Carter had watched the scene unfold between Jennifer and the black haired Sandy on his security monitor; the system turned on anytime someone came to the front door. And he was a little surprised when she headed to the basement door rather than heading upstairs. He’d already gotten ready for bed, so he quickly grabbed a t-shirt and threw on slippers just as he heard the knock on his door, “One moment!” he yelled. He opened the door and said, “Miss Lee? Is there a problem?”
“Yes,” she said simply in response.
“Alright…Let’s get Diane and talk,” he said stepping out from his apartment and walking across to the other side of the basement and knocked on her door.
Diane was much more put together than Carter had been, it looked like she’d been doing some paperwork, “Carter? What’s…oh, hello Jennifer,” she said noticing the girl. “What’s going on?”
“Jennifer?” Carter prompted her.
“There was an incident,” she began. “My…friend and I were attacked on the street and…” she gave a quick recap.
“I’ll call the DVA, make sure any personnel that get the report are in the loop of this project,” Carter said and went back to his apartment.
“Are you alright?” Diane asked Jennifer.
“A little shaken up, more so about the possible consequences than the fight itself. I knew if worst came to worst I could take on all of those guys with my power, so I don’t think fear ever really entered into it.”
“Well that’s good,” she said as Carter came back.
“Alright, I got ahold of my boss. He’ll let me do all the reports for Jennifer and another agent will interview your friend and my boss will get those reports too. It’ll all be kept in a very small loop. We’ll get all the information now while it fresh and I’ll send off a copy to the dean as well. Let’s go sit. Diane, can we use your table?”
“Sure,” she said ushering them inside. Her table was already packed, covered with files, books and paper.
“What’s all that?” Jen asked.
“Stuff from my law firm. I’m still the best they have at reviewing contracts and a few thousand other things. Just sit at this end,” Diane said pulling out a chair for Jennifer.
“Start from the beginning,” Carter said pressing his pen to a notepad.
“Which beginning?” Jennifer asked, “The fight or the night?”
“Let’s do the night. That way we can rule out that you went looking for trouble.”
“Why would I go looking for a fight?” Jennifer asked indignant.
“You’re training to be a Hero. That kind of thing can puff up young super’s ego, make them think helping people is more important than the rules.”
“Oh,” Jennifer said and then started her story from when she left the house. Carter had seen her and the other girl on the front step, so he understood the nature of the relationship, but Jennifer kept skirting the exact nature. That kind of omission could have a small chance of causing a big problem, and Carter didn’t ask her to clarify the point.
“And you didn’t once use your power?” Diane asked.
“No,” Jennifer said with certainty.
“How about Andy?” Carter asked.
“Her power is always on, there’s no way for her not to. But I think she held back enough to imply that she was just a really skilled human. And she mentioned to Coma that she was a separate personality and wasn’t subject to the same restrictions as Sandy, is that true?”
“Yes, the law does recognize multiple personality powers, and that Sandy is the primary, but they do share the same face and if the gang members could pick Sandy out of a line-up it could be enough to over-ride it. But it’s almost certainly a moot point, we’ll offer a lesser charge or threaten to bring in a telepath for all crimes; any career criminal will plead out under those conditions, especially since if they are willing to take the telepath it will expose other crimes committed by the gang as a whole and that’s the same as being a ‘rat’ and they’ll avoid that label at all costs.
“If you were a normal HCP student under these specific circumstances, than I would say this would be the end of it. But this program is under heavy scrutiny by several important agencies and some aren’t going to let this go easily. I wish I could give you something more concrete, but just don’t bet on this not coming up again.”
“And you may want to let your housemates know about this too, it can blow back on all of them,” Diane said.
“Alright,” Jennifer said. Then Carter had her run though it one more time, asking questions this time. Then Diane asked for a version while asking her own questions, the differences were subtle and Jennifer wasn’t the best at subtlety, but she could tell who was on her side.
Jennifer left, and Diane had Carter stay behind, “what was that?”
“What?” Carter asked although he’d been listening with his telepathy through the entire meeting so he knew exactly what ‘that’ meant.
She gave him the evil-eye, “your power and mine both confirm she told the whole truth, expect for that part about her trying to hide that it was a date rather than a girl’s night, but that has no bearing on this issue. You could have asked one question and picked up the answer and everything else would have been superfluous.”
“I’ve made no qualms about my dislike for this program; for those that it admitted, the special privileges, and all the various agencies’ interference. I will be holding them to the highest possible standards. It’s just too dangerous not to, if they make it through and the admittance process changes, it will go bad. Private companies will make bids to put some kind of sponsored Hero into the program, or humans who think they’re smart enough or athletic enough will want a shot, or powereds. This program, this agency, this country has the highest standards and as a result it produces the best results. I adamantly believe it needs to be kept…pure.”
“Pure!? You know what happens to any system that you try to keep pure? It entropies. If a system refuses to adapt it will become stagnant and will eventually be passed. Why couldn’t humans join the program? There are geniuses that can come close to my skill, and I’ve recently heard about a man who lost both arms and both legs in combat and a tech genius replaced them with cybernetics, now he can lift a truck over his head and run 75 miles an hour. We’ve had supers with less power than that in the program,” Diane said.
“And what happens to that cyborg when its super limbs are destroyed in training? Do we bring in the tech genius super every time to fix them?”
“If it will make the whole of the Hero community stronger, makes the people safer, then we should do whatever it takes! But…we are getting way off course, we’re not talking about enhanced humans or corporate Heroes. These are normal teen supers who have committed no crime and should not be punished for their family’s sins.”
“You don’t think there is any risk?” Carter asked.
“Of course there is risk, but I whole heartedly believe it’s no greater than any other Hero. Wisp, Globe, Iron Fox…There is always that risk.”
Carter was pensive for a while, then said, “I want to change an aspect of this program and I’d like your support.”
“Depends,” she said waiting.
“I want to bring in the HCP therapist and I want the kids to tell him everything. He’s seen students at risk before and we shouldn’t be keeping this from him anyways.”
It was Diane’s turn to be pensive, “I think that will be fine, we’ll talk to the dean when we bring him this report.”
The dean had been up since 5 am, he always got up early to run; today he’d gone through the French countryside and then swam off the coast of Australia, drying himself after his shower he found the e-mail those DVA agents had sent. He read through several times, attacks and muggings on Sizemore students was not uncommon; Chicago had some very bad neighborhoods, even HCP students had had an incident once or twice, but those seven were under too much scrutiny and this would require some direct action. The e-mail also wanted to set up a time to meet. The dean checked the clock; it was almost seven, not too early to call. Carter answered on the second ring and told the dean he and Diane could be ready to meet in 15 minutes, which would be plenty of time for the dean to get ready too.
He opened his portal in his kitchen and Carter and Diane walked through. He offered them coffee, which they both accepted, then they sat down at his table.
Without preamble the dean spoke, “was there an infraction?”
“No,” they responded almost in unison. Then Diane picked up the conversation, “Jennifer did not use her powers during the encounter and the Jones personality was restrained. They didn’t go looking for trouble and they were in a relatively safe area, walking on a well-lit street. The Hero Coma’s report aligns with all these facts, as well as Carter’s telepathy and my own talent for seeing the truth.”
John let out a sigh, “good. So why the meeting request?”
Carter answered, “We wanted to keep you in the loop in case there were any strange questions about the incident. But, we’d also like to bring in your staff psychologist on the program and make it a requirement that seven see him on a regular basis.”
“Makes sense to me,” the dean said, “but why the change in policy? I thought you wanted to completely keep HCP staff out of it. Dr. Gibson also makes recommendations about advancement.”
“Yes,” Diane said, “but without the relevant information that recommendation won’t mean very much and that may be cause by one group or another to say we subverted the process for our own goals. It was Carter’s idea, but I can see it being very helpful for the program and the students.”
John didn’t need much convincing, he hated keeping this from his staff, and he respected Ron Gibson enough to know he’d be more of a help than a hindrance, so he agreed to the request, and sent them on their way. It’d still take some time to get it set up, but he stepped through a portal into his office to get the process started.
Carter and Diane went upstairs in hope of getting a quick word with a few of the students about the change, and they happened to find all of them up, dressed and sitting at the table eating breakfast with Jennifer talking to them about last night.
“Morning,” Diane said, “I’m surprised to find everyone up already on a Saturday.”
“Challenge day,” Michael said, “most of us made or were challenged.”
“Oh I see,” Carter said, the number of challenges at this school surprised him. When he’d been a student at Lander he only made three challenges in the entire first year, but of course it was a little different there. At Lander the top five males and top five females couldn’t be challenged by the rest of the class, and the males couldn’t challenges the females, making nearly half of the class unavailable and perhaps without the ability to break into the top five it didn’t seem as important to try. “I see Miss Lee has informed you of what transpired last night.”
“Yes,” Michael said, “is this going to cause any problems?”
“Yes,” Carter replied quickly, “we; the dean, Diane and I, have decided that you all should have regular appointments with the HCP staff therapist.”
“What!?” Several of the students said at once and then broke down into an unintelligible chorus of complaints and indignation.
After about twenty seconds Carter yelled, “Enough!” They quieted down enough to listen. “You all agreed to the extra scrutiny that came with this opportunity, and even though this exact scenario wasn’t mentioned, the provision for this change is in there. You can accept the changes we, and I do mean we, Diane and I have to agree to a new provision for it to take hold, or you can leave the program. But if we both agree this is important then you should try to consider why that is and try to get something from the opportunity.” Carter’s words were met with about half angry stares and half pensive looks.
“What are we supposed to talk to them about?” James asked.
“I assume you’re asking if you should talk about your criminal super family members.” James nodded, “Doctor Gibson will have all the information that the DVA has, which means he’ll know all about it. I don’t think he will try to force you to talk about that, but I imagine it can only help with your advancement if you’re honest.”
“What do you mean ‘our advancement’?” Sam asked.
“The staff therapist has a say in who advances and also is capable of completely removing someone from the program. Before, he was unaware of your pasts and therefore would have had no say one way or the other, but now that he’s fully in the loop, his recommendation will go a long way, both for and against your progression.” This time he was met with seven angry glares, “it will take a few days to set up, but I imagine the appointments will begin sometime this week.” Carter gave an awkward cough when none of them said anything, but finally Diane broke the silence.
“I know it may feel like a punishment for what happened to Jennifer, but it is not. This is a real opportunity to grow and accept what happened with your families. To try and figure out exactly why you want to become Heroes. The saying goes, ‘you get out what you put in’.”
Carter listened to their thoughts and in their minds they all resented being forced into this, but most of them were also considering it might be a good thing, only time would tell. He and Diane quickly excused themselves after that and let the seven get back to their meal and what would now be conversation about the change.
There wasn’t much conversation after they left, mostly the seven just finished eating and left the house one or two people at a time. James got down to the combat cell level and found Sandy on the bleachers reading a book, “hey,” he said, sitting close to her. “Andy tell you about last night?”
“Yeah,” she said looking up from her book, “she gave me all the memories of the fight and Coma. I got a call from a DVA agent this morning and he got our statements.”
“No, I’ve read the rules. I don’t think she did anything wrong.”
“Good. Who challenged you today?” James asked.
“Tree-girl. That will be tough for Andy. You’re probably going to need Candy’s sonic scream.”
“Really?” Sandy asked, “You don’t think it will…kill her?”
“Highly doubt it. Have you seen Tara’s shifted form? She’s massive, and the way her tree form can change its shape leads me to believe that injuries don’t transfer over.”
“Hmmm, I’ll think about it. I’m still a little paranoid about Candy’s power. Who’s your challenge today?”
“Oh, tough one. You have a plan?”
“I wouldn’t call it a plan so much as an idea I’m going to try.” They talked for a while. Jennifer had come by to ask about Andy and Sandy said she’d give Andy time after the matches.
Hope and Allison once again had some of the first matches, both still being near the bottom of the rankings. Hope had challenged Bradley for his spot, she knew exactly what he could do from healing classes. He was physically normal, but had a greatly enhanced regeneration rate. When they got into the cell Brad’s wings burst from his back and spread out wide, it was the first time Hope had seen them and she was really impressed, they were beautiful, pure white, maybe five foot long each and they appeared to be shining with their own light. As soon as the buzzer sounded Hope ran at Brad, but he just flapped his wings a couple times and was beyond her reach. He circled overhead several times, Hope kept him in sight, then he dove and she was forced to roll out of the way. He flipped in mid-air like an acrobat and charged a second time, this time clipping her with his wing. He repeated similar attacks several times, but never caught Hope off guard again.
He could technically keep going all day, his power recharging his muscles and washing away his fatigue, so Hope had to get crazy. He circled near the ceiling again and once again dove at her. This time instead of rolling out of the way she charged forward and jumped towards him, her goal had been to get her knee into his nose, but he saw it coming and pulled up just enough to plow into her midsection. It knocked the wind out of her, but she was able to grab onto the wing joint and push the wing. Brad started veering hard and with Hope’s stomach in his face he couldn’t see. He tried to flap his wings to get some altitude, but Hope hung on, gasping for breath, they flipped over forward.
If Hope had been able to get Brad under her as they hit the floor it may have been enough to even out the match. Unfortunately for her, Brad was very good at flying and he was able to twist enough to land on Hope, where he felt something in her break. She lay gasping, tears in her eyes and Brad was just about to heal her on instinct, but caught himself at the last moment and asked if she surrendered first. She did so quickly and Brad fixed her collapsed lung and broken rib and then helped her to the infirmary.
Allison had made her challenge to Derick Davis, a big man, who sort of reminded Allison of a caveman, muscular, with a strong jaw and wide brow, but the picture was completed when he hunched over when using his power. He had the ability to create and fire metal quills, he could cover his entire body like a porcupine, even his hair, normally black and spikey became literal black spikes. He was only accurate up to about 25 feet, but he could also fire hundreds at a time, making accuracy meaningless. Allison had to stay away from him.
She had been giving Professor Scott’s warning about fear a lot of thought and was pretty sure Derrick was the type that’d lash out violently if bombarded with too much, so she’d been practicing with depression. Depression held its own risks, in this case she wanted to sap his will to fight, not his will to live and with those in this type of training it was a subtle line, one she hoped she could maintain while under fire.
As soon as the match started he fanned his arms from a wide arc straight towards Allison. About twenty quills flew at her and she let out a little scream, which she wasn’t proud of and hit the deck; the quills flying just over her head. Her plan for subtlety went out the window as she just hit him with everything she could think of, fear, sadness, joy, anger, love and disgust. She could feel his mind reeling from the emotional overload, but it wasn’t enough to completely stop his charge. Derrick ran forward continuing to fire bundles of five to ten quills, hitting Allison a couple of times. She’d tried to run to the back wall, but took a quill in the calf and fell again.
Derrick closed the distance to well within his range of accuracy and fired a few single shots to show that he could hurt her easily if she didn’t give up. She considered for a few moments trying an emotional bombardment and taking the hits, but she didn’t really think she’d have enough time, so she surrendered to him.
Sam once again challenged the full five spaces ahead of him, Matt Mcgee, currently in 21st combat position. Matt was a short guy with broad shoulder and covered in thick muscles, he wore his hair in a short Mohawk and outside of class he wore a bunch of piercings. As they stood across from each other a white substance flowed through and around his uniform and slowly began to solidify into an armor. On James’ list the group called it bone armor because it had the same coloring and look of bone, but they weren’t completely sure. It could be formed into a few different configurations, either making it very heavy and almost unbreakable or lighter for mobility and agility. This time it formed into a mix of the two, but was also covered in spikes; Matt knew Sam was a melee fighter and was trying to limit his ability to grapple. He finished it off by creating two long blades out of the back of his arms.
Sam wasn’t completely sure, but thought that the blades and spikes were likely to be dangerously sharp, even with his physical durability up. So while he did increase his physical resistance up as high as he was comfortable, he instead wanted to focus on avoiding the blades completely. He increased his strength and speed and got up close to Matt and then when he got in range of the blades he cranked up his mental speed and Matt’s attacks became molasses slow. Sam ducked under a blade and punched at an un-spiked part of the armor; his strength was currently about five times greater than normal so he was a little surprised when it barely made a crack and that small crack began repairing immediately.
He doubled up again on strength and punched once more, this time making a noticeable difference, with a large chunk breaking away, but even that didn’t seem to physically affect Matt, so he jumped back out of range; the whole exchange barely taking two seconds. Sam was a little worried about getting the force right, the group figured Matt had to have at least minor enhanced strength to deal with the weight of the armor, but there was still a fine line Sam figured he’s have to walk between breaking the armor and rupturing some organs and with the armor spikes, joint locks wouldn’t be possible.
Sam just decided to screw it and upped his strength to fifteen times and gave a major boost to speed and just went to work on the armor. He hit the front twenty or thirty times, ducked under the right blade and hit the arm another ten times, and then went to work on the back. Huge pieces of the armor fell off with each strike and soon the back was devoid of any armor, so Sam dropped his strength to almost normal and gave Matt a couple of kidney shots, causing him to fall to his knees.
Sam backed off for a few seconds, but then saw that Matt was trying to reform the armor again, so he kicked him in the head. It was still armored so it wasn’t so bad, when Matt looked over Sam raised his arms, “you going to surrender?”
“Screw you! I saw your first ranking, once you run out of juice you go down like a bitch!”
“Yeah, whatever you say,” Sam said then upped his strength and continued to bust up every piece of exposed armor he could see, then breaking bones on limbs. At his speed Matt was laid out after only about ten seconds, but he was still trying to reform the armor. “God dammit! Just give up already!”
“Fuck you!” With the armor all but gone Sam just went in for the choke out and the match finally ended. Sam’s next challenge would have him facing the top half of the class and if this match was any indication they were going to start getting tough.
James’ strategy to deal Valerie was going to be the same as the others had done; fight with his eyes closed. It hadn’t worked too well for Tony or Kathryn; fighting blind is difficult, but it was really his only option, unless he was willing to electrocute her, which he wasn’t. He looked in Valerie’s eye for what he hoped was the last time until the match ended and then as the countdown got to three seconds he forced his eyes closed very tightly.
The buzzer sounded and James released a tendril from each hand. The one from the left he circled it around his body, six rotations and he had a rough ‘draining shield,’ and with the other hand he sent the tendril out about forty feet towards Valerie’s last position and started whipping it around like an out of control fire hose. If any part of the tendril touched Valerie, for even a moment he would feel it, be able to pin point her location and focus on that area. And if she somehow avoided the wild tendril and got close, she’d still have to walk through the one encircling his body, and hopefully that’d be enough warning to refocus his draining efforts.
He’d been walking slowly for a few minutes, randomly changing direction, and randomly whipping the tendril quickly around to change things up. He thought he was staying mostly in the middle of the cell, but for all he knew he could be two feet from a corner with Valerie a hundred feet away waiting for him to make a mistake. That train of thought almost made him paranoid enough to risk a quick peak, but he was saved from that outcome by the feel of his shield being disturbed and the weight of a 110 pounds of determined Valerie leaping on his back; only the slight warning and years of training kept him from falling over. He felt an arm reach around his neck and he thought she might be going for a choke hold, but it would have been a poor one; then he felt her other hand clawing at his face, trying to get his eyes open.
He flipped her over his back onto the ground keeping a hold of her arm. Then he drained, while in physical contact it took less than three seconds and she seemed to be out. He reached out and found her face, made sure his hand covered her eyes, then finally opened his own. She seemed to be truly out, but he still kept her eyes covered until the intercom actually confirmed it. Then he returned the energy, he tried to shake her hand, but she just left.
James got back up to the platform and found Andy talking with Jennifer; they had been watching his match. “Hey, Andy. How’d your match go?”
She gave him an evil eye and James wasn’t sure what that was about, but she answered regardless, “You were right. Candy’s scream ripped her body apart. Tara tried to reform, but Candy was faster; it only took about five screams before Tara conceded the match. Good call,” she said begrudgingly and then turned her back on James to focus on Jennifer again, who looked over at James herself and gave him a smile that said, ‘I don’t know what that’s about’.
“Okay, um, good. Could you have Sandy text me when she’s next in control?”
“Sure,” Andy snapped and James fled.