Liz’s mind before. That in and of itself was enough to make Anika hesitate.

“Don’t bother,” Liz spoke out loud. “No one will hear you scream.”

“Liz, this isn’t funny. Where are we and how did you get us here?” Anika took a few steps to get a better angle on Liz, but Liz countered her with a few steps of her own.

“I’m not going to answer the first question.” Liz shook her head, but her eyes never left Anika. “I’m not going to monologue and tell you my whole plan. That’s too cliché. As for the second part, I’m more than happy to spill the beans. We teleported.”

“Corporal Fuentes?” Anika took her eyes off Liz and looked around for the teleporter.

“The good corporal didn’t make it.” The sad look on Liz’s face didn’t match her tone.

“Becca?” Anika’s voice dropped low and came out as a growl.

“Becca is fine.” Liz held up her hands defensively. “I would never do anything to hurt Becca. I like her a lot. A hell of a lot more than you.”

“Well, at least we agree on something.”

Liz laughed, but then the two women returned to their tense stalemate.

“So?” Anika was beginning to freak out a bit. “What am I doing here?”

“You’re here because they want you here.” Liz shrugged.

“And they are?”

“You know who they are.” Liz didn’t smile this time.

Anika felt her heart fall into the pit of her stomach. <No…no…no…> Everything she’d feared that would happen in the last decade was coming true. <I knew I didn’t like this bitch. I knew there was something off about her. I know her showing up was too coincidental.> Targeting her anger at Liz helped stave off the panic growing inside her.

“You don’t have to do this, Liz. Just take me back to the townhouse and we can pretend nothing ever happened.”

Liz laughed at the comment. “Does that seriously ever work? What the fuck makes you think that I can take you seriously after saying some stupid shit like that. ‘We can pretend nothing ever happened’,” Liz repeated in a stupid, high-pitched voice that sounded nothing like Anika’s. “Of course, we can’t pretend that. You’ll go running to the Heroes the moment I bring you back. No, I’m sorry, Anika. But this is where you’ve gotta stay until they come pick you up.”

The finality in Liz’s tone was enough to make Anika’s next decision easy. She leapt forward with all of her increased strength and speed. She moved like a blur, reached out toward Liz, and…BAM!

Next thing Anika knew she was waking up on the floor with a metallic taste in her mouth. She spit onto the dust covered surface and stained it bright red.

“Ouch, that had to hurt.” Liz was squatting about five feet away with a wicked grin on her face.

<I’m going to rip your fucking head off.> Anika reached up and her hand connected with something solid.

“I know right.” Liz knocked on her end of the barrier. “This is some DARPA level, high tech, Super plastic shit. It’s stronger than a guy’s hard-on after Viagra.”

Anika rolled her eyes as she got back to her feet. She was a little wobbly and the room didn’t seem to be standing as still as it should. On top of that, her head now hurt like a motherfucker, and she was sure her shoulder would be turning black and blue soon.

“So this bad boy is a couple of feet thick, and it’s going to be used in the next generation of cells for strongmen. It won’t keep out Titan, but it’s more than a match for a second-rate HCP student.”

Anika bristled, but she kept her mouth shut. The best she could do was let Liz talk and try to gather any intel she could from the other woman.

“Also,” Liz practically bubbled with enthusiasm. “They designed it so a current could be run through the outer layers. I know, doesn’t make sense because it’s plastic, but whoever designed this was sharper than your average Super. So, to recap. If you charge this, you’ll get shocked, which you now know will put you on your ass. Even without the shock the wall will stand up to you for a long time. But it’s important for you to know that the generator that keeps the charge on this big guy is also the generator that pumps in the oxygen. So, you take down the generator you’re going to run out of air before you can break through the plastic. Obviously, I advise against that.” Liz moved to a table on her side of the wall and started to fiddle with something.

“I’m underground then?” Anika took her eyes off Liz’s back and looked around her jail cell.

“You get a gold star.” Liz looked over her shoulder and winked. “Yeah, you’re really far underground. A lot farther than your amateur telepathy would reach. If there was anyone to reach at all.”

Anika walked over to the stone wall of the cell and felt it. It was damp. <I’m probably near a water source, so that narrows me down to about seventy percent of the planet. Good job, Anika. Way to find a clue.>

Usually, in a situation like this Anika’s first objective would be to empathize with her captor. She needed to make them see her as a human being, not just a target or an obstacle in the way. That plan didn’t apply to this situation. Liz had been living with Anika and everyone else in the townhouse for most of freshman year. If Anika hadn’t humanized herself with Liz in those months, then she wasn’t going to do it in a few minutes.

“Is your name even Liz?” She asked, trying to gather more information.

Liz turned away from what she was doing and studied Anika for a moment. Whatever conclusion she came to made her more talkative, and that was fine by Anika.

“No, it isn’t. But my life as Liz Aretino was a lot better than what I’d lived before. I’m genuinely sorry this is happening to you. Even if I don’t like you. The guys who’ll pick you up are assholes, but a job’s a job and they’re paying me a shitload of money to grab you.”

“Why hand me over if they’re assholes?”

Liz’s face scrunched in annoyance at the question. “Didn’t you hear what I just said, M.O.N.E.Y. money, enough for me to take a bath in. I could literally wipe my ass with Benjamins if I wanted to after this.”

“Money isn’t everything.” Anika replied with shake of her head.

“Money makes the world go round, and if you think otherwise you’re a moron. What money can’t get you reputation can, and I’ll get both from this.”

“So, you kidnap some teenager and you’re a bigshot mercenary?” Anika scoffed.

“No, I’m already a big shot mercenary. This will make me a big fucking deal, and my salary for follow-on job is going to double or triple. You want the best you have to pay for the best.”

“But you give teenagers to assholes? Do you know what assholes do to a girl like me in a place like this?” A slight tremor ran through Anika’s voice.

But Liz just laughed.

“Any dude who tried to stick his dick in you without your consent would get their spine violently ripped from their body. Don’t try and use that shit on me, Anika. You’re better than that.”

Anika conceded the point, although the spine-ripping was a bit extreme. She would however turn their balls into pancakes.

“But you’re still handing me over to the bad guys.”

“Again, with the handing over,” Liz sighed deeply. “Fine, I’ll give you a fighting chance. If I send the guys to get you, and that’s a big IF, I’ll port them on your side of the wall. Then you’ll have a fighting chance.”

<No way she’d risk exposing herself if I had a real chance of winning.> Anika concluded after thinking it over for a second.

“So what, you’re just going to walk back into Becca’s life and pretend like nothing happened?” Just saying it made Anika’s blood boil.

“That’s the plan. I’ll tell them all how the big bad terrorists grabbed you out of the townhouse.” Liz chuckled.

Anika fumed behind the clear wall. “I wonder what Seth would think if he knew the real you.”

<That hit a nerve.> Anika saw Liz’s shoulders tighten for a second.

“Seth knows all he needs to know right now. He doesn’t care what I’ve done in the past, and I don’t care who he’s fucked. We’re more concerned about the future.”

“What about the present?” Anika tore into Liz’s argument. “What would Seth say to you kidnapping someone who wants to be a Hero just like him.”

“Seth doesn’t really want to be a Hero,” Liz laughed at Anika’s attempt. “Seth wants to be the best and he wants to be strong. He’s a protector, but he wants to protect those closest to him: friends, maybe his family, but especially me.” Liz crossed her arms and stared daggers at Anika. “Seth’s real heroic battle is the battle he’s going to fight against something he’s passionate about, like addiction. He’s going to start programs and use his strength to fight for what has personally affected him. He’s a good man, but he’s not the type of guy who’s going to run into a fire to save a crack head who fell asleep with the stove on because they were getting high. I’m pretty sure he thinks the world would be a better place without them.”

“That’s an awful lot of assumptions to make.” Anika took a seat with her back against the wall.

“Who said they’re assumptions?” Liz shot back with that grin Anika wanted to rip off her face. “You guys think all Seth and I do is fuck, but we talk. I know his reservations, and he knows I’m not an angel. We’re a perfect match, even if no one else wants to see it.”

“Well, I’m not going to talk you out of anything.” Anika shrugged. “I mean I think he’s going to figure out who you are and turn you in, because he is a good guy and you’re a raging sociopath and murderer.”

“Whatever.” Liz looked down at her watch to check the time, but Anika knew she was getting under the teleporter’s skin.

“The truth is hard to accept, but it’s going to hit you like a sledgehammer sooner or later.” Anika piled on for good measure.

“Well, if it does I’ll send you a postcard. I hear Syria is nice this time of year.”

Anika gulped as the weight of her own situation returned to the front of her mind.

“Seems like were both up shit’s creek without a paddle.” Anika concluded. “Will you at least grant me one last wish?”

“Jesus Christ.” Liz rolled her eyes. “What?”

“What’s your real name?”

“Huh.” Liz looked surprised by the question. “My name is Lilly.”

“Lilly,” Anika tried out the name. “It’s such a nice name. How’d you turn out to be such a raging bitch?”

“I don’t know, Fadeelah. Why don’t you look in the mirror.” With one last sadistic smile, Liz/Lilly disappeared in a blast of darkness.

<Shit. You’ve got to be kidding me.> Anika knew of only one teleporter who could do that. <And we did a fucking project on her.>

Stupid didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what she was feeling.

 

***

 

“Dispatch, this is Seraphim. I’ve got eyes on target.”

“Roger that, Seraphim. Proceed with mission. Capture if able, but lethal force is authorized.” The dispassionate voice of Dispatch instructed.

Seraphim’s mission so far had been reconnaissance. The DVA, Heroes, and ForceOps soldiers needed intelligence before they counterattacked. Seraphim and others had been gathering that information.

<Now it’s time to hit back.> The smile curled her lips and exposed her fangs.

She looked down at the parking lot near the airport and planned her attack. A burned pile of metal was all the was left of a SWAT van that had eaten an RPG right in the grill. The windshield was splattered with red, showing her that the driver hadn’t made it. A few of the team members must have been injured in the explosion too, because there were only five SWAT officers currently exchanging fire with the terrorists.

As she circled, smoke from the burning planes and terminals blocked her view for a few seconds. Fire and EMS were waiting for the fighting to die down before running into the flames and rescuing anyone who was still alive.

Another RPG streaked from the terrorists’ position and smashed into an already crippled section of the terminal.

<I’ve got to go now.> She knew she couldn’t wait any longer.

Both the SWAT officers and the terrorists had formed two fire lines about a hundred feet from each other. They both exchanged suppressive fire and tried to move closer. Neither was making much headway. She saw one SWAT officer pushing out to the left, extending the line and trying to move around the flank by sneaking between the cars.

A terrorist spotted him and was moving to intercept, while another was reloading the RPG. She had a split-second decision to make, and she didn’t hesitate.

She got into position and dove toward her target. The air whipped by her head, spilling her hair behind her. This opening move usually sent the criminal running or they’d drop to their knees and surrender. The terrorists didn’t know her though.

<About time we got acquainted.>

She hit the RPG wielding terrorist just as he fired. The hit was enough for the rocket to impact the ground thirty feet short of the SWAT officer he was aiming for. The explosion blasted the car next to it onto its side where it collided with the next car in line. Glass rained down everywhere, but the SWAT officer was fine, and after a moment to shake off the tinnitus, he started to move forward.

She followed through with her attack. Her landing broke the terrorist legs like toothpicks and folded him in half, snapping his spine, and then flattening the back of his skull against the asphalt. The RPG clattered to the ground, and she stomped on the barrel rendering it useless.

She didn’t dawdle. The remaining terrorists turned their attention to her and opened up. She jumped back into the air and strained her wings to gain altitude. The air around her filled with bullets, some of which hit her or her armor.

“Dispatch, tell SWAT to push forward. I’ve got these assholes’ attention.”

The word must had gotten relayed quickly because the SWAT officers surged forward, raking the enemy positions with fire. One terrorist dropped dead, shot through the back of the head.

The remaining bad guys turned their fire back on the SWAT officers and sent them diving for cover, so that’s when she attacked again. She didn’t bother crushing the second terrorist, she just picked him up as she flew past him. The man screamed, kicked, and shot at her as the arched into a smooth climb, but the bullets didn’t do much damage. One hit her cheek, which stung, and caused her to drop him.

<Not going to get any information out of him.> She was only mildly miffed about that.

The terrorist fell a hundred feet onto his head.

<Only two more.> She circled around and saw the results of her earlier decision.

The SWAT officer that had pushed out to try and get around them was down, with a steadily growing pool of blood spreading around his body. The terrorist had succeeded in getting around and was firing at the remaining SWAT officers from the side. She saw another cop go down as they got pinned between the two remaining terrorists’ interlocking fire.

She dove for a third time, landing hard on a car next to the man. The car cratered in the middle, causing the man to jump and turn, but by then it was too late. Her tail swept low and then up, so her barbed tail caught him in the unarmored spot beneath the armpit.

The man jerked awkwardly and she lifted him off the ground. He dropped his gun and coughed up a glob of bright red blood. His hands went to where she’d impaled his side, but it didn’t do much good. She whipped her tail around and tossed him like a ragdoll. He hit a nearby car hard, and slumped to the ground.

<If he’s still alive they can interrogate him. If not…oh well.> She didn’t feel bad for any of the people she’d just killed.

The last remaining terrorist seemed to realize that his situation had gone from favorable to shit since she’d arrived. He fell back, taking cover behind cars and firing over his shoulder as he ran. SWAT perused him, getting around to his sides and pinning him down.

“Dispatch, try and have SWAT make the guy surrender so we can…”

The whole space for thirty feet went up in flames as the terrorists detonated the suicide vest he was wearing. The SWAT officers were all knocked on their ass, and even Seraphim stumbled as she rushed toward them. A quick check showed all the SWAT officers were still alive, but the terrorist she’d chucked wasn’t.

“Dispatch, hostiles eliminated. EMS, fire, and rescue can head into the airport now.”

“Roget that, Seraphim. First responders moving now. We need you to regroup with incoming assets at Boone High School. We’ve confirmed the main targets location.”

“On my way, Dispatch.”

Seraphim jumped back into the air and headed southwest. It wasn’t far to her destination, and she couldn’t wait to take a crack at the terrorist leader.

 

***

 

Daisy’s foot tapped impatiently against the concrete front porch as she waited for Orlando PD to arrive.

<Come on! I’ve got better things to be doing than babysitting.> She silently fumed. She was going to have a long talk with Topher about his department’s response times.

Abney and his girlfriend were huddled together. He was comforting her, and she was trying to keep it together. He kept running his hand through her hair while she sobbed into his chest. Big tear stains had already soaked through. As she pulled back, he wiped the wetness from her cheeks and said a few words. The girl laughed and lightly punched him in the shoulder. Despite the situation, Daisy couldn’t help but feel happy for Abney. He was an ass, but it was good he’d found someone who could deal with all his shit.

<Liz Aretino.> Daisy committed the name to memory. She’d need to look deeper into the girl once this shit-storm had passed. She didn’t like outsiders knowing details about the HCP. That’s how security breaches happened. And after today there was going to be a major investigation. She was already dreading all the paperwork.

<There we go. Finally!> A squad car whipped around the corner with its lights flashing. Behind it was a camouflaged Humvee, and behind that was a man running and easily keeping pace with the two vehicles.

“Hello again, Ms. Meyers.” Colonel Ford appeared next to her in the blink of an eye.

“About time you showed up.” She rounded on him, the anger evident on the portions of her face not covered by a mask. “What the hell happened? I thought you had this under control?”

“I thought we did too.” The ForceOps Colonel walked past her and into the house. “Corporal Fuentes got ambushed before he could react, which is to say it happened very quickly. He was both a teleporter and a trained ForceOps soldier.”

“Well someone shot him in the head and now Kemps is gone.”

The Colonel turned his hard eyes on her, so she calmed down. He’d just lost a man. She needed to remember that.

“We’ll get the witness statement and try and get a reading on the tracker we placed in her panic button.”

“But you’re not optimistic.” Daisy read the look on his face.

“No.” He shook his head, suddenly looking a lot older than he really was. “If someone was able to get the drop on the Corporal they would have planned for our contingency and countered it.”

“So, we’re back to square one?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Daisy didn’t like the sound of that at all, and it showed.

“But I’m here so you can do something about it.” The Colonel switched topics. “I’m here to transport you to an assembly area. We’ve got a location on Seif al-Din, and we’re putting together a strike team to take him out. If anyone knows where Ms. Kemps is, it would be him.”

“What are we waiting for?” Daisy cracked her knuckles in anticipation.

“Nothing.” The teleporter grabbed her arm.

“Wait a second,” she held up a hand and walked back out onto the porch. “Abney when you get finished get back to the gym. We’re pulling in all the students.” She saw his eyes dart to the girl talking to the cop, and the question forming in his mind. “No, your girlfriend can’t come. Have her head over to the dining hall and shelter in place with everyone else.”

She didn’t wait for any acknowledgement from the freshman before heading back to the Colonel. “Ok, let’s go.”

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 94

“So…” Liz set down her phone and looked back at her two friends. “What are your plans for summer break?”

Becca brightened up instantly. “I’ll be spending the summer in plaid.”

“Plaid?” Liz snorted. “Plaid won’t go well with that hair.”

Becca’s pout didn’t extinguish the excited twinkle in her eyes. “I’m going to cut it. I’m thinking a pixie cut, but I haven’t decided anything yet. Pigtails are so last year ya know.”

“I think they’re adorable.” Anika stepped in with her own smile. “And I think you’ll look great in plaid.” The last bit was delivered defensively.

“Ok,” Liz held up her hand in surrender. “But why plaid?”

“It’s what everyone wears in Montana. Plaid and blue jeans. I’m gonna look like a lumberjack.” Becca was daydreaming in her own fantasy world.

“Not everyone wears blue jeans and plaid all the time.” Anika looked exasperated. “Just like not everyone from your town has a buck tooth, has made love to their sister, and sits on the porch all day with their shotgun.”

“I think you’re thinking more of the South than the Midwest.” Liz came to Becca’s defense.

“Thank you, Liz.” Becca gave an exaggerated nod. “And only old man Wilkes sits on his porch with his shotgun, but that’s because he’s too old to go hunting in the winter, so he just does it from his front porch.”

Liz couldn’t help but giggle. It seemed like both of the women had valid points.

And that’s when the lights flickered and died.

“What the heck?” Becca looked around.

Windows ringed the dining hall so there wasn’t a risk of injury due to the sudden blackout, but everyone on West’s campus knew the mayhem that followed the last city blackout. As if on cue, every cellphone started to beep, vibrate, flash, or ring as the school-wide information system kicked into high gear.

Liz had two messages.

You’re on. Was the first from an unknown number.

Shelter in place. Was the second from the school.

<Yeah, no chance in hell I’m doing that.> Not only would it make her job even harder, it would certainly blow her cover.

Liz got to her feet and gathered her bags.

“Where are you going?” Becca asked, as she read over her own text message.

“I’m going back to the townhouse,” Liz stated firmly.

“Didn’t you get the text?” Anika was on her feet too, but she hadn’t moved to block Liz yet.

“Of course I got it, and that’s the last thing I’m going to do.”

Becca looked utterly confused at Liz’s refusal.

“Look around,” Liz waved at the good little boys and girls that were staying in their seats and watching their cell phones religiously. “I’ve seen how this movie ends. A bunch of students sitting in a dining hall is a juicy target that just about every movie villain can’t pass up. For all we know shit’s going down on the other side of town and this is just precautionary.” Liz didn’t back down as Anika finally moved in front of her.

“That’s stupid. This isn’t a movie.”

“Exactly,” Liz nodded in agreement. “Because when shit finally goes down and you two need to do something about it you’re gonna get busted. It won’t matter that you saved a bunch of people. You will have broken a rule and that’s gonna get you the boot. Maybe you’ll get into another program, but there’s no guarantee that you’re both going to get admitted together, or even remember each other. Seth said something about a memory wipe. Think about them apples for a second.”

Becca’s eyebrows had nearly climbed into her hairline, and Anika looked like she’d bitten into something sour. But it didn’t take more than a few seconds for both Supers to come to the conclusion that Liz was right.

“What’s your big plan then?” Anika crossed her arms defensively.

“We go back to the townhouse,” Liz repeated. “It’s not far, so I’m sure we’ll all make it in one piece. We’ll hunker down there and wait for things to settle back down. Plus, I think we’ve got some leftover pizza in the fridge.” She gave the two HCP students a big, toothy smile.

“And if something bad happens?” Becca had already taken a few unconscious steps toward the door.

“If something bad happens then you two can get physical. On top of that I’m sure Mason, Kyoshi, Seth, and Angela are going to turn up at some point. I wouldn’t want to be the bad guy who walked into that townhouse with all of you there.”

The last sentence put Anika over the top. She actually grinned a little. “Ok, let’s get going before they lock us all in here.”

Since they were the only people moving they drew a lot of attention. Thankfully, no one got in their way until they reached the door.

“I’m sorry girls, but no one is allowed to leave.” An older guy, probably a grad student, whose job it was to swipe the meal cards stepped in their way.

“Yeah.” Liz put a hand on his chest and pushed him out of the way. “I don’t think so.”

The guy wasn’t tiny, but Liz being so aggressive took him by surprise.

“Hey! I’m calling campus security.”

“Whatever!” Liz yelled back with a laugh. “I’m safer where I’m going.”

They exited through the front door of the student center and walked down the street at a quick pace. They could hear explosions in the distance, but nothing was close to the school. Less than five minutes later they were shutting the townhouse door behind them. No one had tried to stop them on the street and they hadn’t been attacked.

So far, everything was going according to plan.

“So, what now?” Becca stood in the living room with her hands on her hips.

“Now we eat and wait for everyone else to get here.” Liz went to the fridge and wiggled out the box of pizza.

Whoever had put it there was a Tetris master and it took some finagling to get it out, but by the time she got it out Becca and Anika were sitting on the couch.

Liz took a deep breath and made sure her mental defenses were up.

<No one else is home, good. Now I just need to separate them, make the grab, and make it look like someone came in here smashed up the place and took her.>

Liz didn’t like that she was being put in this position. Becca being a speedster was a big problem. She could move around faster than Liz could see. The blue-haired Super needed to be dealt with before Liz could make the grab.

<And even then, it won’t be easy. Anika isn’t exactly slow.>

That didn’t matter as much. All Liz needed to do was get a hand on the woman.

“Do you want me to heat it up?” Liz called back to the two women in the other room.

“Yes!”

“No!”

“One cold, one warm coming up.”

Becca wanted the warm one, which gave Liz the opportunity she needed. She grabbed a couple of pills from a little plastic baggy she had stored in her pocket. If a cop had seen her with these pills she’d be in a lot of trouble. She quickly got some of the frozen cheese away from the crust, crushed the pills as best she could and sprinkled them into the sauce. Then she put the cheese back down, popped it in the microwave, and hoped this would work. The guy she got the pills from said they were super potent and could knock out an elephant in a minute.

<Now we’ll see how it works on a speedster with a super metabolism.>

Liz didn’t need too long, just a few seconds.

“Hope you’re hungry.” Liz put the slices on plates, because they weren’t animals, and brought it back into the living room. “Who am I kidding you’re always hungry.”

Becca grinned happily and devoured her piece. Anika just nibbled at hers. Her eyes were on her phone and the TV they’d turned on while Liz had been in the kitchen.

“Any new information?” Liz settled in the seat next to Anika.

If Becca wasn’t around, Liz could have made the grab right then, but with the speedster around it was just too risky.

“They’re saying terrorists are attacking Orlando.” Anika had gone still, and her voice was almost robotic. “They’ve hit the power plant, IEDs have blown up a lot of roads, they brought down some planes and took a chunk out of the airport, and there is a huge silver fire spreading to the north of us.”

“Every Hero in the state is jumping in to help, and the news is just telling everyone to stay home or stay where they are.”

“Well we’re home and were safe.” Liz smiled.

“Huh…” Becca’s face crinkled as she looked down at her phone. “Something is also going on at Lander. There’s…”

A man in camouflage and armor appeared in front of them.

Becca screamed like a stereotypical girl.

Anika was on her feet and in a combat stance.

Liz had her gun in her hand before she knew it and was pointing it at the new arrival. <What the fuck!>

Whoever this guy was he’d just ruined everything.

“Geez, relax!” He held up his hands defensively. “Ms. Kemps, it’s me, Corporal Fuentes. We met a couple of months ago.”

“Anika, who is this guy?” Liz asked, playing the protective friend and not lowering her weapon.

Anika remained in her combat stance for a second before relaxing. “It’s ok everyone, relax.”

Liz slowly lowered her gun, but didn’t click the safety back on. Becca took a few deep breaths and braced herself against the couch.

“You scared the bejesus out of me.” She steadied herself.

<No…no…no!> Liz was mentally pulling her hair out. <This fucking asshole is ruining everything.>

“Ms. Kemps, I’ve been ordered to get you out of here for your own safety.” He held out his hand. “Please come with me.”

Anika reached out for the ForceOps operator, but then hesitated, and retracted her hand.

“I’m not going anywhere without Becca.” She stated in a voice that made it clear it wasn’t a suggestion.

“Ma’am, I…”

“I’m not going anywhere without Becca.” Anika repeated, her eyes fixed on the military teleporter.

The man’s gaze was conflicted, but only for a second. “Yes, ma’am. You’ve got three minutes to get anything you need for the two of you. We’ll be going to an undisclosed location for an undetermined amount of time. Please prepare accordingly.”

“Ok cool.” Liz decided to make a scene. “You two get whisked off the safety by Sergeant America over here and little old me gets to stay in the city that’s under terrorist attack. Awesome.” Liz rolled her eyes at the end to add the necessary teenage sass.

The corporal didn’t say anything. He just looked at Anika for confirmation.

“Whatever is going on has got something to do with me.” Anika stated hesitantly. “It’s safer for everyone if I get out of here. Once I’m gone the madness should stop and you’ll be fine. Plus, you don’t want to leave Seth again. Right?”

<Oh, you’re good bitch.>

Anika had maneuvered Liz into a corner.

If Liz continued complaining she’d tip Anika and the corporal off that something was wrong, and who knew where things would escalate to from there. It left Liz with only one choice.

“Fine.” She pouted. “But if I die I’m going to come back and haunt your ass.”

“Good enough for me.” Anika grabbed Becca by the hand. “Let’s grab some clothes.”

“Okeydokey.” Becca gave a huge yawn as they headed up the stairs. “Gotta grab some plaid.” They disappeared leaving Liz all alone with the corporal.

<Three minutes.> Liz’s mind went into overdrive. <Three minutes to make sure this whole mission doesn’t get FUBARed.>

There were three pieces to the puzzle: Anika, Becca, and the corporal. She needed to grab one, remove the other, and leave the third not knowing what the fuck happened. That part of the plan was already in motion. She just needed to figure out the other two parts.

The corporal stood there and watched her like a hawk, so to look casual Liz walked back over to the couch and sat down. Pretending to watch TV gave her the cover she needed to think quickly.

Her father had taught her from an early age to be able to think on her feet. On top of that, she had a natural gift for it. With the added teleportation, she’d inherited there were very few problems she’d come across that she couldn’t solve.

<If all else fails I’ll just brute force this bitch.> It was Plan F, but A thru E weren’t looking too good.

Two minutes later Anika and Becca reappeared, with Becca moving noticeably slower.

“I don’t feel so good.” The blue-haired speedster was gripping her stomach and looking a little green.

“Baby?” Anika looked genuinely concerned, and Liz saw her chance.

“Don’t just stand there all macho man, GI Joe. You’re in the army, you’ve got medical training, help a lady out. Anika, I’ll help you with the bags.”

“Um…yeah sure.” The seemed to snap Anika out of protective girlfriend mode. “Thanks, Liz.”

“No thanks necessary.” Liz was being completely truthful with that statement.

Liz and the corporal both moved toward Becca and Anika. Becca slumping down to her knees made the corporal run to catch her. He managed to grab her before she hit the floor. Anika’s eyes were wide with fear at the sight of her girlfriend. She was so focused on Becca she would have missed an elephant marching through the room.

It was exactly the moment Liz had been waiting for. The corporal had his hands literally full. Becca was out of commission, and Anika’s focus was elsewhere.

Liz didn’t even think, she just acted.

The pistol she’d first pointed at the corporal had been tucked into the back of her jeans. In a fluid motion, she drew the weapon, pointed and fired. The hallow point round hit the corporal just above the forehead. The entry-wound was small, only the size of the bullet, but the exit wound blew most of the man’s skull and brains out around where his neck met his spine.

To Anika’s credit her training got her moving before the shock could set in, but it was already too late. Anika just whirled to face where the shooting was coming from.

Liz was already close enough to reach out, touch the other Super while she was turning, and teleport.

A blast of darkness surged through the living room. When it vanished all that was left was Becca, barely conscious on the ground, and Corporal Fuentes’ corpse lying on top of her with a big chunk of his head missing. Blood splatter covered both of them, and a growing pool of blood was going to make sure the occupants of townhouse 117 never got their deposit back.

Liz and Anika were gone.

 

***

 

“Let’s go people, let’s go!” Daisy felt like a traffic cop trying to wrangle a bunch of three-year-olds on a sugar high.

Her charges really weren’t doing that bad, but she was growing more and more impatient with the tinniest delay.

“Abney, Fletcher, get your heads out of your collective ass and get up here.” She snapped at the freshmen who were moving too slowly for her current mood.

Daisy had been sitting in the control room and rapping up Abney and Fletcher’s last trial when the lights had flickered, died, and then come back to life on emergency power. Her first move was to call Topher. This type of situation wasn’t exactly new, and she needed to make sure it was safe if this was really the start of the shit-storm she’d been fearing for weeks.

Her call never got through.

<They’re taking out communications, making it harder to call for help.>

It would throw the city’s defenders off for a heartbeat, but they had special satellite phones, and a dedicated DVA satellite, for just this type occurrence. Still, the phones really weren’t supposed to be used for HCP instructors to call their boyfriends.

<Too bad. Rules were meant to be broken.> But that had to wait. There were other procedures in place she needed to follow.

Step one was to gather all of the HCP students and visitors in one centralized location. That location was the giant gym she routinely kicked the crap out of freshmen in. Having everyone in one place was a good way to make sure nothing happened if big explosions targeted the school in attempts to bury the HCP.  That was more of a Cold War mindset, but it could apply to other situations. Also, it gave the staff eyes on everyone. Meaning, that if someone was there that wasn’t supposed to be there, or had harmful intent toward the school, they’d be trapped. They’d have a lot of human shields, but they’d still be trapped.

<If any of my kids ends up a human shield I’m going to fail their asses.> Daisy chuckled. She’d trained her freshmen better than that.

Her real concern was the DVA contractors she was charged with. As if by the power of her will alone, the contractors and a masked Fiona Richardson popped around a corner ahead of them. Richardson had been completing her own final trial when the power went out.

“That’s everyone.” Daisy did a quick headcount and motioned for everyone to hurry up.

A few minutes later they were all in the gym, which despite having about fifty people routed to it was still abundantly spacious. Once there, she found Sanderson and Grace who were checking people over. Sanderson for any injuries sustained, and Grace for any intruders who weren’t supposed to be here.

“John!” She called out, leaving her small group to intercept the HCP Dean.

He held up a serious finger that screamed “DON’T Interrupt”, so she sat back for a minute and waited.

“Understood.” The small man practically growled.

Daisy heard what sounded like an explosion from the other end of the line, but she was too far away to confirm that.

He hung up and spun to face her. “What?”

This was stressed out John. This was the John that Daisy had seen back when she was a member of the Patriots. When he was like this there was no arguing. Shit was serious. If he asked her to jump, she didn’t even ask what building she needed to jump over.

“What do you want me to do?” Her own resolve settled. If he was like this, then it was more than simple gang violence.

“Right now I need you to sit tight and wait for deployment orders.” John didn’t even speak about her current non-certification, which meant she’d be getting another rundown from Dispatch about what she could and couldn’t do while being a temporary Hero.

“Yes, Sir.” She almost stopped it there, but she couldn’t. “John, can I get one of the phones. I need to make a call.”

It came out more pleading that what she intended, but that might have helped her case. John’s face softened for a moment as he handed over his own phone. “Make it quick. And if you get an incoming call you need to hang up and get me ASAP. Got it.”

“Yes, Sir.”

John spun around and headed over toward Grace while Daisy quickly dialed a number from memory. Kids today relied too much on numbers saved into their smartphone. They were always shit out of luck if their phone died and they had to call someone. But not Daisy. Being old-school helped sometimes.

The line connected when anything else would have received an error message.

“Hello!” Topher’s voice was stressed and there were blaring sirens in the background.

“Topher, it’s me Daisy.”

“Daisy. Thank god. Are you ok?”

She almost laughed. “Don’t worry about me. I’m in an underground fortress. What about you? Are you ok?”

There was a worrisome pause. “I’m fine. Not hurt or anything, but things are…bad out here.”

“Tell me.” She hadn’t been briefed on anything yet and this was a chance to get a firsthand account.

“IED explosions all around the city have cut off most of the roads in and out. Power plant is down again. Armed teams have taken radio, TV, and blown up a lot of communication’s towers. They’ve got their manifesto blaring on anything left broadcasting. We’re trying to hunt down and reinforce some strategic locations, but these guys are like fucking cockroaches popping up everywhere. They already took down most of the airport, SWAT’s engaged now.” Topher stopped there to collect himself.

“Now we’ve got a huge fire up north that we can’t really get to because the roads are out. They’ve got all the uniformed officers consolidating through the city so we can respond and recon in force.”

<Good that’s a solid tactic. Keep my boy in blue as safe as possible.> Ideally, she’d liked him stuffed in an underground bunker, but she knew Topher couldn’t run away from helping people any more than she could.

“Please promise me you’ll be safe.” Her voice wavered as she left the fear show. “I can’t lose you.” She blinked her eyes rapidly to clear the tears. She couldn’t have any of her students seeing this.

“Don’t worry, Babe. I’ll be ok.”

It was a lie. They both knew it. There was no safe with what was out there. There was just the illusion of safety you projected around yourself so you could keep doing your job to the best of your ability. You’d worry about the danger when it came up and stared you in the face, but not before then. Normal people needed that from you, and you had to deliver. It was literally the difference between life and death.

“I love you.” Was all the Daisy could say before getting choked up.

“I love you too, Daisy.”

A beeping on the line announced on incoming call on the satellite phone.

“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.” Daisy had to tear her heart away from the conversation.

“Me too, I’m responding to a call. See you soon.”

“Bye.”

They left it there because there was nothing else to say.

“John!” Daisy yelled, holding up the phone for him to see before tossing it to him.

The she turned around to compose herself. A few tears had leaked out despite her efforts, so she wiped them away and took a few deep breaths.

<Everything is going to be fine. Topher is a good cop. He’s well-trained, experienced, and can get through anything he puts his mind too.> She specifically didn’t think about the amount of luck that went into surviving an encounter with a Super if that Super intended to do you harm.

“What do you mean they aren’t…!”

“No, I understand. But it’s not like we’re just having a fucking picnic over here either.”

John’s cursing surprised Daisy. She hardly ever heard the stoic shifter drop a four-letter word.

<This can’t be good.>

“Yeah, ok.” John deflated a little. “Just get them here as soon as you can.” He hung up and his shoulders sagged.

“What’s going on, Boss.” Craig blurred to his side just as Daisy walked over.

John looked around to make sure there was enough separation between the staff and the rest of their guests. “Lander went dark about fifteen minutes before all of this started.”

“Coincidence?” Daisy didn’t believe in them.

“ForceOps and DVA don’t have any connection, but they’re scrambling Heroes to get there. Worst of all. Most of the heavy hitters are there for Intermurals and the afterparties.”

West’s own crop of seniors still hadn’t returned. Normally, John would have gone, but with things so uncertain here he decided it was a good idea to stay. Robin and Marshall had taken them instead.

<Really could have used Force Field about now.> Containment would have been a hell of a lot easier with the seasoned Hero.

“Hopefully, the situation there will get sorted out soon, and they can redeploy assets to us. But right now it’s just us, the Protectorate, and the ForceOps troops Colonel Ford detailed to us.” The phone started ring again. “Speak of the devil.”

John turned around the answer, but only made it a few steps before he froze. “Are you sure?” He nodded his head a few times to whatever the Colonel on the other end was saying. “Ok, I’m on it. Reaper.”

<And here we go.> Going from Daisy to Reaper was always a good sign that shit had hit the fan.

“The teleporter they sent to grab Ms. Kemps is not responding. Her last reported location was her townhouse. I need you to get out there and assess the situation.”

Daisy nodded, accepting the plain gray mask he handed over to her.

“Let me help.” Seth Abney stepped forward from where he’d clearly been eavesdropping. “I live there, my friends live there, and my girlfriend is probably there. Let me help.”

“Yeah, me too.” Fiona Richardson stepped forward next to Abney. “I’ll be able to get you there in the blink of an eye.”

Daisy looked to John for his input. She knew what she would do, but she wasn’t calling the shots.

“Go.” He said throwing two more masks to the freshmen. “But no combat. If things go wrong you get Mr. Abney back here, Ms. Richardson. Let Professor Meyers handle anything unpleasant.”

Both freshmen looked a little upset that they were going to miss the action, but they realized they were lucky to get off the leash in the first place. They hurried to get their masks on and secure. They were both in their black uniforms already, so no regular person would mistake them for anything less than a Hero. Even if that wasn’t true yet.

“Let’s go, Richardson.” Daisy grabbed the girl’s shoulder and motioned for Abney to do the same.

Fiona Richardson had the potential to be a top tier teleporter when she was fully trained up. But she still had some work to do. Currently, her teleports were accompanied by a pop that sounded like someone was bursting a balloon, and there was minor disorientation for her passengers when they arrived.

Daisy made sure they didn’t arrive in the house because of the side effects. Abney had to bend over and try not to puke while he got his bearings. Daisy just had to take a few deep breaths to regain her equilibrium. It wasn’t the worst teleport she’d ever experienced, but if Richardson wanted to make it to Hero she really needed to figure it out.

<Game time.> Daisy extended her sixth sense toward the townhouse only a hundred feet away. She felt one lifeline inside, and it had the slipperiness of a speedster.

Still, she approached cautiously. There could still be someone there hidden by a nullifier. Armsman had tried that trick before and she had taken a bullet because of it.

“Stay here and keep an eye out.” She instructed the two freshmen as she climbed the porch steps and kicked in the front door.

<They can bill me.>

The door went flying, but she didn’t just charge in. She used the doorframe as cover, accelerated her mind, and peaked around the edge to get a quick view.

Two bodies were on the floor and one was clearly dead.

“Shit.” Now she rushed in. Trying to keep an eye on as much of the room as possible. “Abney, Richardson, get in here now.”

Both freshmen ran in and Richardson went green in the face before rushing back out to puke in the bushes. Abney didn’t run, but he didn’t look great.

“Liz!” He yelled out, taking his eyes away from the dead uniformed man and a blood-covered Becca.

“Whitfield?” Daisy knelt beside her and shook her shoulder gently.

“Wha…goin’ on? Why room spinnin’?” Becca moaned.

“You’re ok. Keep your eyes closed, take my hand, and let’s get you onto the couch.

Daisy helped the speedster up off the blood-soaked floor. There was a lot of blood that had spread far, which meant some time had passed since the shooting.

She studied his posture. <It looked like he was bent over Whitfield when he got shot.> That much she could tell from how he’d tipped over from a kneeling position to lay next to the speedster.

“Liz!” Abney appeared in the stairwell, panic on his face.

“Abney!” Daisy snapped to get his mind focused again. “Any sign of Kemps?”

“What?” He looked at her like a deer in headlights.

“Kemps!” she shouted. “Did you see her?”

“No,” He replied. “No one else is here.”

“Guys, someone is running this way.” Richardson informed from a position she’d taken near the door. “They looked freaked.”

“Seth…Seth…SETH!” Liz tore up the little sidewalk that lead up to the porch.

“LIZ!” Seth flew back out the door and wrapped her up in a bear hug.

Daisy gave them a few seconds before she stepped in.

“What happened?” She gently pushed Seth aside.

“It was horrible.” Liz sobbed. “Anika and Becca were getting ready to leave. The military guy there came to get them. Then some guys busted through the door. They shot the soldier and grabbed Anika.”

Daisy saw the girl hyperventilating and gave her a chance to steady herself.

“I just fucking ran.” Liz looked down at the floor trying to hide the  shame on her face and not succeeding. “I ran out the back, up the block, and hid in the alley. When I saw you three arrive I came out?”

Daisy gave the girl a pat on the shoulder, and felt her life thread. “You’re a teleporter?”

“Um…yeah.” The girl looked embarrassed again. “I mean I’m not HCP powerful or anything, but I can move small objects.”

“We know she’s a teleporter.” Seth stepped in. “She’s on record and everything.”

“And she knows about the HCP?” That much was clear from the short conversation.

“I trust her completely, and she hasn’t betrayed anyone in this townhouse all year.” There was no hesitation in Abney’s voice, and the way Liz looked at him was clearly with love.

<It’s your funeral if she fucks you.> Daisy shrugged. People had to make their own mistakes.

“Ok.” She refocused her attention on the dead body in the living room. “Dispatch.”

“Yes, Reaper.”

“Inform Iron Giant that we’re at the scene. The ForceOps teleporter is missing a big chunk of his head, and Kemps is gone. A witness says a bunch of people barged into the house and took her. Another witness seems to be drugged or poisoned.”

“Acknowledged, Reaper. Please stay on scene and wait for Orlando police to arrive. I’ll relay any follow-on orders from Iron Giant.”

“Thank you, Dispatch.”

“Who are you talking to.” Abney’s girlfriend looked confused.

“Don’t worry about it.” Daisy replied gruffly. “Just try and remember everything that happened. The police are on their way to get your statement.”

“Oh…ok.” The girl took a deep breath and grabbed Abney’s hand tightly.

He returned the gesture and Daisy couldn’t help but smile. She just felt sorry they both had to endure all of this.

Previous                            Next

A Change of Pace – Chapter 92

Seth walked out of the classroom massaging his temples. He scooted to the side so the rest of the class could exit. He leaned against the wall and savored the cool chill than ran through him when he pressed his head against the wood.

<Fuck me, that sucked.> Mathematical equations were still dancing through his head, so he shook it to dislodge them. That only succeeded in getting another spike of pain driven into his brain. <But that was the last one.>

It was only Thursday, but he was now officially done with his freshmen year finals. At least on the regular school side of things. As far as the HCP was concerned he had no idea. He’d gone through three trials already. The first was the drunk guy on the lawn scenario. He played it cool, shot the shit, and simply talked the guy down and back into his house. The cops ended up writing him a ticket for breeching of peace, but that was it.

The second trial was the classic Hero vs. Villain test. Both the heroes and villains were supplied by HCP students, but that didn’t ruin the show. Every student faced off against the student just above or below them in the rankings. As the number ten ranking he took on the number nine ranking Freshman, Anika. He fought well, but there was a reason she was number nine and he was number ten. They destroyed a building in the process, which was going to hurt both their grades, but she came out on top. He still felt the phantom pain in his jaw where she’d shattered it.

The third trial, the most interesting one in his opinion, was the ambush trial. Ten soldiers in black armor, black masks, and black weapons jumped out of a van while he was walking around the town and tried to abduct him. Looking back on it, he could tell the purpose of the test was to see how someone reacted when faced with overwhelming force and no time to plan.

His solution was to become a living inferno. The soldiers shot him with stun rounds, which didn’t do shit against his flaming skin. Since they were shooting at him, and he was a Hero in uniform according to the scenario, that constituted using extreme force in his opinion. He threw a car at the men with hurricane force winds, blasted them with fire, and wrapped one up tight in a section of asphalt for questioning. The armed men were duplicates that dissolved when they were injured, which had been briefed to him during the fight; so he didn’t kill someone and have to live with that on his conscience.

He wasn’t really sure how he did on that final. He eliminated the threat by fighting into the ambush, which he knew was the right thing to do. He even managed to capture one of the duplicates for interrogation. He thought he got it right, but Coach Meyers just told him to get back to studying after he was done with no indication of his performance.

Since it was Thursday, and the week was coming to a close, there couldn’t be more than one of two trials left.

<Liz is going to be pissed.>

They’d made plans to get away to Cabo for a few weeks right after their finals were done. She was oddly persistent that they leave right away. He was on his way to meet her for lunch, and he knew she wouldn’t be happy that he had to sit around until midnight on Friday to make sure he had nothing left to do for the HCP.

He picked his head up off the wall. It no longer soothed the headache wracking his brain. He rubbed his eyes practically feeling the bags underneath them. He was exhausted. He hadn’t slept in a day, and all he wanted to do was go on summer break.

<Just one more day.> He pumped himself up and started the walk across campus to the dining hall.

He made it a hundred feet before his phone went off.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he groaned as he fished it out and saw the blocked number.

“I certainly am not shitting you, Mr. Abney,” Coach McMillian’s voice stated on the other end.

<How…? Never mind, I don’t even want to know.> Seth was too tired to know how the close combat coach was watching him right now.

“Please report down to the city. Your fourth and final trial begins in twenty minutes.” The coach hung up without another word.

“Here we go again.” Seth’s gave his whole body a shake to wake himself up.

<On the bright side, I should be able to leave with Liz soon after all.> He held onto the kernel of motivation as he sprinted out of the building and toward the nearest lift, which wasn’t close at all.

He made it down, into the HCP, into the locker room, into his black uniform, and into the waiting room with just enough time to catch his breath. Normally, he’d make that run no problem. But he’d gone straight from his last HCP final to his calculus final, and now he was here.

<It’s all part of the test.> There was no other purpose to getting a human being so exhausted.

“Dispatch.” Seth fit the earbud into his ear. He’d been instructed to keep it safe after the first trial. “What’s the situation?”

He stifled a yawn as he stood in the waiting room. All the tunnels around him were dark and giving no indication where he needed to go.

“Wait a second, Abney. Backup is arriving.” There was a mischievous undertone to the man’s voice that Seth had come to fear.

<Backup?> Seth didn’t have to wait long as the large elevator down to the underground city opened and Anna Fletcher stepped out.

“What the fuck?” The volatile electrokinetic wasted no time in making the situation awkward. “What is pretty boy doing here?”

“Ahh, you think I’m pretty.” Seth grinned, and she flashed him the finger.

“The situation is as follows.” Coach McMillian began and they both shut up. “Approximately twenty minutes ago a peaceful demonstration by Humanity First activists turned violent.

“Fuck me sideways,” Anna exhaled. They could both see the issues of an anti-Super group suddenly being confronted by two Heroes.

“So far the riot is limited to one street with approximately forty rioters. Your job is to contain the situation and neutralize any threats until the police force arrives. They are five minutes out. Any questions?”

A tunnel lit up and an exit with their names on it. They both started running.

“Any weapons?” Anna asked.

“A few rioters are armed with baseball bats. They broke into a liquor store along the street and have looted it for booze, so expect some Molotov Cocktails.”

“No problem there.” Seth shot a grin at Anna. “This should be a piece of cake.”

The exit door they were looking for wasn’t far, which meant they were going to get dumped right in the middle of the city.

“Here’s the plan.” Anna stopped at the armored hatch to catch her breath. “We go out there tell all these bitches to keep their panties on. If they don’t calm the fuck down, then I’m going to taze them all.”

“Is that going to work?” Seth wasn’t questioning her ability. He’d seen her in action before. He was more concerned about how the plan would affect their grade.

“Sure it will.” She gave Seth a pat on the cheek that was a half-pat, half-slap. “Don’t worry playboy. I’ve got this.”

She pushed open the door and Seth followed her into the lobby of a building. They couldn’t see the riot when they pushed through the door, but they could hear it. Angry yells, the sound of glass breaking, and the wrenching of metal that he assumed was them trying to flip a car. They had to be right outside the building.

Anna didn’t stop. She kept on going right through the building’s front doors and into the street. Less than fifty feet away, the mob of forty people was doing exactly what Seth thought they were doing.

But that all stopped when they saw two black-uniformed people in masks step out of the building. Every head in the group turned toward Seth and Anna, and they all looked pissed.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Anna took a step forward and put her fists on her hips in a power pose. “Stop breaking shit!” she yelled, which surprised everyone including Seth. “This is other people’s property you’re damaging. Whatever it is you are protesting about, I’m sure that person’s car and that person’s storefront didn’t do anything. All you’ve done is take away someone’s ability to provide for themselves or get from point A to point B. What you are doing is not helping your cause. So, cut it out, stand down, and wait for the cops to get here.”

<That wasn’t half bad.> Seth was surprised Anna had a speech in her that wasn’t full of four letter words.

The rioters seemed surprised too, but that only lasted a few seconds. Then the scowls were back.

“Mind control!”

“Kill the Supers!”

“Stop the oppression!” Were the first couple of things Seth heard before the first bottle of booze with a flaming rag in it was tossed in their direction.

<Here we go.>

The bottle fell about ten feet short of them. It exploded on impact, but didn’t get any closer. Seth caught the fire and redirected it back toward the rioters. His goal was containment not injury. He collected the other fires that were burning on the block and added their fuel to his fire. He drew a giant circle with the fire around the rioters and slowly started to tighten it, forcing them together into a tight space, and an easier target for Anna.

“Demons!” Several people screamed as they scrambled backward away from the flames.

“Now it’s all you, Anna. Light’em up.” He saw her grin behind her mask.

Seth could feel the static electricity building in the air. The power in the nearby buildings went out as the electrokinetic drew from other sources. Sure, she could do it from whatever internal battery her power gave her, but why waste energy when there was plenty around to spare.

“Last chance!” She yelled at the crowd. “Settle down, pop a squat, and wait for the cops or things will get interesting.”

“Bitch!” Was the most common response.

“Oh well, I tried.” Anna sighed.

Then someone shot Seth.

He could tell it wasn’t a real bullet because the HCP never would have allowed that, and it didn’t penetrate his uniform. It was a rubber bullet, but they still hurt like hell.

Seth took it in the shoulder, felt something crack, fell backward, and lost his grip on the fire. Without him holding it in place it went out of control. Thankfully, he had enough foresight to blast it all away before he barbequed the rioters alive. But that only set them free.

They cheered. Screamed, “Down with the tyrants!” And charged.

“Idiots!” Anna yelled, grabbing Seth by his uninjured shoulder and dragging him behind the cover of a car.

Another rubber bullet stuck the vehicle with a loud SNAP.

“Sniper.” Anna popped her head up for three seconds to take a look and then ducked down just as another CRACK echoed through the air and they heard the whizz of the bullet flying overhead. “You keep the rioters contained and I’ll get this bastard.”

“What?” Seth blinked through the pain radiating through an entire side of his body, but Anna didn’t wait.

She threw a bolt of lightning into the air. It cracked loudly, triggering a primal urge in the human brain to get down, and she used that moment to sprint for a nearby office building.

That left Seth alone and only about thirty feet from the recovering rioters.

<Fuck this!> He was tired, hungry, and now he was pretty sure his shoulder was fractured. He was done with this shit.

“Dispatch, what’s the structural integrity of the city? Are buildings built to withstand a certain category of earthquake? Are we on any major fault lines?”

“Um…” Coach McMillian actually sounded uncertain. “No, but remember, Abney, you are in an underground city. So don’t bring the place down on top of us. I’ve got summer plans.”

“Understood.” Seth winced as he moved to get a better view of the charging mob.

They were only twenty feet away.

<Now or never.> He grinned, then grimaced, then drove his uninjured fist into the street.

The road split and erupted like it had been hit by a Norse god’s hammer. The angry yells turned into frightened screams as the road started to fall away. But it wasn’t wholesale destruction, Seth had a plan.

He could feel the earth through his power and occasionally popped his head up to see what was going on. Just like with the fire, he was using the rapidly deteriorating street to corral the rioters together. They screamed, pushed each other, and a few almost died as he drove them into the center of the street.

“Ok now the hard part.” Seth had to really focus now. It was a hell of a lot easier to destroy than to build.

He stopped the rapid decay of the road and started to stabilize it. He glimpsed at the panicked rioter’s location again and put the final touch on his plan. The earth gave a final rumble and then was still.

Seth looked up again to see his handiwork. Most of the road was cracked, broken, and would take some major work to become passable again. The one completely intact part was a large circle that the hyperventilating rioters were cowering on. Around them the road had completely fallen away leaving a twenty foot drop over a space about ten feet wide.

“Mission accomplished, Dispatch.” Seth grinned at the display.

He’d successfully, and by himself dug a deep trench around the rioters that they couldn’t jump over or climb out of.

“But be advised, Anna is still hunting the sniper that shot me.”

As if on cue there was a scream, and a man in black fatigues exploded out of a third story window. He limbs flailed wildly as gravity got a good hold on him and pulled him down the thirty feet to land face-first on pavement.

“All clear, Dispatch.” Anna was breathing hard. “Fucker put up a fight, but I took care of him.”

Seth could hear sirens now. It was hard to believe less than five minutes had passed. The adrenaline rush started to wear off and he felt bone-tired all of a sudden. All of the rioters and the probably dead sniper flickered and then vanished. They were never more than summoned illusions.

“Good work, team. On behalf of the entire West Private University HCP staff I want to congratulate you on the completion of your freshman year. You are now released for the summer. Your final grades will be posted in a few weeks and only then will you be invited back for sophomore year if you make the cut. You will hear from us either way, and if you are not invited back then you will have to make an appointment with Professor Livingston to get your memories wiped. If this is the case do not try and avoid the situation. We will come to your house, or hunt you down, either one if fine by me.”

It was a bit of an ominous goodbye speech, but after Seth’s performance in his trails he was sure he was going to get one of those twenty-eight sophomore year slots. But he’d think about that later. All he wanted now was to shower, take a nap, and then meet up with Liz to enjoy their vacation.

<Shit, Liz!> He was supposed to meet her for lunch with Becca and Anika, and had totally forgotten to call and cancel. <Do I still have time to make it?>

He was walking back into the building that held the sealed hatch back into the HCP when the lights all around him flickered.

“We’re done, Anna. Stop fucking around.”

“Wasn’t me.” She was looking around.

The lights flickered again and then died. They were immediately replaced by flashing amber warning lights.

 

***

 

Lilly appeared in a blast of darkness. Any other time it would have been conspicuous, but in the middle of the night under an overpass it wasn’t. The headlights of passing cars speeding by didn’t even come near the concealed positions her and her guest had chosen. The bearded man stumbled a bit and emptied his dinner on the concrete.

<Pussy.> Lilly shook her head and looked at their newest target.

Step one of the plan was disrupting and cutting communications. The jihadists had already planted multiple bombs at local T.V. stations. They’d back-doored into some systems and would pirate the signal from a second location when the time was right. There wasn’t a lot of manpower involved in step one aside from a team that could respond to any threats by the authorities to stop the terrorists from getting their message out. Most of that team consisted of armed humans, but there were a few Supers attached.

Step two, what they were working on now, was demolishing transportations infrastructure. The overpass they’d appeared under was the target. A few well-placed explosives and the bridge would collapse onto the road below it. It would make roads inside and out of the city impassable, and was the last of a layered approach the terrorists were taking. Anyone trying to get a vehicle into the city would face many obstacles along the way. It was designed so the only way in was to go into the vegetation, or to fly stuff in.

The terrorists had that planned out too. An armed team was was going to hit the airport. They’d hired a mercenary strongman to rip up train tracks when the time was right, and Damascus was going to set the world on fire. Orlando would effectively be cut off from large scale assistance for a little while. It wouldn’t stop the Heroes, but this way they didn’t have to worry about the Feds or National Guard.

<It really is brilliant.> She begrudgingly admitted. <After a few days it will look like New Orleans after Katrina. Give it a week and I bet we have full-scale warfare going on over food supplies. The Army is gonna have to work to take back the city.>

Lilly wondered how the weakened Fist would deal with all the newfound freedom.

<Focus,> she reminded herself as she kept her eyes out for any trouble.

The man she’d teleported rigged a rope up to the overpass and began to pull himself up into the darkness. Fifteen minutes later he’d placed the charges in the places where they would do the most damage, and shimmied back down to the ground.

“Done?” She asked.

The guy looked offended at being addressed by a woman, but that didn’t stop his eyes from tracing her body. Not that it mattered. She was loaded for war and it was tough to see much past the body armor, grenades, pistols, and big-ass rifle she was hauling around with her everywhere.

It had been a few days since she’d talked with her father and Uncle Armsman back at their underground mansion, and they’d been working pretty much nonstop since then. She’d been able to take a catnap here and there, and eat takeout, but she smelled ripe and really needed a shower.

“Wraith?” A quiet voice pinged in her ear. It was the private comm system she had with her father and uncle.

“Yeah,” she subvocalized the response so the goon didn’t know she was talking to someone.

“We’ve finished rigging the water authority, internet servers, and the team is in place to take the power plant.

“Ok.” Lilly sounded like she was clearing her throat.

“All three stages are a go. The Money wants us to stand down until tomorrow and get some rest. Then you’re to get in position and get the target.

“Got it.” She cut the connection.

All three stages of the grand plan, all the destruction, all the death, all of it was merely a distraction for Lilly to get the target. Everything was planned out so she would be free and clear. They had the safe house ready to go, and Lilly had been there, so it was a simple teleport away. All the action was taking place far away from the school, so no one got suspicious. Thanks to the plans she’d stolen, they knew all about ForceOps’ own contingency plan, and she was prepared to deal with it.

Everything was planned out meticulously. All she needed to do was kick it off.

Lilly pulled out her phone and launched identical text messages to Becca and Anika.

<Breakfast tomorrow with Seth and I?> She asked with a smiley faced emoticon.

Becca’s reply was nearly instantaneous despite the late hour. She was still up studying for finals.

<Sorry! Can’t do breakfast because of final. Lunch??????> There was a sad faced emoticon after sorry.

<Lunch sounds great. Seth and I will see you at the dining hall at noon. Our treat.>

<Yay!> Followed by a hungry face and an emoticon burger sealed the deal.

Lilly slipped her phone back into a secure pocket and opened the general comms channel. “Meeting set for tomorrow at noon.”

The lack of an immediate reply told her that some people were probably bitching at having to hold their position for the next twelve hours.

“Acknowledged.” The voice of Seif al-Din didn’t sound the slightest bit perturbed. “You are released until then.”

“Roger.” She replied, reaching out to grab the demolitions guys she’d brought, and teleporting back to the hotel room.

It was empty except for a few people setting up a rather large bomb by the bed. Everyone else was out at their staging areas. Her demo guy practically skipped over to his friends and started talking excitedly. She couldn’t tell what they were saying, but whatever it was couldn’t be good for America.

<I seriously hope I get a contract one day to take these fuckers out.> She’d betray them in a heartbeat if someone payed her to.

She daydreamed briefly of stabbing them all in the throat before pulling herself out of the pleasant fantasy and disappearing in another blast of shadow. She arrived at her flat, got out of her costume, and jumped in the shower.

The pipes protested at having water run through them for the first time in months, but it was clean and warm so she didn’t care. She dried off, blow-dried her hair, fixed her makeup, dressed in comfy study clothes, and then teleported back to her usual alleyway.  From there she waked back to townhouse 117 where she looked like just another exhausted student cramming for finals.

She really wanted to do a different type of cramming. Demolitions really revved her engine, but Seth was already asleep and she needed to sleep too. Tomorrow was going to be a long and adrenaline-filled day.

She was asleep about a minute after her head hit the pillow, and it felt like she was awake a moment after that. Seth was up and moving around the room like an agitated hummingbird. He kept knocking stuff over and cursing to himself.

“Babe?” She asked through the delirium of a half-asleep mind.

“Sorry,” he grunted as he pulled on shoes. “Go back to sleep.”

“Another trial?” Her brain was already beginning to drift.

“Yeah, don’t worry I’ll be fine. Get some sleep.”

“Ok.” She mumbled.

She felt Seth kiss her forehead and then he was gone, and she was out again.

She went through a couple of REM cycles before she woke up again, but it still didn’t feel like enough. Her clock said it was ten, so she’d officially skipped her biology final. Not that she gave a shit.

<I’m about to kidnap someone and be an accessory to terrorism. Who the fuck cares about BIO 103?> She laughed a little and went to take another shower.

For whatever reason, she really wanted to be clean for today. The Big Day.

<I’ve got this. He loves you. I’ve got this. He loves you.> Was her mantra as she gamed out scenario after scenario in her head.

If A happened she would do this. If B happened she would do that. If C, D, and X happened she’d shoot this person, blow up that, grab Seth by the dick and get the hell out of dodge. It wasn’t likely things would go that sideways, but you always needed to be prepared.

<And of course there is plan Z.> Her zombie apocalypse plan, and a good plan for everything going tits up in the worst possible way. <Use every bullet, every grenade, and every RPG on anyone and everyone.> She had a few of the rocket-propelled grenades stacked on her armory table and ready to go. If she needed to, she would just destroy everything she could before running; preferably to a nonextradition country.

<But it won’t come to that.> She was confident. They’d put too much planning into all of this to fuck it up.

At 11:45 she took ten deep breaths and pulled on her running shoes. Her outfit for lunch was a black workout top and yoga pants. The casual uniform of anyone who’d just finished finals and wanted to kick back for the next three months. She had none of her Wraith gear. All of that came later. All she had was a little pea-shooter tucked securely in her purse. She had a permit for it and everything. Or at least a permit for what it looked like.

This was an example of a big things come in small packages moment. Her pea-shooter could put a hole in steel from twenty-five meters. It would be enough to stun and bruise a low-level strongwoman like Anika.

But if everything went according to plan she wouldn’t need it.

She hurried to the dining hall. She checked her phone, but hadn’t heard anything from Seth. He’d been gone since he woke her up in the middle of the night.

<It’s actually better if he isn’t here. My plan will work better if we’re lost in the madness at first. It gives me some extra cover.> However shit went down she was going to make sure he was safe.

Becca and Anika were already there when she arrived. The blue-haired speedster was bouncing around the pizza station, and Anika was grabbing a few burgers and a salad. Lilly, now fully in her Liz persona, just grabbed a turkey melt.

“Hey, Liz.” Becca was her usual cheerful self.

“Hey.” Anika grunted simply.

“How are your finals going?” Liz started the conversation while pulling out her phone.

Becca rattled off everything she’d done by the time Liz could check her text messages.

<Still nothing from him.> Liz frowned.

“Everything ok?” Anika asked, her green eyes watching Liz closely.

“Yeah.” Liz brushed it off. “Seth was just supposed to meet us here, and I haven’t heard from him yet today. He did have a trial this morning.” She lowered her voice for the last bit.

“Then he’ll be done when he’s done.” Anika replied bluntly, returning to her burgers.

“Yeah, I’ll just tell him we’re here.”

Liz punched in two letters to a number that wasn’t Seth’s.

She hit send, and then took a bite of her sandwich.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 89

“Come on, Kemps. I needed you to be faster and hit harder. Again!”

Anika wiped the sweat from her brow and focused on the gloves Coach Meyers was wearing. She’d been hitting those gloves for the last half an hour with everything she had, and it still didn’t impress the alternative instructor.

Personally, Anika was wondering why the female freshman coach was working with her in the first place, but she knew better than to ask stupid questions. The old adage when a person teaching or presenting something said ‘there were no stupid questions’ meant that person was an idiot. There were always stupid questions, and in the HCP physical training class anything that wasted time fell under that category.

<It’s like they’re trying to beat the joy of spring break right out of us.>

A gloved hand swept around and smacked Anika in the face. It wasn’t hard, but it was enough to make the unique Super stumble.

“Get your head in the game, Kemps.” Coach Meyers scowled before holding up the two gloves in front of her. “Come on! Hit it!”

Anika launched into the complex combination of punches and kicks that she’d been drilling into her muscle memory for the last half an hour. More sweat dripped down her face as she pressed the attack. She threw the punches as hard as she could, which sent echoes through the large gym; but each time she made contact with Coach Meyer’s practice gloves her fists were stopped cold.

<I really don’t ever want to have to fight any kinetic absorbers…ever.> Anika ended the combination with a kick designed to hit the person in the head and put them on their ass.

Coach Meyers brought up the glove professionally and the final hit sent a soft BOOM across the empty space. None of the other training students even looked up.

“Good.” Coach Meyers’ single word of acceptance brought on a surprising amount of satisfaction. “Are you tired?”

“Yes, Coach.” Anika put her hands on her knees and took a couple of deep breaths.

“It’s times like these were you really see the gains of your training.” The alternative coach placed her hand on Anika’s shoulder.

Anika’s grin at the Coach’s encouraging words vanished as the larger woman’s hand went from resting to gripping her shoulder.

“Defend yourself, Kemps!”

Coach Meyers used her leverage to push down on Anika while bringing her knee up toward the younger Super’s face. Anika was barely able to get her forearm up in time to take the hit.

<Son of a bitch!> The stinger she got from the hit made her entire arm numb.

“I said defend yourself, Kemps!” Coach Meyers pushed her back and lashed out with her foot.

If Anika was fresh she might have been able to dodge, but her mind was still trying to catch up, and the Coach’s kick caught her in the chest and sent her rocketing backwards.

She hit the far wall butt first, which had the unfortunate side effect of snapping her head back into the reinforced structure. Her vision blacked out for a second and then slowly returned as flashing stars of light. It only cleared when Coach Meyers was back in her face.

“This is pathetic, Kemps.” The instructor’s fists lashed out and connected for solid body blows.

All the wind was knocked from Anika’s lungs, and she wheezed painfully as she took her first swing. It was clumsy and desperate but it got the instructor to stop hitting her. Instead, Coach Meyers trapped her arms and judo threw her across the room. Even though she was flying through the air, the time not getting beaten was a needed breather for Anika. She altered her body in flight and rolled into the landing. It wasn’t graceful by any means, but it got her up and in a defensive position before Coach Meyers was on top of her again.

<That’s better, Kemps. Get your composure back, watch your footing, and fight back.> Coach Meyers instructed, so Anika’s could pick it up telepathically.

Anika lunged at the instructor as she closed. She went into a simple combination to stop the older woman’s forward momentum and create a little more space. Really, Anika wanted to move from punching range to kicking range. If Anika could get a kick in there she’d be able to do some real damage. Personally, she thought her kicks were a lot better than her punches, probably from the kickboxing workouts she’d done through her teenage years to stay in shape.

Anika threw a simple one-two, but she put her super speed behind it. Coach Meyers still dodged the first one by bobbing to the side, and deflected the second with a well-timed deflection with her hand. The instructor hopped back a half-step to reevaluate and that’s when Anika struck. She whirled around in a blur putting all her remaining strength and speed into what she hoped was a finishing blow.

The kick was perfect. It flew right for the point where the head met the neck. It didn’t matter that Coach Meyers got her arm up to block in time, Anika just wanted to get one good hit in.

And it was a good hit. Anika’s roundhouse kick met Coach Meyer’s block with a loud SMACK, and to Anika’s surprise. It actually moved the instructor a few inches.

Coach Meyers held up her hand to signal the fight was over. Anika lowered her leg and shook it out. She also blinked rapidly and rotated her neck. Her head was still throbbing from smacking into the wall.

“Not bad, Kemps.” The alternative instructor smiled. “You’re definitely stronger than you were at the beginning of the year.”

“I guess so.” Anika shrugged.

The fact was that she really had no idea how her power worked. She didn’t know how she “learned” from other Supers, and she didn’t know what her limits were. She didn’t even know if there was an upper limit to the amount of powers she could learn, or what her body would do if she tried to adapt to contrasting abilities. She routinely had a reoccurring nightmare where she morphed into some monstrous creature as a result of her adaption.

The professors had been keeping an eye on her and routinely testing her, which was part of the reason she was being taught separately from everyone else today. So far, despite all of the Supers she was around on a daily basis she was still limited to super strength, speed, and a growing control of her telepathy.

She’d heard the theories being batted around by Coach Meyers and McMillian. They were thinking that her adaption required mastery of the new power to a certain point before it started to learn a new one, which made sense. The speed and strength back in her home town hadn’t come at the same time. She’d gotten stronger to a certain point and then started to get faster.

Anika wondered what she would get next after her telepathy reached whatever magical point her body said, “Ok, time to switch it up.”

<Based on who I hang around with I could get Seth’s elemental manipulation. That would be pretty cool. Angela is a shifter, but I don’t know if I can learn shifting like that. It might be a good question to ask the DVA scientists if I ever get to talk to one. Or I could get Liz’s teleportation.> Anika shuddered at the thought.

No matter how much Becca frowned and rebuked her, Anika did not like that other woman. Something about her just rubbed Anika the wrong way.

<Whatever.> Anika shrugged off the thought and followed Coach Meyers back to the main collection of students.

Becca gave her a concerned look. Everyone had seen her get kicked across the room into the wall and then tossed like a ragdoll. Anika put her concerned girlfriend at ease with a smile and a thumbs up. Becca didn’t completely buy it. The blue-haired, cute as a button speedster would never be a subtlety Hero. Even her trying to keep an eye on Anika out of the corner of her eye was blatantly obvious.

“We’re done for today.” Coach McMillian announced to the sighs of relief from many students.

But before they could even turn toward the locker rooms Coach Meyer cut them off. “Wait, Coach McMillian, aren’t we supposed to tell them about their final.”

“Oh, yes.” Coach McMillian feigned surprise that no one believed. “We are supposed to let them all know how they’re going to spend the last week of school.”

<Week!> Anika’s mental shriek matched Kyoshi’s as all of the students went wide-eyed at the idea of a week-long final.

“Yes, a week.” Coach Meyers’ smile was diabolical. “Think of it as your Hell Week. All freshmen at West Private University have to go through it, and it is what we use to reduce the class number down to the twenty-eight allowed back for sophomore year.”

“But what about our school finals? We have to maintain a 3.0 GPA to stay eligible for the HCP.” Ashley Bates, the lesser advanced mind that controlled bugs, couldn’t keep the hysteria out of her voice.

“Hmm.” Coach McMillian scratched his chin. “So you’re telling me that you are going to be pushed to the limit mentally and physically over the next week, not knowing when you are going to be challenged, but held to the highest standard at a moment’s notice.”

“Sounds like you hit the nail on the head.” Coach Meyers nodded.

“Good.” Coach McMillian smiled. “Because what I just described is the daily life of a Hero.” All joking vanished from the man’s face. “A Hero has to be at the top of their game every moment of the day when they’re on duty. It doesn’t matter if they’re fighting a supervillain, attending a ribbon cutting ceremony for PR purposes, or getting a cat out of a tree for a little old lady. A Hero is held to the highest standard at all times. If you can’t handle this workload for a week then you don’t deserve to be a Hero.”

The combat instructor’s word reverberated through the group of freshman. Anika saw mixed emotions on the forty faces around her. Most looked determined with a hint of fear. A few looked completely overwhelmed, and a few didn’t look bothered at all. Angela was one of those. She stood close to the two instructors looking supremely confident in her abilities. Anika would have loved to know what was going through the shifter’s head, but her telepathy wasn’t good enough to see through the other woman’s mental shields.

“Any questions?”

Half the class had questions.

“It is all very simple.” Coach McMillian explained. “You all have cell phones, right?” Everyone nodded. “When one of your trials is about the start we will call you; so you will be responsible for keeping your phone on you and the ringtone turned up at all times.”

“But what about…?”

“We know your schedules,” Coach McMillian cut off Janet Ibsen, the light manipulator whose rope construct was turning into quite a formidable tool. “We will not call during those class times, but once they’re over you’d better be paying attention to your phone.”

“What about sleeping, bro?” Oliver Carpenter drawled in his surfer accent.

“You can be called at any time. Even in the middle of the night.”

“How’re we being graded?” The tech brilliant Super with a biochemistry specialty asked about the specifics.

“You will face multiple trials and each trial will have a certain amount of points assigned to it. The point totals will be gathered together at the end and you will be ranked again from one to forty. Only the top twenty-eight will be invited back.”

“If we miss the phone call?” Fiona Richardson, the class teleporter, asked.

“We will continue to call your number until the time your trial is scheduled to begin. If you miss the start-time then you forfeit the points from that trial.”

“What about an emergency?”  Simon Skylar practically whined. Anika had grown to dislike the lazy limited gravity manipulator.

“We monitor all the HCP students in the school so we will know if there’s an emergency,” Coach Meyers replied. “But if for some reason we don’t know we will review the information and render a decision on whether or not you can make up your trial.”

“Anything else?” Coach McMillian asked after several seconds of silence. “Ok then. You’ll get some more information when it starts, but that’s the gist of the final.”

Anika quickly found Becca as the class broke apart and headed for the locker rooms. She gripped her girlfriend’s hand firmly and tried to push down her anxiety.

“Don’t worry.” Becca’s eternal optimism put a smile back on Anika’s face. “We’ll be fine.”

“Of course you’d say that.”

“No we will.” Becca restated confidently. “We’ll both be on edge, but since we sleep together at least one of us will hear the phone go off in the middle of the night. We are also two of the fastest people in the class, so we’ll be able to get to out trials lickety-split.”

“You’re adorable.” Anika gave her a kiss as they entered the girl’s locker room.

<I just wish it was that easy.> She kept that part to herself.

 

***

 

“A whole week?” Liz looked pretty put off about that specific bit of information.

After a long day of school, and the fighting after classes, Seth needed a break.

<And what better way to blow off some steam than with my special lady.> So he got dressed up and took Liz out to a nice restaurant.

“Yeah, a week. It’s ridiculous.” Seth eyes gravitated toward her low-cut blouse for the hundredth time, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“They push you really hard and take up all your free time. It’s bullshit.” Liz frowned and pushed a leftover meatball around her plate with her fork. “I don’t get to spend nearly enough time with you lately.”

“I know.” Seth reached halfway across the table and Liz’s hand automatically went in to his like they were both magnetized. “But I’m going to make it up to you.”

Liz’s pout transformed into a little smile with that little twinkle in her chocolate-colored eyes that made his heart beat a little bit faster.

“Really? It better be good.” That twinkle became a grin.

“Oh it is.” Seth grinned back. “I was thinking that after the semester is over we get away for a bit. We’ve got a few months off, and I sure as hell am not spending it with my family. I was thinking an around the world tour, but I’m open to suggestions.”

“Hmmm.” Liz tried to play hard to get, but Seth could already see the smile pulling at her lips. “That could work. I’ve always wanted to see Bangkok.”

Seth couldn’t stop the snort that drew attention for nearby tables.

“We could go there and other places.”

The smile finally broke on Liz’s face, and Seth knew the tens of thousands of dollars he was going to spend was totally going to be worth it. One of those smiles was priceless.

“I’d love to.”

“Good.” Seth smiled. “Because I might have already booked our first flight.”

“Of course you did.” Liz’s rich laugh drew more attention than his snort. “Where are we going first.”

“Frankfurt.” Seth replied nonchalantly. “I figured we could cruise around Europe for a few weeks. Then we can jet down to Thailand if you really want to check it out. We can do all the sightseeing in China too, although I’ll have to check and see what we have to do to get in first. The Chinese are a little touchy; especially involving foreign Supers entering their country.”

Liz nodded like she already knew all of that and popped the meatball she’d been playing with into her mouth. Seth had no idea such an action could be such a turn on.

“Enough about the future. What about the rest of the night?” That twinkle in her eye was back.

“I was just going to let the night take us wherever.”

That got another laugh out of Liz.

“I call bullshit. You want to get all up on this. Don’t lie.” She ran her hands down her curves.

Seth blushed crimson as more eyes focused on them.

“Yeah, duh.” He tried to play it casually, and didn’t succeed.

<Only Liz has the ability to turn you into a blubbering idiot.> Seth tried to save it all with a smile.

“You’re so cute when you try not to be a horn dog.” Liz smiled, leaned back in her seat, and took a sip of the wine.

They both had their fake IDs, and the waiter hadn’t even carded her. A blouse like the one she was wearing tended to have that effect.

That sip turned into throwing back the entire glass. “What are you waiting for?” She asked playfully. “I’ve got to make a quick pit stop back at my dorm on the way back, but then I’m all yours.”

Seth waved down the first waiter he saw. “Check please.”

“So this Hell Week.” Liz stared while they were waiting for the check. “I’m guessing it’s the last week of classes.”

“Yep. Last few days in April into the beginning of May.” Seth was still amazed that college ended so early.

“So I basically won’t get to see you at all.”

“Not necessarily. I am just on call twenty-four seven except for the time I’m in my regular class exams.” Seth said the last few words in a whisper.

Liz might know about the HCP, but he wasn’t about to ruin all his hard work over the last year by blowing his cover at dinner one night.

“Well that’s a relief. I don’t want to spend a whole week away from you.”

Seth read between the lines and agreed. The weeks she’d just up and vanished had been awful, and neither wanted to relive that again.

The check arrived, Seth paid it in cash, and they headed back toward campus. As they drove his Porsche through the city Seth could feel a tension in the air. Everyone was still walking around and going about their business of a weekday night, but there was something underlying it all. He could feel it in subtly in everyone’s actions.

<First the power plant, then the Fist, the bombings, Wraith, the nightclub and parking garage raids.> Seth shook his head. Orlando had been through a lot, and it felt like the population thought it was going to get worse before it got better.

“Do you want me to wait for you?” He pulled up in front of Liz’s dorm.

“No, that’s ok. I’ll be a little bit. Why don’t you head back and get the room ready? Set the mood if you know what I mean.” She winked, and Seth gulped.

“Ok.” She leaned over and gave him a deep kiss. “See you soon, stud.”

She got out and sauntered away.

<That’s something I could never get tired of watching.> He watched her ass sway, shook his head to clear his mind, and then headed back to the townhouse.

 

***

 

Liz made sure Seth had a nice view of her ass as he drove away. It was the least she could do after the expensive dinner they’d just shared. The bottle of wine alone was over a hundred dollars. She swiped her card in the door and pushed through when it beeped and gave her the green light. People sitting in the common area turned and stared. The guys eyes’ lingered and the girls judged. That was just the nature of things. Just like it was Liz’s nature to not give a shit.

She entered the elevator alone and waited for it to start ascending before teleporting away. She appeared with her usual explosion of darkness in a penthouse hotel room across town. Her expanding darkness gave her the layout of the room before it dissipated. Damascus and his two cronies were on the couch watching T.V.

“So the whore returns.” The terrorist leader stated as she strutted confidently toward him.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting your circle jerk, Damas-douche.” She replied without skipping a step.

Every time she insulted the guy it royally pissed him off. But he called her a whore every time she came to report so she figured it was all fair game.

As expected, the man bristled and silver fire licked at his fingertips. One of goons actually got up off his fat ass and took a threatening step toward her.

“Unless you want to know what it feels like to hit the ground after falling twenty stories then sit your ass back down.” There was acid in her tone and the man involuntarily took a step back. “That’s what I thought.” She met the man glare for glare. “You’re just a giant pussy.”

“Enough!” Damascus shouted, banging his hand on a table. “What do you want?”

“You told me to keep my eyes and ears open for anything that might impact your operation.” Liz reminded him. “Well, I’ve got some information.”

“Go on.” He waved her on like a king commanding his servant.

She just smiled back at him. “Yeah, here’s the thing. I’m a mercenary, not one of you delusional fucking boy-toys. You want the information you have to pay me. That’s how this relationship works.”

“I’m going to tell our leader, in detail, or your continued insolence.”

“Your leader can stick a nice big, purple dildo up his ass for all I care. Money for information. What will it be?”

Liz didn’t know if he was going to burn down the hotel or have an aneurism. <This is fun.> She stopped the smile before it reached her lips.

After a moment the terrorist leader sighed. “How much?”

“Ten grand.” Liz threw out a random number.

The terrorist nodded and one of his flunkies walked over the to the bed, pulled a large duffle bag from underneath it, reached in, and then threw a wad of cash at Liz.

<Holy shit. I should have asked for more.> Liz counted the money and made a mental note of the bags location. If things went to shit then she’d at least try to get some extra cash for her troubles.

“You have your money. Now give me the information.”

Liz momentarily considered cutting and running at this point, but that was against her professional code of ethics; at least for now. She might cut and run and leave them hanging some other time, but they’d paid her so she dished about what she’d heard.

“There is an event happening at the HCP the last few days in April and into the beginning of May. The staff is going to be busy and distracted with the event. Conducting your operation at this time might increase your odds of success. The Heroes at the local HCP will have a delayed reaction, and having more time to execute while they get organized might be worth moving back your timeline a bit.”

The terrorists pondered the information, scratching their bearded chins in unison. “We’ll consider it.” Damasucs concluded non-committedly. “Where did you get this information?”

“I have a confidential source.” Liz shrugged.

“Could it possibly be the young man you just ate dinner with?” A smile pulled at the silver-haired man’s lips.

Liz’s world went cold for a millisecond before a white-hot burning rage nearly overwhelmed her. She tried to control it, but only partially succeeded.

“Listen here, ass-faces. Don’t go fucking around with my sources. I’ve got to work this town and this country after you finished jerking off with it. Do not touch my sources. Don’t even look at my sources the wrong way, or the next time it won’t be me but a nice fat bomb that teleports into this room. Fuck with me and you’d better hope that you’re bombproof or could survive a twenty-story fall.” Her grin was nothing less than evil.

“Watch your tone, whore.”

“Watch yours, fuck face. Your boss might be some hot shit. But I could kill you all in your sleep and you’d never even see it coming.” The evilness on her face became feigned sweetness. “And if your boss reputation is correct he wouldn’t even try to avenge you. The jihad takes precedence over your death after all.”

She had them, and they knew it.

“Understood.” Damascus said through gritted teeth.

He might be conceding to her wishes at the moment, but there was no question that she’d made an enemy for life.

<Fuck if I care.> Liz didn’t even say goodbye. <If we ever meet again outside of this op then only one of us is walking away alive. And that person will be me.>

She reappeared in her usual alley and worked on calming down as she walked toward the townhouse. By the time she reached their bedroom she was her usual charming self, ready to do unspeakable things to her boyfriend.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 88

Lilly appeared in her room in a blast of darkness. Her new, fancy rifle was slung over her back and she had the rest of her gear bundled in a bag. She tossed the bag into a corner of her room and headed for the shower.

<These guys might wear their stench like some badge of honor, but this is America bitches. We don’t think smelling like pig fart is a good thing.> She gagged as she remembered the last time she’d been around these people.

She’d kicked ass and taken names but that didn’t stop them from smelling like shit. She hoped they’d bathed before traveling, because moving around incognito was a lot easier if you didn’t smell like you were bringing the sewer with you.

She turned the shower to hot and jumped under the pulsing streams of her state-of-the-art shower head. It would have felt great if it didn’t burn like a motherfucker.

<Ugh.> She groaned. Despite her best efforts, she’d still burned on that rooftop.

She turned down the heat and gingerly washed herself. After she dried off she’d have to put on a generous amount of aloe.

“Lilly, are you back yet?” Altair knocked on her door as she was blow drying her hair.

“Yeah, I’m in here.” She yelled back.

Her father let himself in and started to arrange a series of folders on her unmade bed. After she was confident she smelled pristine and was presentable she joined him.

The information laid out had the basic first step of their plan. It had information on the three men she was meeting. They all looked like hairy fur balls in all of their pictures. Every one of them had deeply tanned skin, big, bushy black beards, and thick almost unibrow eyebrows. They looked like a stereotypical jihadist.

<They’re just going to love me.> She couldn’t wait to see their faces. <And if they have a problem with me I’ll just shoot them in the face.> She was confident she’d be able to manufacture some sort of accident before they had to report back to their boss.

The information her father was giving her was only the basics though. There weren’t many operational details. “They are playing their cards close to the vest.” He answered when she pressed for more information. “They are the clients and we have to obey their wishes.”

“Whatever.” Lilly sighed, and started to pick out her outfit.

She couldn’t go traipsing around Orlando in her Wraith gear. That would bring Seraphim down on her world-class ass and ruin everyone’s day. At her father’s insistence, she wasn’t going to wear anything too revealing. Because then their clients would get upset, shit their collective chickens, do god knew what, and then Lilly might have to put them down. And that would be bad for everyone.

It was warm again in Orlando so layers were out of the question. She pulled out a pair of jeans, nothing skin-tight, but not loose either. Baggy ones that would make her look more like a dude. She slipped on her favorite cyber-punk t-shirt and ended with a hooded windbreaker. She pulled up the hood to see how she looked.

<Not great but it’ll have to do.> She pulled her dyed blonde hair into a ponytail and slipped it through the back of a baseball cap. <That should offer a little more anonymity.>

One last look in the mirror showed that she looked like any other college kid who’d stuck around during spring break. The windbreaker was even a UCF one just to add to the impression.

“Ok, I’m ready to go.”

Her father scrutinized her appearance for a moment before giving his nod of approval.

“You will meet them here.” Altair showed her a picture of the location. “And I’ve already scouted this site. It should be safe for you.”

Lilly scrutinized the alleyway and took in all the detail. “Ok, see you soon.” She gave him a quick peck on the cheek and disappearing in a wave of darkness.

She reappeared in the same alley he’d shown her in the picture. The shadow blast of her teleportation told her it was all clear, so she walked to the back door she was told was unlocked and entered through the building’s service entrance.

You’d think she’d be meeting three terrorists in some rundown factory or seedy motel. Nothing could be farther from the truth. She wound through a couple of corridors and emerged into an upscale lobby of a four star hotel in downtown Orlando.

<They take hiding in plain sight to a whole new level.> She thought as she walked across the lobby.

The file told her where all the cameras were so she made sure to angle her face away from them. The last thing she needed was someone tracing all this back to the hotel and discovering her identity. That would suck on so many levels.

She walked over to the elevator like she owned the place, got in with an elderly couple, and hit the button for the top floor. <Because of course the well-funded jihadists are in the penthouse suite.>

The couple didn’t pay any attention to her. They were too busy bitching about an election. Apparently the two candidates running were unpopular.

She was alone when she reached the top floor. The elevator opened and she stepped into a foyer area. To get into the next section of the floor she needed to swipe a card. Thankfully, that had been part of the prep package. She slid the card through the reader, it beeped green, and she pushed it open.

Her three contacts stood at the far end of the suite that took up the entire floor. Equipment was strewn all over the place; equipment that if the hotel maid saw she’d be calling Homeland Security. Just with a quick glance Lilly saw, AK47s, grenades, C4, tangles of wires that looked like the beginnings of IEDs, a handful of artillery shells, cell phones lined up neatly and labelled, and several sets of body armor.

“We did not order a whore.” The leader stepped forward.

This guy did not look like one of the guys in the picture. He didn’t have the big, bushy, black beard. His hair looked like sterling silver, all of his hair: beard, mustache, eyebrows, and short-cropped military-style hairdo.

“You fucking wish.” She shot back, adding a little extra swagger as she walked into the room. “I’m your guide, and the only reason you have any fucking chance of doing anything in this town. So shut your stupid face or you all can go circle-jerk each other somewhere else.”

The two men beside the leader bristled with anger and started toward her. Lilly’s hand went to the small gun in the small of her back. These might be the people she was working for, but there was no way in hell she was going into this thing unarmed.

Before the two muscle-heads got close the silver-haired leader held up his hand. “My apologies. You must be Wraith.” He gave her a small bow.

She couldn’t hide her surprise.

He snapped a few words in Arabic and the two goons backed off. “We have heard of you killing American Heroes.” The way he smiled creeped her out a bit. “You have done a great service to our cause, and we thank you for that.”

“Um…ok.”

<How does anyone respond to that?> She didn’t like these chauvinist pigs, and she certainly didn’t like doing them any favors.

“How about we get down to business?”

“Excellent idea. And before I am rude and offend you, my name is Damascus.”

“Nice to meet you, Damascus.” She said just to be nice. “Now let me know where you want me to show you around.”

“Certainly.” He waved to a large map spread out on the bed.

There were markings all over the city in different colors. She gleaned some of the plan from the obvious nature of some of the markings, but others she had no idea. Damascus just watched her for a while and let her take it all in. If she didn’t know better she would have sworn the guy was trying to impress her.

“It is a three-pronged attack.” He moved up beside her to explain sections of the map.

He moved too close for comfort. Lilly took a half step away just to be safe and grabbed a hidden knife in case he got handsy.

“The first step is to disrupt communication.” He pointed at several sites and a few radio stations. “We will either shut it down or take it over so our message can be heard.” She could tell which ones were to be blown up, they were marked in red, and the ones to be taken over in green.

“Once we have full control of the communications network we need to work on transportation.” More red marks slashed across Interstate 4 before it reached Orlando as well as the 17, 441, 417, 408, 429, the Florida Turnpike and a few other smaller roads into the city.

Lilly counted the number of roads to be destroyed and it roughly matched the number of artillery shells in the room. <That’s gonna be one hell of an explosion.>

“With avenues of approach destroyed it will take time for the American Army to respond in force. It will also cut off commerce to the city. Since your grocery stores run on just-in-time ordering within a few days they will all be out of food with nothing new coming in.” Damascus’ creepy smile was back.

“What about the Heroes? They’ll have teleporters or they’ll just go around your blown-up roads.” She asked.

“It will be more than broken stone blocking the entrance to the city.” As he said it silver tongues of flame sprouted from his finger tips and seemed to dance to some unheard song. “And the Heroes. They will have their hands full dealing with our commander.”

Lilly knew it was coming, but it still sent shivers down her spine. She’d met the man they called Saif al-Din once before and he was scary as fuck. And that was before she’d read up on what he’d done. She didn’t know how he’d stand up to all the Heroes that would be called in, but Damascus’ confidence in his boss told her the super-terrorist could and would.

<Whatever, not my problem. I’ve got my mission. I’ll make sure Seth’s safe, and then it’s off to some tropical island for a little until shit settles back down.> It was as good a plan as any.

“After transportation, we take out the utilities.” Several red marks were drawn through places like the city’s power plant, which was just now getting fully rebuilt. “And thanks to the intelligence you gathered for us we know everyone’s response time to our actions. We will strike hard and fast, and everything will crumble before the Americans can respond.” Damascus’ eyes were ablaze with fiery purpose.

<I need to show them around and get away from these nut-jobs.> Lilly got the feeling they really shouldn’t be doing this. But it was too late to turn back.

“Ok, so I’ll take you to these places but your guys are setting all your shit up.” She summed it all up.

“Yes, of course. And you will execute your part of the plan when the time comes. It is perhaps the most important part of all.” He handed her a manila envelope.

Inside was a picture, directions, and a proposed time table for getting the job done. Below it all was the bonus they were going to pay her. Her eyes bulged at the number of zeroes on the page, but she remained professional, or at least professional by her standards.

“This is doable,” she replied nonchalantly.

“Good.” The silver-haired terrorist’s smile was back. “Let us start with the communications locations. Some are not far from here. Perhaps a walk to enjoy the fresh Florida air.”

“Damascus. Judging by the timeframe you have on this assignment you’ve given me we really don’t have time to go for a romantic stroll. I said it when I walked in here. I’m not you whore. I’m here to do a job, so let’s stop dicking around and get to work.

The man’s smile faltered for a split-second. Anger clouded his expression until he got it under control. “Of course, you are correct. We cannot delay.” He snapped orders to the other two men, who immediately went to work with the explosives. “Very well, Wraith. Please lead the way.”

Lilly reached out and grabbed the man’s hand, ignored her stomach turning over in repulsion, and teleported away.

 

***

 

Seth stumbled into the air-conditioned building. The world was still spinning slightly from his successful streak at the beer pong table, but he was good. All he really cared about was the chill that crept over his body.

It was hot outside, hotter than the last few days of spring break. His tan skin was starting to get burned in a couple areas and he had sand in his shorts. With his slight alcohol-fueled skew on reality, the most pressing issue in his life at the moment was getting an ice cream cone.

The shop had a cow for a mascot, and a life-sized plastic one was standing by the wall. Or at least Seth thought it was plastic. In his current state, it seemed to be swaying where it stood.

<Pull it together.> Seth shook his head and concentrated on the mission. <What flavor do I get?>

“Hey there.”

Seth jumped a foot in the air at the high-pitched voice behind him. There was also a slight stinging pain in his butt where the person had pinched him.

“What?” Seth answered stupidly.

“I said hey, isn’t it polite to say hey back?” The girl behind him asked.

She stood with her arms crossed over a sizable pair of breasts contained by a purple bikini top. Her skin was a dark ebony and her dark brown hair curled around her shoulders. His smile was both inviting and mischievous with just a hint of intoxication. It was the default expression on just about every college student on the beach.

“Yeah…hey.” Seth finally replied.

“My name is Bianca, what’s yours?” She asked sweetly.

“I’m Seth.” He automatically held out his hand for Bianca to shake.

She took it and shook firmly. “Wow, those are some big hands. You know what they say…?”

Seth probably did know what they said, but he just couldn’t think about it at the moment. The pull of the cool chill of an ice cream cone was starting to creep back up on him.

“So,” Bianca frowned a little at his lack of response to her statement, “where are you staying?” We’re over at the Sands.” She motioned to a few girls in line behind them.

One was another ebony skinned beauty with big, gold hoop earrings and blonde hair that looked very unnatural on her. The other was a Hispanic girl with sharp eyes and an even sharper glare for Seth. Both wore bathing suits similar to Bianca’s and were similarly endowed in the chest area. In fact, the other two seemed to be fending off other guys trying to chat them up.

“I’m down the beach a bit.” Seth replied noncommittally.

He might be a little wasted, but his tongue wasn’t loosened enough to give away the HCP’s hotel’s location.

“You mind if we come along?” Bianca asked, her smile revealing adorable dimples.

“Um…” Seth struggled to answer. His mind said one thing but his penis said another.

Visions of a four way were flashing through his head. Bianca’s friends turned their attention on him, waiting for an answer, and possibly thinking he might be a little brain dead because of the delayed response.

Girls like these didn’t get told no.

“Move bitches, coming through.” A new voice snapped him out of his physiological dilemma, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

Liz strutted into the ice cream shop like she owned it and the buildings next to it. She completely ignored the guys starting at her. Instead, she fixed her own smoldering glare on Seth. She was wearing a black fishnet top over a black bikini top that was struggling to contain her. A matching short skirt flared around her hips and covered just enough to leave the imagination guessing. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she had an expensive-looking pair of aviators on that she pushed up into her hair as she entered.

The three girls, including Bianca, silently hissed as she approached; like a pack of hyenas suddenly confronted by a lioness.

“Hey there stud.” She pulled herself inappropriately close to Seth and shoved her tongue down his throat.

Suddenly, the heat outside had nothing on the heat pressed against him.

<I’m really going to need that ice cream now.> He thought has he tried to control the physical reactions to his super-hot girlfriend sucking his face off in the middle of a crowd.

Before he ran out of breath she pulled back and gave him a small peck on the nose for good measure. And then she turned on Bianca.

“He’s taken, Skankarella.” Liz said it so politely you’d think she was thanking Bianca for a large donation to a worthwhile charity.

“Oh no she didn’t.” The friend with the hoop ears looked ready to throw down as she started to undo the two pieces of jewelry.

Liz just smiled as the girl got all riled up.

Sometimes how someone reacted to the threat of imminent violence told you a lot about who they were and if they should be messed with. Thankfully for hoop-girl Bianca was a little more observant.

She held up a hand to hoop-girl. The other girl looked at Bianca in surprise before reattaching her earrings. “Bitch ain’t worth it.” She muttered.

There was a short stare-down between Bianca and Liz where something was communicated. Whatever it was Liz clearly won. Bianca puffed herself up, making sure to show off all her assets as she marched out the door with her small entourage.

“Beach bunnies.” Liz shook her head and turned back to Seth.

“What?” Things were such a whirlwind he had trouble focusing.

“Beach bunnies,” she repeated, taking a step forward toward the waiting server. “Women who go to beaches like Daytona for spring break and fuck their way through the week. They trade pussy for hotel rooms, booze, and whatever else that can get their dirty traps on. That skank would have used you for a place to crash tonight. She might have not even put out for you.” Liz frowned as she looked over the menu.

“Huh.” Seth let it sink in, and realized Liz knew an awful lot about being a beach bunny.

But Seth also knew a lot about being a boyfriend, and his instincts told him to shut the hell up if he wanted to get laid.

“Well, thank you.” He put his arm protectively around her waist and she melted into him. “Can I interest you in an ice cream cone?”

“I’m interested in a lot of things.” Liz smiled back. “But right now I just want to spend the day with you.”

Seth sensed the shift in her tone and pulled back to get a good look at her. “Liz, is everything ok?”

Whatever he thought he saw quickly vanished as a billion-watt smile lit up her face. “Of course it is.” She draped her arms around his neck and pulled him in for another kiss. “I just needed to get away from Orlando and back to you. I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

They smiled at each other, and then the coughing cashier ruined the moment.

“Can I get you two anything.” It was a middle-aged woman, and she didn’t look too happy at having two kids making out in front of her and holding up the line.

“Give me two cookie doughs.” Seth ordered, knowing what Liz liked.

She smiled at him, accepted the cone and dragged him outside.

“I’ve always wanted to go for a moonlit stroll on the beach.” She said as they walked down a crowded Atlantic Avenue.

“It’s the middle of the day.” Seth looked up and had to protectively cover his eyes with his hand.

The ice cream was already starting to melt.

“I guess we’ll have to think of something to do until then.” She grinned back.

The subtext was not lost on Seth this time. He grabbed her hand and half-pulled, half-dragged her back to the hotel.

 

***

 

The hotel sheets had a high thread count. Daisy was sure of that. She used to have a lot of money. In fact, she still did. Once upon a time she’d used that money to buy nice sheets with a high thread count, and these felt like those.

Of course, she hadn’t been sharing the bed before.

She savored the soft feeling on her bare back for a moment before sitting up. She grabbed the sheet and pulled it against her chest as she sat up.

<Just because I finally slept with him doesn’t mean he gets a free show.> A smile pulled at her lips as she recalled that first night, then the morning, afternoon, and night every day since.

It was embarrassing in an age where sex was given more freely than before, but it had been a long time since Daisy’s last time. Judging by the activity over the last few days, she’d been determined to make up for lost time.

<It doesn’t hurt that Topher is very satisfying.>

She looked over and smiled at the naked bulk of her boyfriend. He was snoring softly and sprawled over a large chunk of the king-sized bed. She watched him for a moment before letting the sheet fall and crawling on top of him.

“For the love of god, woman. You’re going to be the death of me.” He sighed tragically once she’d coaxed him awake.

“Well at least you’ll die happy.”

Thirty minutes later, she stepped out of the bathroom towel drying her blonde hair. Topher was still in bed drinking a lot of water just in case she was up for round two. As much as Daisy wanted to she had other responsibilities to attend to.

“I’ve got to go do a headcount to make sure no one has been stolen.” She said casually as she tossed the towel into a used pile they’d started to collect near the door. “Head down to grab some breakfast and I’ll join you soon.”

“Yeah sure.” He replied, still slightly out of breath. “Just let me get my sea-legs back and I’ll get right to it.”

She laughed, gave him a kiss, and left the room. Like every morning since they got here, Craig was waiting in the hallway with a shit-eating grin.

“You’re glowing this morning, Daisy. Is all the sex good for your complexion?”

She shot him a good-natured glare. “My love life isn’t the one we should be worried about.”

It was no secret that trips like this involved the exchange of bodily fluids from a lot of the HCP students. Daisy’s job was to monitor the situation and make sure someone didn’t do something they’d regret. But her job ended there. The HCP students were training to be Heroes, and that meant they had to be accountable for their own decisions. If they knocked up some chick in Daytona during freshman year of college that was a problem they’d have to deal with.

“You got it?” Daisy asked, as she walked down the hall occupied exclusively by HCP students and pounded on doors.

Sometimes the thought of their physical training coaches was enough to make the kids think twice about unprotected sex, but sometimes it wasn’t. So they had a plan B.

It started as a trickle at the end of the hall. Students started to appear from rooms and walk down the hall toward the elevators. It still surprised Daisy that she rarely saw the same pairs emerging from the rooms.

<That has got to be awkward when they get back to campus.> She thought. <I guess what happens on spring break stays on spring break…except herpes.>

The first pair got to them and Craig held out a plastic jack-o-lantern. His kids used matching ones when they trick-or-treated in the fall, but this time it was full of condoms instead of candy. Under the watchful eyes of the two instructors the HCP students passed by and everyone, male and female, grabbed a few.

“Wrap it, before you tap it.”

“Cover your stump, before you hump.”

“No glove, no love.”

“Chain the beast, before presenting the feast.”

“If you can’t shield your rocket, leave it in your pocket.”

“Sheath that knife, she ain’t your wife.”

“Especially in December, gift wrap your member.” The last one was a little outdated.

Craig had a one-liner for every couple passing them, and it was really hard for her to keep a straight face. Together they did the same routine on each of the floors until they had a count of everyone.

Everyone was present and accounted for.

<Whew.> Her biggest fear was losing a student. <Just one more day.>

It had been her mantra over the last week as the days slowly counted down. Despite how nice it was to sit in the sun all day long, and spend her inside time wrapped up in the sheets with Topher, this whole week was just a pause in reality. There were still problems awaiting her when they got back.

The prep for the semester final was starting in its end phases. Angela was still coping with the loss of her father. Seraphim was still patrolling/terrorizing the Orlando underworld. Wraith was still on the loose, and the news from Rabat was not good. The siege was over, but the bad guys had to have gone somewhere.

Daisy knew in her bones something big was coming. Her past was coming back to haunt her while her present and future hung in the balance. It was a daunting thought, but whatever the legal dweebs at the DVA might say Daisy was a Hero.

And Heroes didn’t let shit like this stop them from doing their job.

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