Plans for Winter Break
“Aw Christ, you AGAIN?” The sarcastic greeting from the Close Combat Instructor as he entered the conference room was met with a wide smile.
“Yea, I missed you too, Jim.” The tall brunette in the crimson and brown costume stepped forward for a moment as if she were going to hug the muscular bald man, then stepped to the side to point imperiously at one of the chairs instead. “Now sit down and shut up.”
Rachd chuckled, and made his way to the designated seat, noting as he did that he was the last of the HCP staff to arrive. “Alright, what’s the news that you had to deliver in person, AGAIN. Please tell me you aren’t stuck with another mandatory teaching gig.”
“Ha ha, no. You’re the ones with the mandatory teaching gigs, and you’re doing a fucking TERRIBLE job at it.” The tall brunette swept her gaze around the room, offering a challenging glare in response to several shocked looks her announcement brought forth.
“Yes, you heard me right. FUCKING TERRIBLE.”
“There’s a point to this, I presume.” The Control Instructor’s tone was cold as she made a statement of the inquiry.
“What. Is. Your. Job?” The tersely worded sentence thrown back at Hai in response to her statement held enough rage to easily match the petite woman’s own anger.
“No more word games, and no more threats, NONE.” Overton’s Dean of the Hero Certification Program joined the discussion with firm resolve in her tone. “We are not going to start a brawl down here, no matter how on edge we are. Make your point, Linda.”
Mayhem accepted the rebuke with a nod, and offered a half-apologetic smile to the table before she continued. “You’re all here for one reason, above all others; you train the next generation of Heroes. That is your job, THAT is what you should be focusing on.
“ESPECIALLY,” the tall woman shouted to get the word out to interrupt several objections she saw forming around the table. “When there is a completely unprecedented government Oversight Committee investigating your program because a bunch of politicians and some unknown masterminds are trying to SHUT YOU DOWN.” Mayhem paused and took a breath, before resuming in a calmer tone.
“I get why you guys are back out on the street. Really, I do. But you can’t spread yourselves that thin. Not without giving your enemies EXACTLY what they want.”
“We’re managing just fine, thanks for your concern.” The Subtlety Instructor’s interjection was met with a witheringly disappointed look.
“Dammit, Elena. I’d hoped at least YOU would have figured it out by now.”
“Allow me to join with Hai and Kathryn then when I ask you to get to your point!”
“You guys have been finding leads, little things, right?” The costumed woman let the gathered Heroes around the table nod in response before continuing. “And you’re ALL finding leads? And they’re ALL something small, but actionable, Right? And every little bit leads to another little bit that takes just a little more time, a little more legwork, right?”
“You can’t possibly think this is some sort of elabor-…”
“How often do you normally find ‘actionable clues’ in an investigation, Elena?” Mayhem cut the Subtlety Instructor off. “Normally what, one in twenty or thirty bits of intel turns out to be useful? What’s the percentage you guys are running at. One in five?”
Startled expressions filtered around the room as the HCP staff ran their own mental calculations. “Exactly. The number one folly of all Supers, and Heroes especially. Pride. We’re all too damned proud to ask for help, too damned proud to back down. And that’s just day to day. Someone comes into our home and kills one of our kids? No force in the world would turn us away from finding that motherfucker and ENDING him.”
“That’s… a disturbing line of thinking.” Laurence Vree spoke up into the silence. “How likely is it that our foes are following a similar course?”
“I ran hypotheticals at a dozen DVA behavioral analysts and a REALLY good math guy who works with the Company. Also did some anonymous stuff on the net, different details but same overall picture. EVERYONE with any credibility at all predicted that the Heroes would put every resource they had into following the trail.”
“So, what? You want us to just sit in here and do nothing?” The complete calm in the Weapons Instructor’s voice had a note hidden in it more unsettling than the naked rage of the earlier shouting. “We sit here, and they get to walk away?”
“No. You stay here and do your jobs.” Mayhem sank into the chair she’d been standing next to, looking suddenly drained as she did so. “You make sure those kids are ready to go out into the world as Heroes. You make sure that girl didn’t die in vain. And you let US find the bastards that did this. Let us HELP.”
“If you’re right, how can you help? They’re targeting US.” Elena slumped in her own chair as she ran through the situation in her mind, and obviously not liking her conclusions. “We have to assume that some of the trail we’ve been finding leads to a dead end, possibly another scapegoat like they set up last year. But even fake leads have to contain a little bit of real information. We still need that, and if we aren’t out there…”
“You let us find them. Street Level has six Subtlety Heroes moving into Overton, low profile. They’re going to take over your old haunts, your old street contacts, as soon as you give the OK. You still get to work your independent sources, anything that doesn’t require you back on the streets, traipsing around in costumes again.” Mayhem offered a weary smile as she looked around the table again.
“Anything you get, you pass it to us. We’ll run it down, and keep you in the loop with what shakes out each time. If our assessment is right, these bastards are going to get desperate when the Oversight reports don’t start showing slipping standards in the program, and they’ll start feeding bigger chunks of information to try and get bigger responses. The harder they try, the more likely they are to make a mistake.”
“Your people are going to imitate us?” The Dean was the first to respond, and there was a trace of genuine humor in her expression for the first time in weeks.
“That would be the plan.”
“Purple and gold costume and everything?”
The deadpan question drew quiet chuckles from around the table, but only for a moment. “What if it doesn’t work? What if your people come in and the leads suddenly go cold?” Professor Nguyen sounded still unsure of the plan. “We lose our best chances then.”
“If the leads suddenly vanish when you all aren’t PERSONALLY running them down, we get verification that our opponents are definitely behind the leads cropping up now, and proof that they are terrifyingly competent. Possibly enough to really up the ante on our end.”
“I’m in.” Elena smiled at the surprised looks she got from the Ranged and Close Combat Instructors across the table. “She said SIX Subtlety Heroes, all working one case. Mayhem herself makes seven. I’m not sure if that many sneaks has ever gone at something with the same goal at the same time before. If that’s not enough, then we’ll have to admit that our opponents are flat out better than we are.”
“Not fucking likely.” The growled response from Rachd was echoed around the table. “I’m in.”
Four assenting statements later, Mayhem stood with a smile. “Well, now that that’s finished, I need to go meet with half a dozen spies, thieves, and liars.”
Ty paused his frantic packing for a moment as he thought he heard an unusual noise. After a few seconds of silence, it came again. Someone was knocking at the front door to the townhouse, but softly. The heavily built black youth nearly shouted for the person to come in, then thought better of it with his lab door standing open and moved to look through the peephole instead. Surprise filled his features again as he opened the door.
“Hey Tara, what’s up?”
“Hi, Ty. I was wanting to talk to you about a thing… can I come in?”
The much larger man stepped to the side and gestured for the petite redhead to enter, then closed the door behind her and headed back towards his packing. “So, again, what’s up?”
“I was wondering if you’ve gotten any letters lately. From the DVA.”
Ty nodded over his shoulder as he reached his room and finished filling his first suitcase. “They made you a job offer too?”
“Um, three times now, actually.”
“I’m up to four. Apparently they really like some of the polymers I came up with and want me on an R&D team developing the next generation of armored Hero uniforms.”
“They want me to work with the team trying to map out the Super genome, I guess. That’s mostly what they talk about in the offers anyways.”
“You’re thinking about taking them up on it.” Ty’s words were a statement, not a question.
“How’d you know?”
“You wouldn’t be here talking to the only other Tech Genius in the class if you weren’t.” The large youth sighed and sealed his second suitcase before turning to sit heavily on his bed. “And I’ve been thinking about it too.”
Ty almost laughed at the comically shocked expression on the petite redhead’s face. “Seriously though. We’ve been talking a lot about trying to spread our class around a bit, get more potential allies and be harder potential targets. I’m pretty sure I could negotiate enough of a security clearance with the DVA job to keep all my memories intact.”
“I don’t… I mean… Ty, you can’t. Erin will KILL you. Then she’ll kill ME because I knew about it!”
Ty did laugh this time. “It’s just something I’ve been thinking about, no need to fear for your life.”
“Also, you shouldn’t because you’d be a REALLY good Hero!” Tara tried to put more enthusiasm into her speech, but the relief she obviously felt about not facing the potential wrath of Ty’s girlfriend somewhat ruined the effect.
“That’s the other thing. I don’t think I’ve got what it takes to make it all four years. Not after seeing what the Seniors can really do.” Ty noted the return of the shocked expression on Tara’s face, the girl had gone paler than he thought human complexions could manage.
“But, you’re better at it than I am, and if you can’t make it…”
“Stop putting yourself down like that or I will risk Erin kicking my ass and slap you.” Ty’s expression and tone indicated he was completely serious. “I’m not better than you at this. You’re ranked above me in individual combat rank, you’re team is higher ranked than mine, and you’re bag of tricks keeps growing.” The black youth leaned back again, his intensity dropping back to something closer to normal.
“We’re both branching out, but ultimately there isn’t anything I’m making that couldn’t be used BETTER than I can use it by someone with a direct power. If I can’t find some way to close THAT gap, than I really would be better off taking the DVA offer and working from there.” Steely resolve came into Ty’s voice and he stared intently at the girl with whom he shared such a similar power.
“You’ve got the same obstacle in front of you Tara, only unlike me, I know that YOU already broke through it.”
Tara flushed and started stammering a denial, but Ty cut her off with a smile and a handwave.
“I’m not going to tell the rest of the class about it. Cat probably knows. Mike… probably doesn’t have enough focus to figure out something THAT technical yet. But you still have to decide if you’re gonna use it or not. Because if you don’t, if it’s not worth the chance to you, then you might as well take the DVA offer because you won’t make it as a Hero.”
“How?” The single syllable drew a confused expression from the larger youth, so Tara tried again. “How did you know about it?”
“Oh, that. I’ve been expanding my ability mostly into computer software since it seemed like it would be useful. You REALLY need to upgrade your computer encryption, by the way.”
The redhead stared at the serious look on the heavily-built youth’s face for several long seconds before she broke down laughing. Ty lost his deadpan expression shortly after and joined in.
“Well, if that’s everything, my appointment with the Beulah Abbott express is in about three minutes.”
“It is. Thanks Ty.” Tara turned to leave, but stopped and looked back. “You’re… you’re coming back after the break, right?”
“I promise. If I vanished in the middle of the year, Erin really WOULD kill me.”
“Thanks everyone for coming on short notice, I promise this won’t take too long.” Scott Jameson looked around at the five of his fellow HCP Sophomores that had shown up at the ‘War Room’ as he’d requested.
“Always, my friend. Our class is somewhat renowned for the importance of its unofficial meetings, after all.” Ramòn Carerra wore his customary grin as he responded, and the other four students nodded along in agreement. “Now what plan do you have in mind for the ‘doomed five.'”
“Please stop calling us that.” Kaori sniffed disdainfully at the moniker. “We’re the ‘delayed five’ at worst.”
“I wanted to talk to you guys about the other Hero Certification Programs.”
“Huh?” The confused question from Susan was echoed by the others.
“We’ve been talking a lot about trying to get more resources, more allies, all that, right?” Scott looked anxiously around at his five classmates as they all nodded along slowly. “Well, what better place to do that than with the other HCPs?”
“How do we fit into this?” There was a note of suspicion in Barry Jeung’s tone, but something else as well. “You find some way for us to apply to one of the other programs next year?”
“Technically, yes.” The short, sandy-haired youth’s nervous response did not engender much confidence in his audience. “At the end of the year, you can all apply for open spots in the other program’s Sophomore classes.”
The announcement was met with silence as Ramòn and Susan acquired contemplative expressions while Barry, Kaori, and Lisa wore looks of disbelief.
“You want us to repeat Sophomore year? Why?” Lisa was the first to ask, but the other four nodded along with the question.
“You guys have to complete second year academics either way, because of the loophole we pulled out to keep you in the program til the end of the year. HCP Freshman classes almost NEVER completely fill the Sophomore roster, which means you guys wouldn’t be displacing someone from the current class to get in. And… there’s no way you won’t get accepted.”
“Huh?” The syllable came in almost perfect synch from five mouths.
“You guys were already accepted to the second year of the HCP. You’ll have a full year of genuine HCP training above and beyond what almost every other applicant will have. And all the other Deans will know that the only reason you aren’t already continuing into your third year here is because you all got shafted by a giant evil conspiracy and some outdated wording on the University bereavement policy.”
“You’re talking about involving students at other HCPs. Like building an army.” Lisa’s expression was cheerfully predatory as she made her statement.
“More like making allies and building up resources. The Lord knows, we need all the help we can get. And there’s no guarantee that there won’t be some kind of try at the other schools, if this whole thing is as big as the Professors are worried it is. You guys will know what to look for.”
“So, how do we get into the Sophomore program at an HCP after completing the Sophomore year at an HCP? I thought this was part of the point of the loophole we tracked down.” Ramòn’s expression shifted from curiosity to understanding as soon as he finished his stating his thought out loud.
“Of course! It’s obvious. We don’t finish!”
“Exactly.” Scott nodded in agreement with the muscular hispanic man, then hurried to clarify as the other four offered less enthusiastic looks.
“Not dropping out right now or anything. Officially you can drop out after the final exam, but before you’re assigned an official standing in the HCP where they’d determine if you make it into the third year or not. Declare your drop immediately after the test, and you officially washed out of the second year program without completing it. You’re eligible to apply again as Sophomores that way.”
“Far too much of our year seems to be coming down to poor wording with both the University and the HCP. Think they’ll change this one too after we abuse it?” Barry’s idle question drew a smile from Scott, as it indicated the Korean youth was on board with the plan at least.
“Nah. The bereavement thing and the ‘honorary degree’ are the sort of stuff that probably needed fixing. This kind of situation though? What’s the likelihood of it ever happening again?”
“After we get our hands on the assholes behind it and people see what happens to them, hopefully zero. I’m in.” Susan’s tone managed to be almost as chilling as the sepulchral whisper her shifted form spoke with.
“I’m… in.” Five pairs of eyes turned to Kaori as she hesitated. “I was hoping to come back here after a year. I’d be behind everyone, but I’d get to remember you guys again. If we do this, we’ll know all relevant stuff, but we won’t remember any of our friends.”
“Ah.” Scott looked around and then leaned in close to offer a conspiratorial whisper. “We’re actually working on that, too.”
“CAGE CLIMBER!” The deep shout from the masked black man inside the ring drew thunderous cheers from the audience, as the fighter leapt easily forty vertical feet to brace himself against the ceiling of the massively reinforced cage. His opponent stood defiantly beneath him, bruised and bloodied but still standing.
“CRUSH!” The shout from the luchador perched against the cage was echoed throughout the small stadium, and he catapulted himself at his opponent.
At the last second the targeted fighter dove to the side, leaving the high flying man to crash into the floor with enough force to vibrate through the arena seating. The battered man reversed direction quickly and charged into the rising dust cloud the masked fighter had kicked up with his landing, not hearing the next shouted cheer from the crowd in time for it to do him any good.
“REBOUND!” The shout synchronized almost perfectly with the reappearance of the seemingly unharmed luchador, as he came catapulting out of the cloud with nearly the same force he’d descended from the ceiling with.
An outstretched arm clotheslined the surprised fighter across the chest with brutal force, and the cheering crowd went truly wild as the sound of cracking bone was audible from the ring. The acrobatic masked fighter landed cleanly on his feet, then raised his arms in a victorious exultation. His opponent landed on the mat, groaning in pain. A small bald man wearing a white and black striped shirt suddenly appeared in the cage and examined the fallen fighter. A moment’s look was all that was required for him to wave his hands horizontally over the downed man, indicating the fight was over.
“And that’s the fight, ladies and gentlemen!” The voice of the announcer of the PA was barely audible over the screaming crowd. “El Santo Cielo remains undefeated! What an incredible match!” The masked man waved for several minutes at the crowd as the announcer went through the standard post fight hype and paid sponsor spots, then made his way out of the cage.
Looking into the crowd and continuing to wave as he walked, the man found his gaze drawn to an attractive hispanic girl. Tall with auburn hair and hazel eyes, and staring so intently at the luchador that he felt his face heating up behind the mask. The girl smiled at him when he made eye contact, and the muscular man quickened his step to exit the arena floor a little faster. Who the hell was that? Why does she look familiar? I would REMEMBER a girl who looked like that.
A few minutes in the dressing room left the masked fighter looking nothing like the man who stepped out of the ring. An amazing testament to how much an appearance could be changed with some baggy clothes and a pair of oversized glasses. Ben Pelley made a point to stop by the other fighter’s locker room and check on the man once the fight was over. His opponent looked up in confusion for a moment from his resting place in a whirlpool tub, then began laughing.
“Good god, I just got beaten up by super-geek, didn’t I?”
“Hey man, I just don’t want anyone hassling me on my way out, ya know?”
“Sure kid, whatever.” The older fighter smirked as he leaned back again. “It’s a legit sport, even if we ain’t good enough to make it all the way to the bigtime in the UFL.”
Ben shrugged in response. “I met some crazy-ass fans after my first match, back east. After that I decided I didn’t want to deal with the drama.”
“But how you gonna get laid if the girl’s don’t know what you really look like, man?”
“Chicas dig the mask.” The deadpan response drew more laughter from the other man. “Anyways, just wanted to make sure the healer got you back together again. I hit that last shot a little higher than I meant to, and…”
“Yea, kid. I’m fine. You, on the other hand.” The older fighter leaned forward again, wearing a serious expression for the first time. “You need to get out of this small time stuff. I’ve tangled with the kinda guys who make it to the main event. You should be up there, with the kings of the sport.”
“Took my shot once, probably going to take another one someday. Just not today.” Ben shrugged as he answered, and the other man nodded in response, a slightly sympathetic look on his face.
“Anyways, good fight kid. Now get outta here so I can relax in peace before I go look for a sympathetic new ‘friend’ to commiserate my loss with.”
Ben laughed and waved as he exited the room, heading away from the nearest exit and down a maintenance hallway to come out of the stadium through a well concealed side door that few people realized was there.
“Took you long enough.” The voice from directly beside the muscular Super, right as he came out the door, caused him to jump and actually emit a startled yelp.
Turning quickly, Ben saw the attractive auburn-haired girl from earlier, now doubled over with silent laughter at his reaction to her surprise presence. The black youth felt himself blushing again, but shifted into a defensive stance as he tried to figure out how the woman had known where he would make his exit from. “Uh, good evening, miss. Anything else I can do for your amusement?”
“You could put the mask back on. That was a RIOT. I never had you pegged for going luchador. Cage fighting, yes. Luchador, I don’t think ANYONE bet on that outcome.”
Ben kept his defensive posture, but allowed confusion to show on his face. “Sorry, do I know you? I think you might have me confused with someone else.”
“Ben Pelley, you honestly don’t remember who I am?” Ben’s eyes widened slightly at hearing his full name. “I’m hurt. Truly, deeply hurt. You should take me to that diner you were going to and buy me some pancakes to make up for it.”
She must have been watching me. Maybe for awhile. So, crazy stalker chick, or genuine threat? On the other hand, it’s been awhile since I’ve gone on a date… Ben’s train of thought derailed when the girl doubled over laughing again. The muscular youth blushed a second time as he realized he was probably making faces while running through the problem again. Gotta get that habit taken care of before I reapply to the HCP.
“So, pancakes. Now. That’s an order, Mr Pelley!” Ben sighed as the girl got control of herself and straightened up to face him. For just a second he could swear that her lips weren’t moving at the same time she was talking, but he had to admit that her lips weren’t getting the lion’s share of his attention and dismissed the thought.
“Do I at least get your name?”
“I’m waiting for you to remember it. It would spoil a LOT if I just told you. Hopefully any second now the light will click on in that thick skull of yours.”
“Christ Cat, I’m not THAT stupi-…” Ben’s mouth clamped shut as he realized what he’d just said, as he realized he now KNEW the woman he was talking to.
“Yay me! It worked! Let’s go get pancakes to celebrate, I’m starving.”
“Cat… What. The. Fuck?” Fear practically dripped from the large man’s words as he carefully enunciated each word. “I’m not… holy shit I can remember EVERYONE… what… why?”
“You watch the news, right? You saw what happened in Overton.” Cat’s expression had gone completely serious, and Ben thought for a moment before connecting the dots.
“Oh, fuck. Who? Who was it? Someone in our class or…”
“Iris. She found the thing by pure, stupid luck, and she decided to save us all instead of saving herself.”
Ben felt his fists clench involuntarily at the news, and desperately wished for a guilty party to be within arms reach. Then he took a breath, and forced himself to relax and look at the whole scenario.
“Jesus Christ, Cat. What the hell are you coming to me for?”
“Come on, let’s talk while we go get those pancakes. I wasn’t kidding about being hungry.”
“Seriously, Cat. I need to know. Is this even legal for me to remember all this shit?”
“Yep. Just don’t ever talk about it with anyone not in the program, DVA officials of assistant director status or higher, or active duty Heroes. There’s a lot of clauses to allow for students who keep, or regain their memories, since there’s a ton of powers that will either prevent the memory wipe from working in the first place or reverse it over time.”
“So again, why me?” Ben reiterated his question with more force, but also began walking in the direction of the diner.
“Two reasons. First part was a trial run. I needed to make sure I could actually do this.”
“So it’s not just me, I’m just the first. Second reason?”
“We’re going after the people who did this.”
“And you really think I can help? I’m an HCP dropout and virtually unknown minor league Super fighter at a promotion based in freakin’ UTAH. What can I do?”
“You can get into places we can’t, while we’re still students.” Cat’s ‘voice’ grew more solemn, almost apologetic. “If you can walk the line right, you can function underground in a way that none of us can manage. It probably won’t be much, but we’re trying EVERYTHING we can think of, and it’s completely up to you, I mean we won’t try to force you or anything, bu-…”
Ben recalled some of his earlier conversations with the telepath when she got nervous and reached over to flick the girl on the nose. The torrent of words in his mind immediately stopped. “Have Erin or Scott call me with the details. If there’s a plan, those two are probably in the middle of it, and you tend to babble a bit, Cat. I doubt I’ll be much help, but I’m in.”
Ben grinned as the telepath threw a tight hug around him in response.