The next morning as Jennifer was in the kitchen getting some orange juice she looked out into the backyard and saw Sam laying naked on a towel. She had to see what this was about, she headed out back, and luckily Sam was lying face down, “Morning Sam…what are you doing?”
“Why are you naked?”
“Because, number one we’re in the mid-west, so the sunlight sucks, number two, the more skin I have exposed the more energy I can absorb, and third, because I completely drained all of my energy yesterday, I haven’t been completely drained of energy since like the first week I got my powers. It’s very disconcerting.”
“How long is it going to take completely recharge?” Jennifer asked.
“Well, like I’ve said, never really been totally drained, plus it’s not exactly the California sun, so probably days’ worth of this. I just need to get enough so I’ll have something for the focus rankings today, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but better safe than sorry.”
“And what about class? You going to skip those?”
“Yeah, at least for today. The four or five hours I can get before ethics will only be a drop in the bucket for the amount of energy I can hold. I need every last minute.”
James had had a bad night, the energy he’d taken from Kathryn was still in his body, it had not faded like normal energy, and the feel of it was all wrong, he couldn’t concentrate, he needed to talk to one of the professors, figure out why he was able to take the electricity, and how to use it or get rid of it. The fights yesterday had been draining, less physically since he kept himself healed, but emotionally and mentally, he’d been shocked at how well he had done, especially against someone like Jackson. Of course, he’d also been pretty lucky avoiding long range fighters in his match-ups. His first class started in an hour, so he’d have to wait until lunch to get his answer, it was going to be a long morning.
Carter and Diane were at Dean Allen’s Penthouse Condo in the heart of Chicago, since they still didn’t have a reason to be down in the HCP complex and the video of the ranking trials couldn’t be released to them without supervision, they had been invited to view them here under the dean’s supervision. The apartment’s furniture was sparse and modern, what Carter would expect to see if the condo was being staged for sale or in some interior design magazine, it was at best uncomfortable, at worst unusable. There was also no personal touches to the condo that Carter could see. Since the dean had to teach a class at 8 am, and because there were so many matches to watch they had been here since 4. Carter was not happy about this whole assignment, he didn’t feel it was right for a civilian organization to interfere with the DVA, he also wasn’t thrilled with the fact that the students that organization brought in were such high risk for going rogue. He wouldn’t do anything illegal or immoral or even lie, but he was going to report every minor infraction, evaluate them at maximum scrutiny. If these students were able to succeed then every private company and civilian organization will be demanding the right to put their own candidates through the program. The lawsuit itself, that succeeded to set a precedent that would have long lasting repercussions for the HCP. Carter had been a part of the Lander HCP, but had failed to advance, and he’d accepted that because the standards were meant to be so high, if these students passed with an unfair advantage then the whole system would become sub-par. Therefore, they had to be held to the highest of standards. He must admit though that Michaels and James’ performances were exceptional. “Some pretty impressive matches, and some less than impressive ones.”
“Yes, I didn’t expect too much from Hope, her not having any way to empower herself, but I thought Allison would be able to put up more of a fight, mental powers are usually more versatile than that,” Diane said.
“Yes, I agree, she needs some kind of marital arts training. She hardly moves when she fights, either she’s not very good or basic mental attacks are too taxing for her, either way she needs to get better fast. And the way it stands now I don’t see Hope making it to next year.”
Tony was walking to the first class of the day when he crossed paths with a beautiful girl, and they both started heading in the same direction. She was slightly shorter than Tony, with long blonde hair and brilliant blue eyes. “Good morning,” he said, and she smiled at him, he took this as a good sign. “How are you doing today?” he asked, she smiled at him again, but said nothing. “Mind if I walk with you?” She shook her head no. “So, what’s your name then? I’m Tony, by the way.” She smiled again. “Okay, good, so what’s your major then?” she stopped and pulled out a card from her jacket pocket, he read it ‘I am a powered, the sound of my voice causes deep sadness and depression.’ “Oh I’m sorry to hear that. Guess I’ll be doing all the talking then,” Tony said. “So, no talking at all then? What about over the phone?”
She pulled out her phone and typed something really fast, it spoke the text in a computer voice ‘My power doesn’t work over the phone, but I don’t like doing that, because anyone hearing my voice on my end may become dangerously depressed. I have to make sure I am completely alone. I mostly text. My name is Ella Turner, but everyone calls me El.”
“Ah cool, you want to have dinner with me on Friday?” Tony asked, she stared at him for more than a few moments, then she tentatively nodded in the affirmative. “Great, give me your number, I’ll text you later.”
As soon as James’ last morning class was over he headed down to the HCP complex, skipping lunch in hopes of finding a professor that could help him with his energy problem. James had only talked to the coaches and the dean and he didn’t know if any professor would be in their offices or if they’d be willing to talk to him. He wasn’t even sure where anyone’s office even was, but the first level of the HCP was set up in a large circle, offices and classrooms circling the track, so he just headed off to the right after he exited the lift. None of the rooms seemed to be labeled beyond room number or ‘supply,’ he was starting to wonder if the professor’s offices were even on this floor when he came to an open door, the plaque next to the door said, ‘Professor Ford, Control.’ Looking in he saw a woman that could be anywhere from 40 to 60, a smooth face, but with grey wispy hair sitting behind the desk reading what looked like a romance novel and eating her lunch without looking down at it. James knocked and she looked up at him, raising her eyebrow and pursing her lips as if asking who would have the nerve to disturb her private time. “Hello, Professor ah…Ford, I am having an issue with my power and I could use some help or advice.”
“Of course, Mister?”
“Ah, Reed. James Reed,” James said walking in and taking a seat across from Professor Ford. “Well, my power drains energy from people that I can then use on myself or give to another person, and in my last match with the electricity user, Kathryn, I seemed to take something else, I think it’s electricity. It’s a bit distracting, I was hoping you might have some thoughts about how to use it or get rid of it, or more importantly why I was able to drain it.”
“I see, well first let me ask you, have you tried to expel this energy on your own yet? Maybe try to shock something?”
“No, I have no idea what it will do, seems too dangerous for random experimentation.”
“Very prudent. Well follow me,” she walked out of the room without saying more. She headed out along the hallway, stopping at a supply closet, opening it and pulling out a car battery. Then she continued along the hallway heading to the lifts. James followed along after her, they exited out on the combat cells level, they headed away from the rooms that had been used yesterday and they came to smaller cells. “This is a specially insulated cell that resists electricity, take this battery in there and attempt to put the energy into it. If that does not work we will re-evaluate.”
James took the battery and went into the room. He had been thinking about how this would work all night, when he gave energy away he used his white fog-like tendril, so he figured attacking with electricity would come out of the same hand. He extended it and place it against the leads, the electricity was the only energy he currently had in his body so he figured he could separate it out. He focused and attempted to energize the battery, there was a brilliant flash and crack and then James no longer felt the energy bouncing around in him, he felt a great weight lifted off his shoulders.
He exited the cell and talked to Professor Ford, “it worked!”
“That’s good, usually have to try a whole bunch of things for students to understand a new aspect of their power.”
“Okay, now try to take it from the battery.”
“Why would I be able to do that?” James asked.
“You probably can’t, but we have to know the limits, so we can help shape your power.” James extended out his shadowy tendril to the battery, spread it across both leads again and tried to drain it like he did with people, nothing happened, he tried a couple more time before giving up and telling the professor that. “Anything else weird happen with your power since you’ve joined the HCP?”
“Actually yes, my roommate Sam, he absorbs sunlight and turns it into physical power, I absorbed some strange energy from him.”
“Ah ha, and three makes a pattern.”
“What do you mean three?” James asked.
“You absorb energy, wakefulness, strength from normal people and you take stored energy from those in the absorber class. That’s three different types of energy. If I was forced to classify your power, I would say you have the power to absorb potential energy from living organisms. I think we can test this, there are a few more absorbers in the HCP, two sophomores, and one senior, in addition to the two freshman you already encountered, next week after the trials are over we will gather all the absorbers up and test what your power can do. How does that sound?”
“I think I’d like that. Thank you for your help Professor.”
Michael had gotten to the gym early so he could see what his ranking was. He’d fought the final match to a draw, but he’d also lost his first match so he expected to be near the top, but probably not first, but he hoped. Michael went to the gym, the boards for the other classes had been up all week, but the names didn’t mean anything. Now the final board had names on it, it was a big digital board separated into seven sections, the combat section was now filled in, and Michael found his rank easily, he was second. Allison was last and Hope just above that. Sam’s rank was pretty bad, James’ was good, he was in fourth, Tony was ninth, and Jennifer was in 15th. Now he had to wonder if the ice girl, Amy had been serious about a date if he won the combat trials and if second was good enough, he was definitely going to find out after class today.
Sam had used every minute he could to absorb sunlight, skipping classes and lunch and then running to make it to ethics in time. He made it with a minute to spare and the dean told him that he was to go to the gym to talk with Coach Young about his subtlety work. Walking into the gym Sam saw that Coach Young, as well as Coach Tillman were sitting on the bleachers on the far side of the track, Sam also noticed that above their heads was a digit readout board with combat rankings on it, he quickly searched for his name; not in top 10…20…35th, 36 out of 41 students left in freshman HCP, this was devastating. Sam had wanted to make his mark in close combat, with his power he could be stronger than the strongest in class, faster than the fastest, quicker and more agile than the best fighter, starting at 36th was insulting and humiliating. He approached the coaches slowly, he really didn’t want to hear their criticisms of his performance, “good morning Coach Young, Coach Tillman.”
“Good morning Sam, how you feeling?” Coach Young asked.
“Fine sir, been recharging all morning,” Sam said.
“I take it you’ve seen your ranking?” Coach Tillman asked. “And I’m guessing you think you should have gotten a better position?”
“No, I would have liked a better position, but I didn’t expect one, my matches were…bad,” he said fumbling for the right word.
“Yes, they were. And if it had just been a matter of reviewing the video I would have said your first match was entertaining and spectacular enough to warrant a higher place, however, you had the unfortunate distinction of having a telepath listening to your thoughts during your match and she happen to relate to me your thought process,” Coach Tillman said, “about how you used so much energy to heal instead of saving energy for later matches. Sometimes, a hero in a real world scenario often has to make that type of choice, and I can commend you for making a sacrifice in that manner. But strategically, it was a very poor decision, and that is why you are in the place you are.”
“I understand sir, thank you for telling me,” Sam said, shaking Coach Tillman’s hand as he stood to leave.
“Now it’s my turn,” Coach Young said, “You only answered 12 questions and you got a few of those wrong, you almost have negative points on this. Would you like to add anything, explain your method, try to get any more points?”
Sam paused for a few moments to consider, he had traded James answers for healing, would that be cheating or creative? “no sir, I’ll except the score as is.”
“Alright. Fine, could you please send Allison Beckett out when you get back to class,” Coach Young said, he didn’t look happy about Sam not defending himself.
Allison was quite nervous walking out to meet Coach Young, she had debated with herself a lot before she had enacted her plan, now she was quite nervous about explaining it. Now as she was walking toward the Coach she was having second thoughts, the risk didn’t see seem worth the reward now, just a rank in subtlety over the risk of expulsion, and speaking of rank, she saw hers on the wall behind the coach, last place, behind even Hope, and she didn’t even have any offensive powers. “Hi Coach.”
“Good afternoon Allison, your packet is very impressive, 53 questions right, only a few wrong, you have one of the highest scores in the whole class. So how did you do it?” Coach Young asked, his tone was level, but his gaze was a bit unbelieving.
Allison took a deep breath through her nose, paused for a moment and said, “I cheated.”
Coach Young stared her down, he scowled at her, anger in his eyes. “Oh, good,” he said then laughed, “excellent, how’d you do it then?”
“What? You’re not angry?”
“Well it depends on how you cheated, but since the only guideline I gave was that you couldn’t work with other students, I’m pretty confident you came up with something else. So what you got?”
“Well, I am not sure what you know of my living situation.”
“The dean mentioned he got his picks into an old house the university purchased. What about it?”
“Well, he also put in place two chaperones, or babysitters or whatever, one of them is a super with super intelligence and pattern recognition, so I used my power to amp up her trust and love and a few other tweaks and convinced her to help me. She was able to decode and translate almost everything, and then I went out and answered as many as I could, that first week was hard so I didn’t get out as much as I’d have like to, but I did what I could.”
“Excellent, couldn’t hack the computer so you hacked a person, brilliant. I think that is worth…let’s call it 25 points,” Coach Young said.
“Yes and with that you have the highest score in class right now, but others can still defend their answers and get back ahead of you, but it’s looking good.”
The flow of students heading out of ethics to have their subtlety review had been pretty steady, it only took a few minutes for most students, guess most of them hadn’t done anything very creative, including Jennifer. She’d answered more than Sam, but it was still a pretty weak showing, at least her combat rank hadn’t been too bad, 15th. Jennifer was daydreaming when the dean spoke up, “okay students, now is time for your focus ranking exam, you will head down to the combat cell area for this, Professor Scott will be waiting for you. Good luck.” The students filed out and headed to the lift.
Getting out on the observation platform Jennifer saw an older woman standing next to the bleachers. The woman standing there was about 50, if the gray hair could be believed, and most overweight of the professors, not much, but enough to be noticeable in comparison to the other professors, since they are all former heroes, it gave her a more motherly appearance than the others, she had a warm smile for the students. On the bleachers next to her were a bunch of virtual reality head gear; in the last decade or so, and even more so since tech genius was classified as a super power, a number of technologies had evolved in leaps and bounds, and gaming entertainment more than most, nearly every college age student had played an advanced VR game, these looked even more advanced than the commercial units. “Hello class, I am Professor Sherry Scott and this is your focus exam,” she said gesturing the VR units, “first I would like all of you to pick a unit and put in on, but leave the visor up, the unit needs some time to calibrate. I’ll then explain the rest.”
The students all took a unit and placed it on their heads, “your focus exam will be a simple virtual reality game, highest score will be highest rank and so on. The game is a generic fantasy game, dragons, knights, wizards and so forth. The first thing you may notice about the game is that there is no controller, no voice command system, the game can only be controlled with mental control, the same part of the brain where your power comes from, the same part of mind that my class will teach you to harness. Now, once the game begins you will have five minutes in a generic white room to learn how to walk and move. The next phase will place you in a type of armory; now the reason the units need so long to calibrate is that it measures your power, and in the armory you will find weapons and armor that are fantasy amalgamations of your powers; fire power equals magic wand and so forth.
“Then you will leave the armory and begin your adventure, there is no set path or quest or directions, it is up to you to determine how to achieve the highest score in your own way. The VR units will be close to full calibration, you will all be moving into a combat cell now. Some people when accessing that part of their mind can’t separate it from their physical power, and accidents of activating powers have happened, so you will all be alone in your own cell for your safety and others. Now the exam will only take three hours, the same for all of you, unless your character dies, you only get one life, however, because your mind can process the game faster than you can in real life it will feel like the game is going for more like 12 hours. Please look at the board over there for room assignments and head down, the exam will start in three minutes.”
Sam entered the white room, moving wasn’t too hard, a few times his arm or leg twitched when he thought about the process wrong, but in general he could move. He tried to do something more complicated, yoga, his avatar in game wasn’t responding right though, and this was a slow simple process, more complicated action like fighting would be impossible at this level of control. He needed a high score in this exam, with combat and subtlety so low, if he couldn’t do this there was no chance his overall rank would be in the top half of class. He tried doing more things and tried doing them even faster, it was still sluggish and slow to respond, just as he was trying to jump the room shifted into the fantasy armory setting, there were a lot of different weapons and armors and trinkets, the way the professor had put it he thought the armory would just give him the weapons that worked like his power. It looked like picking the right weapons for the game was part of the exam, but what was his power as a weapon? He could be durable like heavy armor, or fast like light armor, he could heal, would that be a magic amulet? He was a melee physical fighter so he avoided the magic wand side and looked for something that felt right.
Allison was trying to figure out how her power could be called a weapon, what kind of weapon could fire emotions, and was there something here that she could use to sense emotions, what would something like that even look like? Another question sprung to Allison’s mind, her power didn’t have any defensive power, so would she get points deducted if she put on armor and took a sword, or would it be a creative solution, but first she had to find her power weapons, walking along the rack of wands she saw a short rod with a heart shaped clear crystal on the end. This was it, she picked it up and focused on anger, pointing it at the wall she fired, the crystal on the end turned red and a beam shot out the front, she tried love and a pink beam shot forth, she tried several different emotions, all came with a different color beam. Next she looked for something that could detect emotions, walking by the armor section she saw a gold circlet with the same heart shaped crystal on it, she put it on, but there was no emotions to detect in the room so she wasn’t sure if it was what she thought it was, although she was 90% sure, so she kept it. And then she decided to risk it and put on some leather armor and hooked a short sword on the belt.
Hope had searched the armory and didn’t find anything that really spoke to her, in the end she picked a plain wooden staff and some average looking leather armor and headed out, even the game thought her power was too useless to give her some magic. Stepping out of the armory she found herself in a forest with a dirt path running out from the door deep into the woods, she decided to follow it. The professor had said that there was no specific path or goal, but following the first path seemed like a more efficient use of time.
If the other students could have seen Sam when he left the armory they probably would have laughed, he would have had the most eclectic collection of weapons, armors, rings and amulets of any student. He found leather boots with wings on the ankles that he thought would mean super speed, he found an armor that seemed to shift it weight and destiny based on how much he focused on it. He had an amulet he was pretty sure was for healing, a helmet that allowed him to enhance his senses, a few rings that enhanced strength and he ended up grabbing a sword and shield. After he found the path he decided to avoid it, figuring everyone would use it and he needed to try and stand out in focus to offset his other ranks. After a few minutes of walking he heard a noise, a kind of guttural grunting like language. He enhanced his hearing and tried to pinpoint how many there were out there, it sounded like three, he could do three. He ran towards the group, jumped over some tall grass and landed in a clearing. Sitting around the fire were three goblins, short, maybe two and a half feet, green, long pointed ear, claws and long pointed teeth. Sam swung his sword though the neck of the closest goblin before any of them even had a chance to react to him. He stabbed the second through the heart as it jumped up, and he turned to find the third was able to grab its sword and was facing Sam, it charged Sam, so he kicked it in the head and it went down hard. And then he felt something hit his neck, the program didn’t really create pain, but it gave a sensation that related that it was supposed to be pain, and if this attack had been real the pain would be intense. He turned towards the attack and saw a goblin in a tree with a blow-gun, he reached up to touch his healing amulet when he felt another hit in the ankle, most of his armor was heavy, but the boots were leather and the goblin’s dart went right through it, he turned to see the second goblin coming out of the tall grass. Again he tried to reach up to the amulet, but his avatar’s arm wasn’t moving, Sam tried harder, he couldn’t move. Then he fell over paralyzed, the last thing he saw were three more goblins with butcher knives coming out of the forest, and the screen switching to ‘GAME OVER.”
Tony had looked around the armory for an all-purpose animal shape shifting ring or amulet, but couldn’t seem to find anything, what he had found was an amulet with a wolf’s head on it. Using it caused him to shift into a werewolf like form, which was actually pretty cool, because he was traveling down a main road at what felt like thirty miles an hour or so, running on all fours, add to that the heightened senses and the strength and the claws and this form was as good as any two other forms combined, although flying would have been nice. After about five minutes of all out sprinting, he encountered a village, he moved to two legs and slowly advanced into the village, he saw a woman near a well in the center of town. She turned when she heard him approached, she fell to the ground and started screaming, Tony backed up a pace and tried to tell her to calm down, but it just came out as a grunt and growl. The woman scrambled backwards, got up and ran toward a large building near the well. The scream seemed to draw others out, in the upper windows of several buildings he could see people looking out, then slamming windows and shutters closed when they saw him. Tony decided he should shift back so he could open a dialog with these people, try to get a quest. The program actually send back a sensation like pain when he shifted, it was nothing like his normal animal shifts. Just as the transformation was finishing up a large group of townsfolk came around the corner in a pretty stereotypical village lynch mob fashion, talking full on pitchforks, torches, old rusted sword, all talking and yelling over each other. In his best and cheesiest fantasy voice he addressed the crowd, “Greetings, good townsfolk! I am the wizard Tony! Is there anything that I can assist you with?”
But it didn’t seem to be working, “you’re a monster!”
“Get out of here!”
“We’ve seem your true self, leave now!” It just went on and on like that, Tony tried to talk over them, get them to calm down, but they weren’t listening, and they just kept on getting closer. It seemed discretion would be the better part of valor here and he turned around and started to run. He tried to activate the amulet again, but it wasn’t working, he felt no energy coming from it. Tony’s sincerely hoped it was not a one use item, because it was the only thing he had actually grabbed, he had no weapons, no armor, and no magic, and the armory was pretty much several miles away by now, that’s if he could even find it again and get back into it.
Michael had also been unable to find a specific item to perfectly match his powers, but he had found an amulet with a dragon on it, but unlike with Tony, Michael had also grabbed armor and weapons, and he had yet to activate the amulet. He’d taken the path outside the armory and then took the road to the left, he kept noticing small paths off to the side of the road, most likely game trails that wouldn’t lead to a quest. But a few miles down the road he noticed a path that could only have been made by repeated passes of a horse and wagon, there was no way to tell how long ago the path had been last used, but it seemed as good a place to start as any. After following the trail for about an hour, he finally reached the entrance of a cave. The cave mouth was huge, 40 or 50 feet tall and a hot, foul wind was coming from within, Michael drew his sword and entered, he walked slow avoiding making too much noise, but the deeper he got the darker it became, he’d also begun to notice many bones littering the floor, the good news was that none of them appeared to be human bones, but Michael wasn’t overly skilled in autonomy so he could be wrong. Deeper into the cave the light finally gave out, so keeping his sword in his right hand and his left hand on the wall, he kept going into the cave. After a while the sound of breathing came into focus, and he took his hand off the wall in order to walk towards it.
“I can see you little knight,” a voice in darkness said, it was a very deep, loud, voice, but Michael could tell it was whispering.
“Who are you?” Michael demanded.
“Ah ha, you come into my home and demand my name? I should roast you alive and suck the marrow from your bones!” by the end of the creature’s sentence it had raised it voice, and it felt like Michael’s ears were bleeding. Whatever was in this cave, Michael had no chance of winning against it, if its voice alone could bring him to his knees; he had to negotiate with it.
“I meant no disrespect. I spoke out of surprise and fear. I sincerely apologize, and request to know your name sir.”
“Very good, and you are right to fear me.” A fire came out of the darkness hitting the ground and instantly starting a large fire, Michael got his first look at the creature. It was almost certainly a dragon. All Michael could see was the head, but it was massive, a mouth at least large enough to swallow Michael whole, but the feature that Michael noticed most was the eyes, and they were milky white, like when a dog goes blind. “I am called Alasatt, who are you?”
“I am Michael. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Ah, wise to show me fealty, so many come here to claim my head or my treasure. None of those ever leave again, and you are in luck, I am in need of those that I can trust. You have no doubt noticed my eyes. I lost my sight years ago in a fight with a wizard and I am now a poor hunter. Others now bring me food in exchange for my treasure, or my scales, which I understand alchemists use in many concoctions. If you do the same, I will reward you. I prefer live meat, and will reward you accordingly if you bring me some.” Alasatt smiled then, it was not a warm smile, but Michael decided that anything that got him out of this cave was a good thing.
“I agree,” Michael said.
“Excellent, you may leave now.”
Jennifer had found a fire wand in the armory, she’d left quickly, headed in the same direction that Sam had, she even encountered the same goblins he did, but she had burned them out from a distance, even the ones hiding in the woods and hadn’t even taken a scratch. But that was hours ago, and she had been wandering the woods ever since. She’d encountered a few animals, a few magical looking ones, but mostly normal animals, and none had been aggressive so she had left them alone. She was starting to get worried that she wouldn’t find anything before time was up. But then the forest opened up and she stood in a huge meadow, with a sparkling pond in the middle of it. And drinking from that pond was a group of winged horses. This was great, if she could catch one of those horses and figure out how to ride it she could get anywhere in this game and really rack up the points. She started walking towards the herd, then when one of them lifted its head to look at her, she slowed her pace, kept her movements smooth and kept her hands up, but kept moving, after a while they had all stopped drinking and were looking at her, a few had unfurled their wings, ready to take off, but most still seemed calm, when she got within 20 feet of them they began to show real agitation. Ears flat against their head, tail whipping back and forth and their wings flapping,
Jennifer continued to approach slowly, speaking in a clam voice, “Whoa there, hey pretty horses, nice and easy, I’m not going to hurt you.” A few of them took off, but the one in front of her stayed put and kept staring at her, she put her hand out and began to pet its nose and forehead, she was able to bring her other arm up and began to pet its neck, taking her other arm she reached around under to neck and began to pet the other side too, but she took a light hold of the neck, in case it decided to bolt. It remained calm, so she quickly moved to the back and jumped on. This startled it, it reared up and spread it wings and ran forward a little, and Jennifer had clung onto the right wing joint, where it met the body. Luckily, it didn’t take off, but instead slowed to a stop, allowing Jennifer to sit up, get the knees under the wings and grab a handful of mane. Now ready, she kicked the horse to go, it ran forward, spread its wings and flapped them many times, the whole thing was quite jarring, but it finally took to the air, the only control Jennifer seems to have was that if she leaned to one side or the other the horse would begin to move that way. But since Jennifer didn’t have a destination in mind anyways she just allowed it to follow the rest of the herd through the air, while she enjoyed the view, although, from this height she could tell the software was having trouble keeping up with the rendering.
Hope, despite her lack of equipment felt that everything was going pretty well, she found the main road, taken it for a few hours and come to a village. Talking to a handful of townsfolk had given her a quest, apparently something was coming in the night and taking livestock, tracks led to the north. Even though the game gave the illusion of a real world, it was pretty clear that it wanted the player to be able to get to their destination once a quest was taken, because the trail leading out north of the village looked like a well-worn bike trail. After about ten minutes of following the trail, the land changed into rocky hills, about five minutes after that Hope began to see signs that animals had been through here, and eaten around here. The trail was still well worn and she finally followed it to a cave. Standing at the mouth she tried to listen in, but couldn’t hear anything. She slowly crept into the cave and as the light began to fade from the entrance she could see a new light source deeper in the cave, she continued to go slow, making sure to watch for side passages where angry beasts could be hiding. Eventually she came to the source of the light; a dying fire, and laying around it were four sleeping forms. With the low light and the fact that they were all covered with blankets made it difficult to tell if they were human or some other fantasy race, it also made it impossible to tell if there were more of them further out from the fire. If they were human and if there was only four Hope was sure she could take them, but if there’s more or they have some supernatural powers, then her staff and skill simply wouldn’t be enough. Ultimately it didn’t matter what the odds were, it’d taken her hours to get here, if she retreated, it would be unlikely she’d find anything else to do, and nothing as easy as ambushing some sleeping men.
She really wished she grabbed another weapon now, any sort of blade would have allowed her to cut one, maybe two throats before she alerted the rest. With a staff she’d have to swing with all her strength to keep one of them from ever waking up, and the sound would be very loud, especially with a cave echo. She decided to get between the two closest forms and take out one then immediately try for the second one before he got his senses. Hope snuck closer to the fire, watching her steps very closely, the leather doing well to muffle her movements. She got right next to her targets, made sure she knew exactly where the heads were, and slowly mimed the movements she’d need to make to strike both of them in succession. She was lucky they didn’t have anyone on watch, because her actions, at least to anyone watching, were not subtle. Finally, Hope brought the staff over her head in a two handed grip and swung down with all her strength into the head of the sleeping man.
The sound was…too realistic for Hope’s liking, but she didn’t dwell on it before turning around and quickly attempted to repeat the process with the next closest man, the man had woke like she feared, but he did not have nearly enough time to register what was happening before the stick connected with his skull as well. She took the chance that both the men would stay down and turned her back to them. The last two men were already moving, one of them had already grabbed his sword and gotten it up, but the other was still on his knees, seemingly tangled in his blanket. Hope decided to take another chance and ignore the one who was up and try for a third easy knockout, she stepped forward and swung her staff from the side like a baseball bat, aiming for the man’s head, but before it could connect, the blow was intercepted by the fourth man. Hope quickly took a few steps back, nearly tripping over one of the downed men.
Hope got her first real look at her opponents, although with the fire so low, even now she couldn’t be 100% sure they were human, but what she could tell is they were both tall, both physically fit and both dirty. If they had armor, they didn’t wear it to bed, so they were both in the fantasy world’s equivalent of underwear. They both had swords, kind of short swords and their stances said they knew how to use them. Hope had been taking martial arts classes for years and had trained with a bo staff, which is why it was the weapon she took, so she was pretty confident she could win again even a well-armed opponent, but two might be difficult. Hope continued to move slowly back, trying to find some flat ground, with enough space for her to get some good swings in. The men approached her slowly and she noticed a little too late she was too far from the fire, as they approached her, they became harder to see, especially their limb, with the deadly weapons in them. One of the men charged her, it was clumsy, and Hope was able to knock the sword aside with one end of her staff, then the man with the other end, but the attack had been a feint, the second man had followed right in the man’s wake and as Hope had swung her staff around into the first man it had left her exposed and she caught a sword along her back, her armor took most of it, but she could definitely feel the impact and she took a large gash to the unarmored part of her shoulder. The pain was intense and her arm didn’t work as well afterwards.
She was able to take a few more steps back, unfortunately further from the light, she could tell that the men worked very well together and their actions were all deliberate. She really didn’t know how to deal with this; at least consciously, but she had training, so she relaxed and let the muscle memory work for her. The first man charged again, the one she was starting to think of as the clumsy one, his attack was nearly identical to the first time, which meant the first man was likely going to try and capitalize on it again. So she used just enough force to throw off the clumsy man, then immediately stepped to the side and blindly swung where she thought the other one would be and she was rewarded with a solid hit on something and the sound of a sword flying off into the darkness. She turned back to the clumsy man quickly and was greeted by the man charging at her with his sword straight out in front of him. It was a ridiculous attack and Hope easily slapped the blade aside and struck his hand, causing him to drop the sword. A quick spin of her staff and she struck his head with enough force to drop him. She was going to turn back and finish off the last man when an arm grabbed her from behind and a second arm came around and brought a blade to her neck.
Hope reacted on instinct, she dropped her staff and reached up with both hands, one grabbed the blade and the other the attacker’s hand. The simulated pain was intense and as much as Hope struggled the man was just too strong. She was desperate, she was legitimately scared and for a moment she forgot all of it was just a game. Her heart was pounding in her ears, her breathing became shallow and out of desperation she activated her power; it would be a profoundly stupid thing to do, because it’d only make the man stronger and her death more inevitable, but for one, she wasn’t thinking at the time and two, it worked, the man collapsed, shaking on the ground behind Hope. She turned around and stared at the man, shocked at what had happened, her thoughts ran in circles and she had trouble processing what had happened. Did she just use her power as a weapon? That chance alone was pushing her towards elation, until she came back to herself and remembered that she was in a video game; it may not and almost certainly did not mean she was capable of performing that action in the real world. But the hope persisted…so much so in fact that she exited the cave, then exited the game and went in search of the focus instructor.
Hope exited her cell and went up to the platform where Professor Scott was watching several game feeds on a tablet, “Professor? May I talk to you for a moment?”
“I didn’t get a notice of your death Miss Simons, and there is still plenty of time left, are you sure it can’t wait?”
“Yes, it can, but I need an answer. I’d be useless in there without figuring this out,” Hope said.
“Very well. Let me pull up your video. I assume it happened near the end of your session?”
“Yes. I…did something with my power; something I’m not sure I am even capable of doing. I need to know if this is an aspect of my powers or a glitch in the game.”
“I see,” Professor Scott said, watching the fight that took place in the cave, “nice technique,” she said finishing up. “Alright, you want the good news or the bad first?”
“I’ll take the good.”
“The good news is yes, the game is very intuitive, if it showed you a new ability, chances are good that you have it.”
Hope nearly squealed with happiness, “and the bad news?”
“The bad news is that the system is not perfect. Powers at the best of times are difficult to understand and it could be wrong. And even if you have this power to ‘weaken’ enemies, it may takes years to develop to a usable level. Plus, you were under incredible stress and moments from ‘death’ when you activated the ability, you may need to replicate those conditions in order to even begin to approach the state of mind necessary to train a new aspect of your power and that may not be safe to do.”
“So, what’s the bottom line?”
Professor Scott laughed at Hope’s boldness, “Bottom line is, you may have a new power and we will help you try to develop it, but I would try to keep your expectations in check. Once the tests are done this week we will schedule a time to meet a professor and we will try to help you. Now you should return to the game.”
“Alright, thank you professor,” Hope said and she returned to cell to finish up her game.
Tony had no luck once he left the village, he’d spent most of his time trying to find the armory again, but he couldn’t find it and he also couldn’t get his amulet to work again. So he’d done almost nothing the entire game session. Once the game had ended he gotten out of the HCP complex quickly so he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone about it and he’d been surprised when he got home to find Sam once again in the backyard absorbing sunlight; he must have lost his life in-game.
Tony was sitting in the living room watching TV when Michael came in and sat on one of the other couches, he had a big smile on his face. “What are you so happy about? You do well in the focus or something?”
“What? Oh, I don’t know. I found a dragon, he sent me to go get some food, so I found the nearest town, bought some meat, brought it back to the dragon and got a bag of gold for it,” Michael said.
“That’s it? You went shopping? Why are you happy about that?”
“Oh, that’s not why I’m smiling, Amy agreed to go out with me.”
“Really, which one’s Amy?”
“The tall blonde ice user.”
“Nice,” Tony said, “I also got a girl’s number today.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Probably not, she’s not in the program. She’s a powered girl named El.”
“A powered!? You sure that’s a good idea?”
“Why would it be a problem?” Tony asked confused, he knew powereds had a huge stigma attached to them, but he didn’t think someone like Michael, who knew what it was like to be ostracized, would have a problem.
“Powereds stand out, which means if you’re with her, you’ll stand out. We need to be invisible up here. Plus any relationship with someone outside the program will be a huge obstacle, you have to keep a huge part of your life secret. Then, if you do manage to go the distance you’ll have to explain why you’re getting into crazy good shape; your whole foundation of a relationship will be based on lies of omission.”
“Wow…you have given this a lot more thought than I ever would. I don’t plan on asking her to marry me tomorrow or something, it’s just a few dates,” Tony said.
“But why start something if it can only fail?” Michael asked, and Tony thought there was a deeper story in there somewhere, but he didn’t press it.
“Again, I’m not looking for anything serious, but even if I was it doesn’t mean it would fail. Plus, what if I did tell her everything? It’s only an SI infraction if she goes and tells someone else. Maybe she wouldn’t do that.”
“But it’s not just the HCP or your powers, it’s your family’s crimes, and it’s the special program that’s in effect that got us in here. Plus, if you told her about you, it means you’re putting the rest of us at risk, because it’s not a big leap to figure your roommate are in the same boat. I don’t think you have the right to make that decision.”
“So, what, the house gets to dictate each other’s personal lives now?” Tony asked genuinely curious.
“…yes, to a point, I think. I don’t know, but it seems unfair that you could make a decision that risks all our futures.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I’m still going to see where it goes, if it’s too awkward with lies and half-truths, then I’ll end it, alright?”