Five faces stared uncomprehendingly at the scene on the conference room’s large monitor. The sixth stared back impassively at the disbelieving expressions, having watched the recording play out so many times herself that she felt no further shock from additional replays.
“Is he… Is he asking Azure Ogre for an… autograph?” Overton’s red-haired Weapons Instructor was the first at the table to find her voice. “That’s… That takes some serious balls. I kinda want to shake this guy’s hand before I tear his arm off and beat him to death with it now.”
“So, two Heroes and a dozen highly-trained DVA agents, and they all just let this guy waltz past?” James Rachd was the next to speak, and there was no trace of grudging admiration in his voice.
“Three Heroes and sixteen agents.” The elderly Focus Instructor had turned back to the files passed out to accompany the video presentation as soon as Dani’s first comment broke the spell of shock in the room. “Can we now fully conclude that our bomb-planter is a Super, beyond any doubts that a few ignorant idiots continue to try to raise?”
“As of this morning when the DVA formally reviewed this capture attempt, our mystery man is now officially a Super terrorist.” Elena Martinez tapped a few buttons on the remote in her hand and the scene on the monitor clicked off. “The resources we can bring to bear in finding him have just doubled, unfortunately…”
“We have no idea how to actually apprehend him at this point.” Kathryn Jilles sighed and shook her head before making eye contact with the Subtlety Instructor. “And, from the look on your face, there’s a second ‘unfortunately’ just waiting in the wings, isn’t there?”
Elena rolled her eyes at the idea that it was her face that the Dean was reading, but nodded in response. “We’re also back to being virtually blind, electronically speaking, to his movements.”
“He’s got ANOTHER technopath friend?” Hai Nguyen suddenly sat bolt upright as she asked the question.
“Nothing quite so grandiose as that, it appears.” A small grin briefly flashed out from Elena’s neutral expression as she produced another file from the case by her seat. “Our target has simply gone back to an older business associate, he’s hired the Collective.”
Expectant silence met the Subtlety Instructor’s remark, finally broken by the impatient voice of James Rachd. “And that would be…?”
“Hackers-for-hire. They’re very expensive and very good, but they also go out of their way to make sure they DON’T have any Supers or Powereds working in their group.”
“That seems… Is it weird that I’m upset about a criminal group having illegal and prejudicial hiring practices?” Dani Reyes leaned back in her chair with a frown as she considered her own question. “Also, that seems REALLY dumb. There’s Supers out there that can do things that the best normal hacker in the world couldn’t even dream of. And I know plenty of them will do those things for money!”
“They don’t want to deal with us.” The Control Instructor leaned back in her seat, a look of relief flickered momentarily across her features when the technopath idea was shot down. “If there’s no Supers or Powereds in their group, they’re not going to be targeted by Heroes.” A smirk appeared on the Korean woman’s face. “Well, NORMALLY they wouldn’t be targeted by Heroes.”
“How the hell did you track down this guy’s older business associates anyways?” Anthony Banning finally joined the discussion, having taken the extra time to recheck all the papers in front of him. “There’s nothing in here that goes back more than three years, and no verified associates other than that Gruber guy in France.”
“Much as I’d love to take the credit for it, someone else did the legwork on this one.” Elena slid the heavy file in her hands towards the Ranged Combat Instructor, then produced several more for the other Instructors.
“Mayhem and her Super Subtlety team?” Dani threw out her guess as she scattered the contents of her file on the table in front of her, apparently somehow better able to process information when it was organized as chaotically as possible.
“Nope. All of this came from a student, believe it or not. One of our returning juniors.”
“Ms Blake continues to dramatically exceed expectations then.” The Focus Instructor half-muttered his response as he found himself rapidly engrossed in the amount of new data sitting in front of him.
“Actually this one came from Ms Abbott.”
Shocked silence once again reigned supreme around the conference room table.
“That… actually that makes a lot more sense than Ms Blake.” Dean Jilles was first to find her voice in response to the latest round of surprise. “Almost nothing in here originated domestically. France, Germany, the UK, Turkey, Hungary… It looks like our ‘John Doe’ has had quite the illustrious, and far-traveled, career.”
“Wait, that’s his actual name?” It was Dani’s turn to interject again as she found the same page the Dean had just referenced. “I thought that was only for unidentified bodies in TV shows.”
“Technically it’s for unidentified bodies OR unidentified criminals, and in this case it’s the contact name our guy apparently goes by.” Elena shrugged as she paged absently through the folder she’d already read a dozen times that morning. “I have to say it’s a fitting appellation in this case.”
“And more confirmation that the DVA issues with tracking Supers wasn’t some weird fluke.” Anthony spoke up as another part of the file caught his attention. “But still no concrete information on his abilities. How the hell do we catch this guy? We put a Hero in the same room with him, and the guy gets his own mugshot autographed on his way out. Do we finally have a full-on mind controller?”
“If that were the case, I doubt he’d have stayed this far off the grid no matter how good his technical backup was.” Dean Jilles shook her head at the nervous tone in the Ranged Combat Instructor’s voice. “Everything points to something a lot more subtly than direct control. Like people just can’t focus on him well enough to remember he’s there unless he’s actively addressing them.”
“More information is good, I guess.” Rachd glared down at the still-unopened file in front of him as he spoke without much enthusiasm. “But none of this answers the real question; how the hell do we bring this guy in?”
“We use a Null. Or maybe a robot. Duh.” Dani looked up from her papers as she responded, a decidedly evil smile plastered across her face. “So, next thing’s first. Orientation isn’t until tomorrow. Who wants to find out if we can break this ‘the Collective’ in less than 24 hours?”
“You know, I thought this level of dedication was impressive at the start of the summer.” Amanda Jacobson leaned against the basement door-frame as she addressed her statement more to the ceiling than to the room’s lone occupant. “Now, I’m starting to wonder if it’s a sign of some deep-rooted psychological issue. I really hope not, because if you’re crazy then there’s better than even odds that I’m crazy too.”
The only response for several seconds was a series of strained grunts, followed by an exasperated sigh.
“You know you’re going to be late for your orientation. Which is especially impressive since you’ve got a teleporter waiting upstairs to pop you over there.” Amanda left her perch against the door-frame and strode over to stand next to a massive mechanical apparatus, and looked down at the panting form of her younger sister. “I mean honestly, do you really think you’re going to make some kind of breakthrough in the next five minutes?”
“I don’t know.” Amelia Jacobson slid down the reinforced bench she laid on and sat up to look at her sister. “I mean, I SHOULD be getting stronger. Adaptation is the only core ability that makes sense with how my power has grown, but I can’t already be hitting a wall.”
“Already?” The sarcastic question from the doorway drew the attention of both sisters. “What are you pushing on that monstrosity these days, a hundred-fifty tons? One-sixty?” Beulah Abbott walked into the room and poked gingerly at the ‘monstrosity.’
“One-sixty-five is the limit. I can’t push past it, even tho-…”
Amelia’s speech was interrupted by by the Israeli teleporter blowing a loud raspberry at her. “One hundred and sixty-five tons. That puts you in what, the top ten Strongman type Supers in the country?”
“Only top twenty.” Amanda answered while her sister was still glaring rudely at her classmate. “Although considering how long some of the top of the list have been off the grid, she might actually be top fifteen.”
“And all that as a junior in the HCP. Now stop whining and go rinse off. Orientation starts in eight minutes and I will leave your skinny ass in Chicago if you aren’t ready to go by then.” Beulah pointed at the room’s only other notable furnishing as she spoke; a large sink with an attached towel-rack.
“I’m not saying I’m not strong already. I’m just saying I don’t see how I’ll get to the end of the program if I can’t improve my powers any further.” Amelia made her way over to the indicated sink she responded. “I mean what are they going to do, just let me coast for two more years?”
“As far as your powers go? Hell yes you can coast for the next two years.” Beulah’s response drew a nod of agreement from Amanda. “So now you get to focus all your energy on improving your skill instead of trying to pile on even MORE ludicrous levels of strength. Maybe by the end of this year you won’t look so much like a spastic twelve year old in the combat matches.”
“I do NOT fight like a twelve year old! Anymore…” The last word word was a bit muffled as Amelia ducked her head under the water for a moment before grabbing a towel.
“That’s true. Now she fights more like that kid from that Japanese cartoon with all the boxing. You know, all over-exaggerated strikes and posing aft-…”
“Alright! Ready-to-go-now!” Amelia interrupted the continued critique as both her tormentors broke down into giggles. “Seriously, only have two minutes to get to Overton, you two can get together to continue to make fun of me later.”
“I don’t know…” Amanda twirled a finger through her dirty-blonde hair and adopted an expression of serious contemplation. “We could cram a lot more making fun of you into the next ninety seconds.”
Amelia glared at her sister for a moment, then held up a hand in front of her classmate before Beulah could add anything more. “I will pay you an extra five hundred dollars if we go to Overton NOW without another word spoken.”
Amanda Jacobson’s laughter was briefly drowned out by a loud cracking sound, but it persisted long after the two HCP students had vanished.
Kathryn Jilles smiled as she entered the small lecture hall to find all twenty members of the junior class seated quietly to await her arrival. A situation that the telepath was fully aware had only existed for the past few seconds.
“Welcome back everyone, and congratulations on making it to the third year of the Hero Certification Program.” The dean let her gaze flicker across all the students before settling on one. “And it’s good to see you continuing in your role as both campus monitor and class organizer, Ms Blake.”
“It’s the second one that’s the hard part.” A wave of stifled chuckles swept through the classroom at the telepathic response, and even Kathryn allowed herself a brief smile.
“I imagine it is. So, first item of business.” The dean’s smile returned for a moment as she sensed the surprise from the class as she snatched a chair from across the room and seated herself facing the students instead of taking the position behind the lectern. “This past summer has brought no changes to the staff of our Oversight Committee, and there are no intended changes to how we expect you to interact with them.”
“Ignore them unless we find them somewhere they aren’t supposed to be, then detain by any means necessary?” The mostly rhetorical question from Scott Jameson saw the class surprised again when the dean shook her head in response.
“I don’t recall restricting students to only NECESSARY means of detainment. ‘Any non-lethal means of detainment that you deem fit,’ were your instructions.” A few predatory grins met this clarification.
“Moving along, all of you submitted your selections for your continued majors after the class final last year. None of your Instructors have challenged your selections, so unless someone has changed their mind over the summer you should all know where you’re headed.” A brief pause before she asked the requisite question. “Do any of you wish to change your selections?”
Silence and a few headshakes were the response from the junior class as the dean waited a few moments before continuing. “So now onto the portion of orientation that at least a FEW of you are likely interested in.”
“Why would only a few of us be interested?” The confused question from Gerard Finne drew a few smothered laughs, and one telepathic giggle.
“Because, Mr Finne, the majority of your class has already received the contents of this speech from one of your classmates.” On queue, Catalina Blake offered a wave and a wink to the now less-confused looking Gerard.
“So, to keep this short so as not to rob you of more of your rapidly dwindling vacation time than necessary, a brief overview of the primary emphasis for your third year.” Near the end of the dean’s statement, the auburn-haired telepath in the audience let out an audible gasp of surprise, but that was quickly drowned out as the classroom door exploded inward in a shower of splinters and four figures darted into the room.
Desks and chairs flew as the startled juniors scrambled to their feet to adopt combat stances, but none of them had enough time to properly act before all four of the mystery persons were flung into the ceiling. An instant later each of the four was pinned, face first, into a different wall.
“Man, we sucked even more than the guys who came in for OUR class did.” The muffled complaint came from one of the four figures, a purple-haired female wearing a white bodysuit.
“I find that this little demonstration catches the interest of the class a little better than a simple speech.” The dean smiled again as the still wary juniors began to slowly right the knocked-over furniture and she released the four HCP seniors. “As those of you not pre-informed have hopefully guessed, the junior class curriculum focuses mostly around one of the most important skillsets for a Hero to have in the field; fighting against groups of opponents.”
“And the dean is scary good at it.” The declaration came again from the purple-haired senior as her classmates practically carried her from the room. “And scary, scary fast.”
The junior class turned their attention back towards the petite woman seated at the front of the room. A woman that they all realized was seated in the exact same relaxed posture she’d been in before the simulated attack.
“In fairness, she did know that they were coming.” Kathryn actually let a brief laugh escape her lips in response to the younger telepath’s attempt to dispel the illusion of invincibility the dean had suddenly gained.
“That is true. If it had been an ACTUAL surprise attack, I might have had to stand up.” Some scattered laughter came from the juniors as the class relaxed further. “Like I said, we mostly just do it this way to make sure we have your attention more completely focused than it would be by another boring speech. And now that you all know what you have to look forward to this year. Enjoy your last evening of summer everyone!”
The heavy-set black man stepped to one side and held the door open with a cheerful smile and a wave as a virtual river of men and women in moderately-priced office wear (the kind that practically screams ‘GOVERNMENT WORKER’) filed past him.
“Rodins, you working late again?” A slightly better-dressed silver-haired man stepped out of the exiting crowd long enough to query the large man holding the door open.
“Not a morning person, Director Stilten. No creative juices to work with before noon.” Ty’s smile widened a little more as his quip was met with a chuckle from his boss.
“Well, whatever it takes to get the work done I suppose. Your work so far has been fantastic!” The silver-haired man turned to depart with a wave to his subordinate, that Ty quickly returned.
“Great to hear, boss…” Ty trailed off as it became obvious that the older man was no longer listening.
A few more seconds saw the exodus of office workers slow to a trickle, and Ty made his way through the door and strode unhurriedly towards his office. Ty exchanged greetings with the few other late-stayers in the DVA office until he finally reached the relative privacy of a nearly paper-thin office door. The moment the latch clicked behind him, Ty’s demeanor shifted from cheerful to frantic as he practically tore an oversized smartphone out of his pocket.
“This plan is going to get us both caught. You know that, right?” Ty whispered angrily at the rectangular device, and a moment later the screen blinked to life.
‘If you’ve come up with a superior plan in the last twelve hours, I would be willing to entertain it.’ The text flashed onto the screen for only a couple seconds before vanishing.
“Yeah, because I’m such a brilliant tactician, obviously. Just give me some TIME and maybe I ca-…”
‘Time is a finite resource. You and your friends should be aware of that more than most.’
“You REALLY need to stop bringing up my friends like that.”
‘Apologies. I was simply trying to help you focus.’
“So, what’s on the agenda for this evening?” Ty sighed as he whispered the last question and sank into his office chair.
‘Director Stilten’s terminal should be easy enough for you to access from here. Then we’ll move onto systems outside of your immediate department.’
“How the hell did I get sucked into this shit.” Ty barely mumbled the words under his breath, but the phone now sitting on his desk flashed again in response.
‘By doing exactly what you’ll be doing tonight; breaking into computer systems that you shouldn’t.’
“That was intended as a rhetorical question, you know.” A flexing of fingers and cracking of knuckles later, and the young Super was typing away at his keyboard. He didn’t bother glancing down again at the last message from the modified smartphone. It was one he’d seen enough times over the past couple weeks.
‘Yes, I do know rhetorical questions.’