Back to Class
“You’re sure you’re okay to be back? I’m pretty sure we you’d be approved for a few more days aft-…” The concerned babble from the short, brown haired youth was cut short when his taller companion casually reached over and covered his mouth with her hand.
“I’m fine, Scott, really. Just like the last hundred times you asked.” Catalina Blake pulled back her hand to lean over and give her boyfriend a quick kiss before he could start speaking again. “And you should REALLY save this conversation for somewhere more private than the breakfast hall, sweetie.”
If you’re sure, but if you weren’t sure you’d tell me, right? The auburn haired girl sighed at Scott’s unfailing persistence.
“I’m no more a mess than everyone else is right now.” Catalina’s mental voice became focused solely on her companion instead of ‘broadcast’ to mimic a real conversation. “But I’m as recovered as anyone else is. I’ve had weeks to get better, and some of the best healers and Advanced Minds in the world to help.”
The ‘conversation’ died off for a few minutes as the two reached the dining hall counter and swiped meal cards for their trays of food. After reaching an out-of-the-way table in the relatively empty cafeteria, Scott spoke again.
“I was terrified when you wouldn’t wake up, Cat.” The young man’s voice was barely a whisper, but the spoken volume made no difference to the telepath across from him. “I thought God was taking you away from me, and no one could figure out what was wrong, and then after a full day and you still wouldn’t wa-…”
“SCOTT.” The intense mental voice interrupted the stream of whispered words. “C’mon, you know babbling when nervous is MY thing. Don’t you dare take that away from me!” Catalina smiled as her teasing startled a smile from her boyfriend. “I’ve told you, I’ve told EVERYONE, it was just something new that I got turned on for the first time and had to get used to and figure out how to turn it off.”
“The Dean was worried, everyone was convinced you’d been linked up with Iris when…” Scott trailed off and swiped his sleeve across his eyes before continuing. “…when she…”
Catalina spent several seconds staring down at her untouched plate before she responded. “I… kinda was.”
The brown-haired youth nearly sent his chair flying away as he went rigid with shock. “Calm down Scott, still okay. I actually heard all that stuff the Dean and Professor Vree were talking about; ‘feedback shock’ and all that. But I’m FINE. I just didn’t tell anyone before now because they maybe might not have wanted to let me come back to class with everyone else if they’d known for sure.”
Scott’s mouth worked opened and closed several times without any words issuing forth, fortunately this wasn’t a significant impediment to the conversation.
“I did it because she knew she was going to die, and she was going to feel it in slow motion as it ripped her to pieces because that was the only way she could be sure she’d get where she needed to go in time.” There was a hardness in the tall girl’s eyes that Scott couldn’t remember ever seeing there before. “She was willing to do that for us, so I did all that I could. I didn’t get accidental feedback from Iris dying, I made sure she didn’t feel a thing.”
“You… Why didn’t you tell anyone before now, Cat? Sweet Lord you should be in therapy, or… I don’t even know what you’d do for that.” A pause as Scott forced himself under control as he realized his voice was starting to get louder. “So, you felt all of it?”
“It was that or let Iris shoulder the full burden. And don’t give me any more nonsense about ‘therapy’ or anything like that. ALL of us are willing to make that kind of sacrifice, that’s why we’re in the HCP in the first place.”
The conversation died off for a few minutes as the two students finally made a token effort to feed themselves. “So… I guess this means you don’t need any more help with the physical feedback stuff?”
The wistful note in Scott’s voice as he changed the subject surprised a giggle from Catalina. “No, you’ll still be ‘helping’ me with that particular research. I need to get a lot better at it than I am now.” The tall young woman turned her attention back to her plate, but made no move to continue eating.
The brown-haired youth examined his girlfriend closely before forming his response. “What are you planning, Cat?”
Catalina waited a long moment before responding, as if weighing something carefully. When she looked up again, the smile she wore sent a shiver down her boyfriend’s spine. “I have a perfect memory of what it feels like to be torn apart by an explosion, all the details stretched out by impossibly fast perception. Someday we’re going to find the person who put that bomb there, and on that day I’m going to share with them EXACTLY what that feels like.”
“So what’s the plan?”
Rorie Samuels was taken aback by the sudden appearance of his girlfriend as he made his way across campus to his first class back. “Uhh… Plan?” The tall Samoan shot a nervous glance at his roommate on the other side of him, but the shorter youth looked just as puzzled.
“Hi Jessica!” Zach recovered a little faster than his friend and leaned around the larger man’s frame to wave at the older girl on the opposite side. “We have no idea what you’re talking about, is it something we should talk about ‘here?'” The dark-haired boy carefully kept his tone light, but put a subtle emphasis on the last word that he hoped the Junior would catch.
“There’s no one else that close to us, and I can distort sound with my illusions so that no one can listen in. Now cut the crap, what’s the plan?”
The taller black-haired youth stopped walking and turned to face his girlfriend. “Jess, I honestly have no idea what plan you’re talking about.” The brunette’s glare intensified. “HONEST! Swear to God, tell us what you’re talking about, please?”
For a long moment Zach was absolutely certain that the older girl was about to slap his friend. Then Jessica seemed to deflate a little bit and looked down to her feet. “You guys, your class, you have all the planners. I mean, most of your teams have beaten some of the Seniors, and almost NO ONE in my class managed to pull that off, and the current Seniors are stronger than the ones we faced last year. You guys HAVE to have some kind of plan about how we’re going to go after the people that came after us.” There was a desperate note in the dark-haired girl’s voice as she finished.
“Jess, we don’t have any plans. W-…”
“Yet.” Zach’s interruption drew startled looks from both his companions.
“What do you mean, YET?” The couple spoke in almost perfect synch.
“Rorie, we all love you big guy, but you really are kind of just mobile artillery in this class, ya know?” The shorter youth grinned widely as his roommate’s incredulous look transitioned quickly to annoyance and then a shrug of acceptance. “Most of us have been out of town while everything was closed down. No one to plan with. But we’re all back, and we’re all meeting today after regular classes end but before we report to Rachd for our first day back.” Zach was not quite able to suppress a shiver at the thought of what the Close Combat Instructor might have waiting for them.
“You’ll tell me what the plan is, once it’s done?” Jessica reentered the conversation with a wicked gleam in her eye. “All the Juniors, hell I think the whole HCP, we all want in on whatever it is.”
“I’ll let Cat know at the meeting.” Zach stepped hard on his larger friend’s foot to insure his interruption was successful. “Assuming she doesn’t already know, but tell everyone to expect the little voice in their heads to start telling them what to do sometime this week.”
The brunette illusionist wore a wide grin as she reached up and kissed her still somewhat shell-shocked boyfriend. “It’s a deal, thanks honey! I’ll see you later tonight!”
Both boys stood their ground and watched as the older girl headed towards a different building, a genuine bounce in her step. “Zach?”
“Why the hell did you tell my girlfriend we’re going to include her in some kind of crazy revenge plan that doesn’t exist?”
Rorie responded to this by glaring at the shorter man.
“Because there’s going to be a revenge plan by the end of the week, and if you really don’t believe that than I really want some of whatever you’ve been drinking.”
“And you told Jessica you’d make sure she got included because?”
Zach met the larger man’s glare with a hard look of his own and spoke very slowly and deliberately. “Because. She. Wants. To. Help.”
Rorie spend several seconds trying to formulate a response to this, before finally giving up. “You’re right, I’m an idiot. I really am just mobile artillery. Come on, let’s get to class so I can get graded on all the super obvious things I’ll miss.”
Zach smiled as the two began walking again. “Don’t worry big guy, look on the bright side! Whatever plan we come up with, you’re pretty likely to get to blow up some people who REALLY deserve it!”
Jon Glenn turned away from the cafeteria counter to find the source of his name being called. A brief scan spotted his roommate valiantly holding a seat open for him in the crowded room. The thin blond youth navigated his way over quickly and managed to occupy the seat before Sean had to fend off any more attempts from other table to appropriate the chair.
“Hey man, didn’t see you this morning.” Jon tried to hide it, but had been genuinely worried when his roommate hadn’t made it back before classes resumed.
“Yeah, Thanksgiving family stuff just kept going, and then I had to get into an argument with my parents about coming back here. Long story short, I think I’ve been temporarily disowned.”
Jon’s jaw dropped in shock at that news. “But, man your mom was always so excited that you got into… college here.”
“She was, and I’m sure she’ll come around. Someone died, and mom gets all emotional because it COULD have been me, and dad always wanted me to… go to school closer to home.” Had there been any truly observant eavesdroppers it would have been painfully obvious that the two men were dancing around a secret topic in their conversation.
“Well, I’m glad you made it back. I don’t think I want to break in a new roommate and I don’t know how long I’d be able to make myself get up at 6am for those morning classes without someone else dragging me out in the morning.” Sean nodded his agreement to the sentiment and the two youths toasted with bottles of soda before turning their attention to their meals.
Scant minutes later the trays full of the dining hall’s best effort to make something resembling food had vanished from the table, and the two men reclined slightly in their chairs and observed the room around them.
“There’s not as many people in here as there normally is at lunch time.” Sean glanced around the room as he spoke. The room was crowded and almost all the tables full, but the previous year it had been overflowing with several students eating off their trays while standing near the trash bins.
“Lots of people probably did get pulled by scared families after the bomb. And with the extra time off everyone just had while the school was shut down,” Jon’s voice was quiet, but very angry as he spoke about the ‘time off.’ “A lot of the ones that are staying are probably coming back a few days late.”
“You hear if anyone in our afternoon class hasn’t made it?” The heavier youth tried to keep his tone light as he asked the question, but worry was evident in his voice.
“I don’t think anyone’s seen El or Erin yet, but we’re all meeting up before the class starts so I guess we’ll find out then.”
Eloise James blinked blearily as she came awake with a pounding headache and a painful crick in her lower back. It didn’t take long, even through the haze of hangover, for the white-haired girl to discern what had awoken her.
“Yeah, that’ll happen.” The tall girl who had just slid the storage unit gate open with much more force, and noise, than was needed looked around the room and shook her head. “Now come on, we’ve got to get you back on campus and sobered up. There’s a class meeting before Rachd gets his hands on us.”
“Not goin’ back.” Eloise pulled herself off the gun crate that she’d apparently been using in place of a mattress and attempted to stretch out her stiff muscles.
“Really? You’re just gonna give up?”
“Not givin’ up. Ha’ somethin’ more importan’ to do.” The shorter girl’s continued slurring resulted in a water bottle being tossed to her.
“At least rinse out, I can smell you from over here.” Erin stepped into the storage unit as she spoke and began restacking portions of Eloise’s arsenal that were laying somewhat haphazardly on the floor. “So what’s this great goal you have in mind?”
Eloise took a drink of water, swished, and spat before taking a long swallow. “Why do you care, Erin? It won’t make any difference to you.”
“You’re my classmate, my teammate, and my FRIEND. I know you haven’t had a lot of those before, but if you try to sell me any more bullshit about you leaving, ‘not making a difference,’ I will kick your ass and drag you back to campus in a bag.” The tall girl smiled sweetly, and her tone held no hint of anything except sincere friendship, but the statement was punctuated by her shifting to a transparent state and snapping a tactical baton out to its full length. “Now either talk to me, or get in the car.”
“Someone killed my first real friend. My best friend.” Eloise paused and sniffled, taking a moment to compose herself before continuing. “I can’t just stay in the HCP and pretend like that didn’t happen. Iris died saving my life… Saving a LOT of lives. I can’t just go to class while the person who did it is out there.” The small girl’s expression hardened and she looked Erin eye to eye for the first time. “And don’t try to feed me anything about it not being worth it, or leaving it to the pros. We’ve DONE that, and it… It didn’t work.”
“So you’re going to go and catch the mastermind all by yourself? That’s the plan?”
“No, I’m not going to catch anyone.” Eloise didn’t elaborate further, instead the small girl headed to the back of the locker to grab a large case and wrestle it down off the shelf.
“Good plan. Where’s the guy we’re going to kill?” The white-haired girl snapped her attention back to the front where the taller woman had acquired a heavy rifle from one of the racks and appeared to be checking the scope.
“What do you mean, ‘we?’ I’M doing this. You aren’t going to talk me out of it by preten-…”
“No pretending, no pretense. You know where the guy who did this is? Let’s go kill the fucker. Right now.” Erin’s complexion had returned to a normal skin tone, and the icy look in her eyes actually made Eloise flinch.
“I’m not asking you for help. I’m talking about killing a man here. You’re third in the class, you shouldn’t throw that away.”
“It won’t be the first time, and I have a pretty good fallback career path. So let’s go.”
“It’s not like I know who, or where yet, I ju-…”
“So let’s knock this stupid bullshit off and get back to campus.” Erin slammed the rifle back into its cradle with quite a bit more force than was necessary, or wise. “You want whoever did this to die. Newsflash; YOU AREN’T ALONE. If we knew who then fuck the proper authorities, we’d be racing them to see who gets him first, and I don’t think anyone would be too broken up if they didn’t live long enough to be arrested.”
“If I go back-…”
“WHEN you come back WITH ME it increases all of our resources for tracking these people down.”
“And what, you want me to believe that a bunch of HCP students are going to be okay with me executing someone?” Eloise tried to put all the scorn she could into her voice, but she couldn’t quite mask how much the idea of not working alone was appealing to her.
“Honestly, no, probably not. Unless we find the assholes in the next few days, tempers are going to cool off and the idea of leaving them to rot in prison for the rest of their lives will be enough.”
“So what’s my incentive again? I want whoever did this DEAD.”
“Work with us, find them, help us take them down. If you still want them dead after we’ve got them, say the word and I’ll be right there with you.” Erin offered a grim smile. “I can probably get you a ‘no questions’ Force Ops posting right after if you want it. A sealed record, a new identity, with your skill set they’d be more than willing to cover up a few criminal corpses for you.”
“You think I’m going to ‘cool off’ too, don’t you? That by the time we catch up to these guys I won’t want to kill them so much?”
“Honestly either way works for me, but I’m completely serious with the offer. Say the word when it’s time, and we’ll leave a pile of bodies for someone else to sort out.”
Eloise found herself smiling against her will at the thought, the two invisible Hero trainees sneaking into a prison cell to execute her friend’s murderer. “Alright, I’ll go back with you, but I have two conditions.”
“When we find them, and I decide I still want them dead instead of rotting in a cell, I get to pull the trigger.”
“If they’re already in a cell I’m gonna have to recommend a blade or something else that’s quiet, but if you want to be the one to do it I’ll give you some pointers.” The tall girl nodded her agreement and motioned that Eloise should continue.
“And second, we need to track down Antoin for getting the rest of the booze out of my system. Kaori and Tasha are always WAY too judgy when I come to them like this.”
“Remind me how I got roped into this again?” Anthony Banning looked across the small break room’s table at his older colleague as he spoke, a genuine air of bewilderment surrounding the Ranged Combat Instructor.
“Because James and Elena had to meet with very picky contacts, and Hai beat you at ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors.'” The elderly Focus Instructor wore a wry grin as he finished his tea and prepared to head off to meet the Senior class on their first day back. “You’ll be fine, Anthony.”
“I’ve never DONE one of the crazy ‘Welcome Back Students’ routines that Jimmy and Dani always do. I never work with the full classes! I mean I don’t even know how the hell we’re reorganizing the teams yet. Why isn’t Dani doing this?”
“You’re going to be late if you keep procrastinating, Anthony. And you well know that Dani offered to switch with you, but you decided it would be harder to deal with the Freshman group.” Laurence turned and offered a genuine smile as he reached the door. “Don’t worry so much. You’ve been an HCP Instructor for almost six years. Just treat it like one of the full class exams, you’ve done plenty of THOSE. And don’t worry too much about the team situation, these things tend to work themselves out.”
The athletically built black man ran his hands through his short hair and resisted the urge to groan. Why the hell did you think it would be easier dealing with the class that lost their friend like that instead of the bigger group of Freshman. You had the choice, you idiot. A sigh escaped his lips, then the Instructor shook his head vigorously to clear it.
“Right, game face on, positive thoughts. Let’s go run this thing lik-…” Wait, did Laurence seriously tell me to run it like an exam and it would be okay? First day back, no WONDER all the kids are terrified of Dani, Jimmy, and Elena. The thought finally drew an honest chuckle from the Instructor as he hurried towards the ‘briefing room’ to meet the class.
I barely know half this class, hope it all works o-… Anthony Banning found his train of thought derailed as he entered the room.
Earlier in the day the Ranged Combat Instructor had set up placards with the team numbers and members on them, thinking it would help him keep track of where all the less familiar students were. Upon entering the room, he found not the expected seven tables with cards along the front, but nine. Sitting at each table was a group of three students, all patiently looking at him now that he stood in the doorway. The signs he had made were gone; replaced with hasty, handwritten replacements numbered 1 – 9.
Anthony felt himself grinning as the words of the Focus Instructor came back to him. ‘These things tend to work themselves out.’ Good one Lawrence. “Alright, welcome back Sophomores. For the half of you not with me in Ranged Combat, I’m Professor Banning. I’m here today to welcome you back because Professors Rachd and Martinez are busy working on leads to track down the son of a bitch who tried to blow up our football game.”
There were a few nods of acceptance from around the room, but the students remained quiet. “Now, I wasn’t sure what we were going to do for your ‘Welcome Back’ day, but seeing this room the perfect solution has presented itself.” A very intense glance caused a shimmer in the air and the neatly printed ‘Team Scores’ poster on the back wall was instantly incinerated, getting a few surprised responses from the students.
“New teams, get set for the Free For All. I believe you’re all familiar with Dani’s ‘King of the Flag?’ Everyone take two minutes to talk strategy, then head down to the SR-2 entry area. You guys have gotten to use the ‘small town’ Simulation Room enough times, I think the ‘industrial area’ one is way more fun. Your team zones will be posted at your numbered entrance doors.” Two minutes will give me just about enough time to manage that.
New Team 1:
Amelia Jacobson, Tara Warren, Eloise James
New Team 2:
Collin Gauge, Michael Karl, Sean Tannen
New Team 3:
Erin Casse, Scott Jameson, Zach Snider
New Team 4:
Gerard Finne, Jon Glenn, Antoin Montaine
New Team 5:
Rorie Samuels, Beulah Abbot, Louise Garcia
New Team 6:
Kyle Sawara, Kaori Kimura, Lisa Shiang
New Team 7:
Alexandra Andrews, Catalina Blake, Tasha Jackson
New Team 8:
Teresa Montez, Ramòn Carerra, Barry Jeung
New Team 9:
Susan Owens, Aaron Sexton, Ty Rodins