Onward and Upward
“Today would be excellent, Mr Samuels.”
Rorie suppressed the urge to say something rude to the smirking Ranged Combat Instructor, and forced himself to ignore the quiet chuckles from the class. The large Samoan youth took a last deep breath, and punched his hand down into the console to turn the scenario below him ‘live.’
The heavily built young man let his gaze unfocus as he scanned the simulated crowd. The professor had made the point repeatedly over the last few weeks that any preemptive attacks by the students would NOT help their scores on this exercise, so Rorie had to wait for that first moment of panic before he could act. This is so frustrating. I mean sure, only the big one is identifiable until the chaos starts, but taking that bastard out wou-…
Gunfire derailed Rorie’s train of thought, and his searching gaze snapped quickly to his first target. The dark-haired Super focused intensely as he shaped the explosive force that was his power, but in a slightly different form than normal. Rorie ignored the surprised sounds from behind him as his first attack flew down from the hill, a dart of energy instead of the usual ball. The new projectile type flew much faster than the young Super’s normal form of attack, and it dropped the gun-armed bot with a clean headshot.
A second bolt was already in the air when the first landed, the left-handed throw not quite as precise, but still accurate enough to catch the fire thrower in the chest and knock it off its feet. Alright, that’s the easy pair down again. Let’s see if we can finally take out the big bastard cleanly.
Rorie turned his focus towards the simulated strongman, a much larger and perfectly spherical energy forming in his right hand. Carefully, wait for it…
The large youth ignored the muttering from behind him, focusing all his attention on the massive simulated strongman down below. Waited as the crowd scattered from the huge threat, and finally brought his arms up and together as the oversized robot caught one of the ‘civilians’ and raised the smaller bot over its head.
The explosion from between Rorie’s hands was nearly deafening, and the lance of energy that shot down from the hill was momentarily blinding. As the flash cleared from the Ranged Combat class’s eyes, an impromptu cheer rose up from the Sophomores. The imperiled ‘civilian’ scrambled away as the simulated strongman fell, it’s arm completely severed by the bolt of energy.
Rorie immediately formed another energy sphere in preparation for the hostile bot to regain its feet, but the maimed robot remained where it was on the ground.
“Excellent improvement, Mr Samuels.” The Samoan youth turn to see the Instructor standing beside him and grinning. “Last week you had one of the worst scores on this exercise, today I believe you’ve set the new bar to beat.”
Rorie smiled widely at the praise from the professor, and moved to join the rest of his class while the course reset for the next run.
Catalina Blake stood at the entrance to the simulated factory, bouncing excitedly on her feet and wearing a confident grin. Even as her wait for the light above the small door to turn green stretched from seconds into minutes, the confident air around the auburn-haired girl never wavered.
Finally, the light changed and the young telepath skipped her way through the doorway and into the dimly lit factory. Catalina never hesitated as she moved forward, her path taking her directly towards one of the towering equipment racks. The athletically built woman scaled the metal shelves quickly and gracefully, pulling herself up to a crouching run along the top near the ceiling.
The telepath scarcely slowed her stride as she scooped up a piece of scrap metal and pitched it blindly to her right. A toolbox was quickly kicked off to the opposite side, this movement causing a momentary delay as the young woman was forced into a limping hop for several steps. The pieces of falling metal each perfectly intercepted a different robotic mannequin as the bots emerged from concealment.
Catalina vaulted from the shelves as she approached the more open machine shop area, partially arresting her fall with an acrobatic flip off of a hanging lamp. The athletic woman darted to her left the moment her feet touched the ground, quickly rounding a stack of disused machinery and coming into a trio of robots.
Maintaining her momentum, Catalina launched feet first into her first target. The off-balance bot cracked heavily into the metal equipment behind it, dropping limply just ahead of the now falling telepath. The auburn-haired girl managed to turn just enough as she landed to kick up into another bot, forcing it away from the third just as her target sprouted a pair of blades and attempted to stab the only non-hostile robot.
Catalina’s maneuver bought just enough room to prevent the hostile bot from incapacitating its target, and the athletic woman rolled under the obviously anticipated counterattack to regain her feet. A powerful uppercut from the telepath laid out the final bot, and Catalina turned to offer a theatrical bow to the nearest camera as the ‘all clear’ sounded throughout the course.
“That was an impressive display, Ms Blake. A new course record.”
The still smiling telepath suppressed a giggle as she caught the professor’s momentary embarrassment at broadcasting her speech into the room with only a deaf girl listening.
“Please meet me in my office after the class has concluded.” Catalina nodded her assent and headed off the course towards the designated meeting area.
The auburn-haired girl waited patiently in the professor’s office, knowing that the Control Instructor still had the majority of the class to teach. The young telepath wasn’t idle during her wait, instead she occupied herself by monitoring her classmates during their runs through the course.
Half an hour later, Catalina pulled herself up from her reclining position on the small couch in Professor Nguyen’s office and smoothed out her uniform to look presentable. The petite Control Instructor entered the office a moment later, not even pausing to look at her waiting student as she strode quickly to her desk and dropped heavily into the seat behind it.
“I’m sorry that I’ve been a problem for your course, professor.”
Hai sighed loudly then locked a stern gaze on her student. “Don’t apologize, Ms Blake. The challenge posed by the combination of your abilities and disability is not any sort of failing on your part.
“But, I suppose it is rather pointless to pretend it’s not a difficulty around you.”
“I was in dead last for the introductory and intermediate exercises, but I’m first on the advanced course. Even when you add extra bits for me to deal with, because…”
“Because the nature of the course makes it impossible to surprise you. Do you have any suggestions? Because as things stand, your overall score for the year will most likely put you near the top of the Control class.”
“But you can’t actually pass me into the third year program because I never actually passed some of the basic courses, right?” Catalina smiled and shrugged. “I don’t see a problem with the system as it stands, I’ll take the high overall score since I was planning on sticking with Weapons and Subtlety in any event.”
The telepath shook her head for a moment, and her tone became self-deprecating. “I needed to take your course to help me overcome some of my largest handicaps, but I think we BOTH know this isn’t the discipline for me.”
“You’re certain? Even after you’ve all but announced you won’t be completing Professor Martinez’s final?”
“I’ll be completing it in my own way. Extra credit or nothing and all that.”
“Ms Blake, I believe you are the oddest student I’ve ever encountered in my four years at the HCP. It’s not uncommon to find a student who claims they only wish to advance if they can TRULY prove they are the best. It’s quite another to find one who actually puts their HCP career on the line for it.”
“Did Professor Martinez tell you what I asked her?”
Hai Nguyen responded with genuine laughter, the first time she’d demonstrated that much emotion to any of the Sophomores. “I never said you were WRONG to make such a gamble, Ms Blake. Just that it makes you a rare find.”
“Are you sure I’m allowed to help you with this?” The nervous question from the red-haired girl was met by a dismissive wave from her roommate.
“Subtlety types are SUPPOSED to have whole networks of assets to work with. I should get extra credit for early networking!” The cheerful response from Louise Garcia did little to dispel her roommate’s concern.
“Look at it this way, Tara. You’re not the one that’ll get in trouble if Professor Martinez decides that Louise needed to do this on her own.” Eloise James made her way into the living room long enough to steal a piece of pizza from the open box between the two other girls, before being chased back by crackling electricity from her smallest roommate.
“Back off, this one’s MINE, El. You already got yours.”
The white-haired girl made a rude gesture as her mouth was too full for another response, but did head back in the direction of her own room.
“Keep an eye on her, Tara. I think she’s going to try and steal my progress for extra credit again.”
“You’re being paranoid again, Louise. Let’s just get these papers deciphered before I change my mind.”
“Yay!” Louise leapt across the couch to throw an enthusiastic hug around the redhead. “Now these are all the papers that were in Coach Rachd’s safe, and this is the progress I’ve made so far.”
Tara took the two stacks of paper and began comparing them, trying to ignore the eager looks her roommate kept throwing her way as she worked through the papers.
“Umm… Louise? What method of deciphering are you trying to use on these papers?”
“Oh, well, since it was the final I figured it had to be something more complicated than usual, but these are old-school paper ciphers, which limits how complicated it can be, so I’m using all the standard decryptions that Professor Martinez has taught us at once!”
“Yeah, I can kind of see that now. Louise, that’s…” Tara’s expression grew more and more nervous as she tried to figure out how to break the news to her friend. “We need to start over!”
“Um, because I’m pretty sure you’re doing it wrong. I think I know what this is… so… yo-…”
“YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS! YAY!” Tara was bowled off the couch by the smaller girl’s exuberant celebration. “That means we’re almost done! How do you decipher it?”
“Scan it onto your computer, save it all into one text file, then we just need to figure out what the original image format was.”
“Just trust me and scan it, I’ll explain while we work.”
“What order do they go in?”
“What order were they in in the safe?”
“Ummm….” It was finally Louise’s turn to glance away with a flush of embarrassment on her face.
“Oh geez. You didn’t record that? That’s… Nevermind. There’s only five pages, it won’t take that much longer to just try all the combinations”
“Oh, good. Thanks again, Tara!”
“Sorry I’m running late, are we all set?” The red-furred Shifter wore an inhumanly wide smile as she strode into the combat room, waving cheerfully at her opponent.
Beulah Abbott managed to keep her expression neutral as she nodded, though internally she was struggling not to bolt from the room. The dark-haired girl forced herself to focus as the soft beeping filled the room, indicating the final ten second countdown. One shot to catch her off guard. Catch her off guard, and I have a chance.
The louder tone sounded from the room’s hidden speakers, and the appearance of calm was shattered. Beulah barely caught sight of the impossibly fast approach of the Weapons Instructor as the world around her shattered, the accompanying crack VASTLY louder than was usual for the teleporter.
Beulah forced her vision to refocus as she appeared near the rooms ceiling, the momentary overpressure making it difficult to breathe and causing tears to well in her eyes. The blurry red form of the Weapons Instructor had staggered and nearly fallen, leaving the teleporter with a tiny window.
The dark-haired girl’s abrupt arrival on her opponent’s back was predicted, but the blast of compressed air that accompanied her was not, and the Weapons Instructor’s perfectly timed counter only struck a glancing blow on the young woman’s shoulder. Beulah smiled triumphantly as the world fractured again, this time focusing entirely on making the fastest pair of teleports in her HCP career.
The Israeli girl successfully dropped her opponent off near the room’s ceiling again, though she took a solid kick to the stomach before she could escape the tall speedster’s reach. Beulah landed heavily on the ground to watch the Weapons Instructor fall, and found herself less than confident at the cat-woman’s response.
“WHHEEEEE!” Dani fell roughly half the distance to the floor before snapping her arms back into her odd costume.
Beulah’s jaw dropped in shock as the unpredictable Instructor’s sleeves transformed into broad, semi-rigid surfaces and the feline Shifter glided to the floor in a smooth, tight arc. Then the young woman’s expression hardened with resolve and she took a deep breath.
Dani Reyes’ expression changed from her wide smile as the young teleporter began rapidly appearing and disappearing at close range. The alternating bursts of vacuum and overpressure kept the speedster off balance and unable to reach her opponent, but the Weapons Instructor showed no sign of anxiousness.
After roughly a minute and a half of incredibly rapid teleports, Beulah materialized high in the air and drew in a deep, racking breath. The dark-haired girl didn’t get a chance to vanish again, as a red-blur leapt from the floor to collide with her midair. The Weapons Instructor twisted around the smaller girl as she fell, managing to get a hand on the wall to slow the pair’s descent to the unforgiving concrete floor.
“Healer!” Dani’s cheerful shout was unneeded, as Antoin Montaine was already sprinting into the room before the Instructor had made it to the floor.
Beulah sat up with a gasping shudder as soon as the blond healer’s field reached her, then looking up at the human-again Weapons Instructor with a rueful grin.
“I can’t believe you have a glider built into that suit.”
“You’re not the first person to come up with an idea like that for dealing with a speedster. Most of the good ones will have a safe landing of some sort planned out.” Dani offered a hand to the still seated student, who accepted the assistance in standing.
“That vacuum thing was impressive. I didn’t realize you could do an area that big.”
“I was saving it for a special occasion, I was hoping it would be enough to get a passing grade on the final. Guess it’s back to the drawing board on that one.”
The Weapons Instructor giggled. “You lasted over two minutes and actually caused some damage. I’m not the one giving out grades for this course, but I’m pretty sure that’ll get you a solid ‘C’ from Jim.”
Beulah stood silently shocked as she processed the news for several long seconds, a reverie that was finally broken by a gravelly voice over the room’s speakers.
“Low C. You didn’t actually do any REAL damage to Dani during that match.”
Beulah responded by leaping into the air to clap and cheer for herself.
“I was under the impression we were going to be limiting our meetings. What’s happened?” The level of menace the elderly man managed to inject into an otherwise innocuous question drew a flinch from the taller man waiting in the office.
“Lee has cracked. Completely. He’s actually trying to pull together an army of Supers to take on the Heroes directly.”
“And this is so important you’d show up in person, why?” Edward accompanied the rhetorical question with a dismissive shake of his head. “I was already aware that your abilities with memory tampering weren’t as flawless as you were selling them as, and while Lee’s slow psychotic break wasn’t part of the original plan, it doesn’t impact negatively.”
“I never said I could arrange a flawless re-write, just flawless erasure. NO ONE can alter memories perfectly.” Harvin took a few angry steps forward as he spoke, but pulled up abruptly as a soft *click* echoed from behind him.
“True, you didn’t really oversell your abilities much. I apologize for the insult, now you should apologize for agitating my little ghost and go take a seat.” Edward’s tone was kind and conciliatory, right up until the steely command in the last four words.
“I can’t believe you still don’t trust me enough to meet without your little bodyguard present.” There was disdain in the younger man’s voice, but he did make a point of keeping his hands fully in view as he moved to seat himself away from his associate.
“Unlike the rest of our ‘partners,’ I know how dangerous it is to let you get within arms’ reach. Now tell me why you’re really here.”
Silence stretched out for long seconds between the two men, and Edward found himself growing anxious as he began to spot little tells in his hesitant associate. Something has gone very wrong.
“It’s Joyce. She… she knows.”
The older man sat in stunned silence for a long moment before leaping to his feet in outrage. “WHAT? HOW?”
“I don’t know how. I always told you she was smarter than we were giving her credit for. She must have had a contingency we missed. She’s swept up and disposed all of our covert surveillance people around her companies, and her own people are keeping an eye on all of us.”
“Another failure of you abilities? Two in as many months, are you sure you aren’t really a Powered, Harvin?”
The younger man offered a cold smile in response to the insult. “Lee’s mental instability was predictable, though the exact nature it took was not. You can hardly call THAT a failure when I told you it was going to happen in advance. As for Joyce… There’s no possible way she simply RECOVERED her memories. I’m not some half-assed Advanced Mind forcing some psychic repression bullshit. My power physically burns out areas of the brain to completely remove memories. There’s no way to recover the memories, they literally no longer exist.”
“And yet somehow, she has.”
“Yes, and it’s so hard to believe that YOUR people missed one little secreted away file in a backroom, or a ghost server, or ANY of the million places she could have kept physical information that referenced us?” Harvin pulled his hands through his hair in frustration. “We can blame each other later though, we need to figure out how to FIX this, Edward.”
“What exactly do we need to fix? Joyce doesn’t have the resources to move directly against us, and I don-…”
“Lee KNOWS about Patrick and Joyce. We left him that information mostly intact, both in his head and otherwise, because we needed him to look like the mastermind when everything came crashing down. What do you think is going to happen when Lee finishes coming apart, the Heroes step in and haul him away, and start tracking down those connections? Think Joyce is just going to go meekly along to spend the rest of her days in a nameless prison somewhere? SHE KNOWS WE’RE INVOLVED!”
Edward’s expression had flushed with rage at the interruption, but all the color had drained from his face by the time his younger associate had finished. “That’s… No. We can’t panic. We need to fix this.”
“Vigilante justice. It’s a simple matter of timing. You still have contacts inside the DVA?”
Harvin snorted indignantly in response.
“Of course, so we just need to find out the moment the Heroes finally make that last connection to Lee, and your connections need to make sure there’s an anonymous leak of said information. Then our poor Mr Brieten will meet with a tragic end before he can be brought in for proper justice, and interrogation.”
“That… could work. As long as your people do a better job of scrubbing all of Lee’s data than they apparently managed with Joyce, and as long as Joyce doesn’t get too nervous and throws something unexpected into the mix.”
Edward glowered again at the suggestion that his assets had performed less than perfectly, but he couldn’t bring himself to deny that it was the most logical conclusion. “She’ll wait. If she jumps too soon or too far, all she can hope for is bringing us down with her.”
Harvin seemed about to bring up another argument, but then shook his head and offered a small shrug. “It’s irrelevant anyway I guess. But we’ll need a longer term solution on that front.”
“We need to put out the fires first, then we can worry about how to keep the structure standing. Has Patrick shown any signs of sudden memory recovery? Or creeping insanity?”
“Patrick isn’t behaving quite how we predicted, but close enough. Where Lee is trying to go to war, Patrick is quietly building fortifications. He seems to think that he can make himself a difficult enough target that he’ll be able to conclude all of his company’s active business and then vanish overseas with a few billion dollars.”
“As long as his greed keeps him in the country long enough to remain a target. Anything else?”
Harvin stood in response to the question. “Nothing pressing, unless you wish to discuss my suggestion from our last meeting again.”
“We are NOT giving up because of a few small setbacks, Harvin.” Edward’s tone was cold and steady.
“And I’m not suggesting we ‘give up.’ I’m simply pointing out that the HCP is proving too formidable for our plan. The progress we’ve made to getting the new PMC bills approved and to end up controlling a certification program for PEERS-…”
“Are small change compared to what we’d have if we controlled twenty percent of the HCP. Find your spine, Harvin. You can be cut out just as easily as the others, the only difference is it will be a messier event.”
Harvin raised his hands in a placating gesture, but Edward still caught the hatred in the man’s eyes as he turned and exited the office.
“Keep an eye on him, Gil.”
“Yes, sir.” The deep baritone emanated from an empty corner of the room, and Edward caught the faintest trace of a shadow flowing out the door behind his last ‘associate.’