All Work, No Play
The tall blonde woman forced herself to lean casually against the wall as a group of older students moved by, offering a brief wave to a few familiar faces that passed. Amelia forced herself to continue breathing normally as she waited for the group to pass around the corner and out of sight, then turned to face the door she’d been pointedly ignoring a second ago.
Stop worrying so much, you did the work, it’ll be fine. In, grab, out. The top ranked Sophomore produced a thin sheet of plastic from her uniform pocket and quickly unrolled it over the small pad next to the door. The plastic hung freely while Amelia slowly counted to five, then suddenly bonded tightly to the pad. The young woman smiled and pressed her thumb firmly into the center of the scanning pad.
Amelia’s smile began to fade as nothing immediately happened, but returned in force as the surface flashed green and the door slid silently open. The blonde girl carefully peeled her plastic sheet from the pad then darted through the open doorway with a skip in her step. As the door slid closed behind her the tall girl reached into another pocket to produce a small light, pointedly ignoring the switch next to the door that would normally have provided the room’s illumination.
The powerful flashlight clicking on in the darkness would have forced most people to wait several seconds for their eyes to readjust. Fortunately Amelia had accustomed herself to far more violent changes in lighting and required no such adjustment, striding confidently into the room in search of her prize. The storeroom was stacked haphazardly with dozens of large file boxes, all of which the blonde ignored as she made her way to the back corner of the room.
Clenching the light carefully in her teeth, Amelia knelt in the back corner and pushed her fingers directly into the floor panel there. A quick jerk of her incredibly powerful arms tore the panel free, along with the concealed locking mechanism and nearly invisible hinges. The tall girl smiled as she looked down into the hidden compartment, the flashlight reflecting of the garishly painted safe therein.
Amelia placed the floor panel carefully to the side, and then reached in to offer similar treatment to the pink and orange office safe. The flexing in the girl’s forearms was barely perceptible as she easily removed the safe door. Her expression fell as the light shined inside to reveal absolutely nothing waiting for her.
“What the hell?” Amelia stared dumbfounded at the empty safe for several long seconds before realizing that the storeroom’s door had opened again.
“Excellent effort, Ms Jacobson, but I’m afraid a little too late. Ms James already acquired this safe’s contents two days ago.” Amelia turned to see the form of her Focus Instructor silhouetted in the doorway.
“Two day… She got the damned thing the same day we got the assignment?” Disbelief was thick in the top ranked Sophomore’s voice. “How the hell did she find it that fast?”
“You’d have to inquire that of Ms James directly, I’m afraid Professor Martinez would frown on my sharing any such details.” Professor Vree turned to exit the room, but turned to look back over his shoulder. “Please be sure to replace that panel before you go, Ms Jacobson.”
Amelia stared after the departing professor for several seconds with an expression caught somewhere between frustration and amusement. Amusement eventually won out as she found herself giggling at the whole situation. Alright, that’s one avenue closed. On to the next one! The powerful blonde accompanied her thought by carefully fitting the panel back into the floor. A soft creak of complaining metal emanated from beneath her hands as she forced the panel back into place, deforming the metal plate and securing it far more tightly than its original lock and hinges ever had.
Let the next person who tracks this one down figure out why the panel doesn’t open anymore. Amelia grinned to herself at the thought, before standing to stride out of the storeroom. Maybe I can try for Dani’s safe. It’s probably my best bet, no one else will be crazy enough to go for it this early!
“So what kind of credits are needed to complete the Criminology Associate’s? And how many of those carry over for the Behavioral Psych?” Barry Jeung found himself standing slack-jawed with shock as he walked into his townhouse dorm’s living room and overheard his roommate’s phone conversation. “Thanks, just send that all to my email, okay? Thanks again.”
“Dude, what the hell?” Aaron Sexton spun quickly to his feet at the unexpectedly sharp question from behind him. “You’re quitting?”
The blond youth delayed for a moment as he took a few breaths. “Christ Barry, make some noise when you come in. And no, I’m not quitting.”
“Then I reiterate; What the hell?”
Aaron sighed and sank back down into the sofa. “Just making some contingency plans.”
“Yea, like I’m going to let you blow me off with THAT non-answer. Do I have to pin your ass under something heavy and call for Mike or Cat to come rummage through your head, or are you gonna talk to me?” Barry moved into the room and dropped into one of the worn chairs facing his roommate. “Because I WILL do that, Aaron. It’s enough bullshit that five of us are already screwed. You’d better not be giving up this early.”
“I’m not giving up, I’m just being realistic.” Aaron held his hands up defensively as the Korean youth lifted a rapidly growing cushion in a threatening manner.
“Look, my ability hasn’t been improving as fast as I thought it would when I applied. If I don’t figure out how to kick things into a new gear soon, I don’t think I’ve got a realistic shot at making the cutoff.”
“And you think that planning your way out this far in advance isn’t just sabotaging yourself?”
“No, it’s not. Maybe it would be for someone like YOU.” Aaron smirked as his roommate responded to the insult with a familiar gesture. “There’s a bit more to it than that, but I don’t want to get into it until after I take my run at things. Can you trust me that far?”
“You know Cat probably already knows whatever the hell it is, right?”
“I, along with most of the rest of our class, have accepted that Cat is the all-knowing yet benevolent patron saint of our class. I trust her not to share my secrets, unless I start planning a murder-spree or something.”
“Give me something, Aaron. I could still get Mike to drag it out of you.”
“Feel free, Barry.” Aaron relaxed back into the couch and retrieved the remote from between the cushions. “This conversation is depressing enough, at least the combat and interrogation would make it entertaining. You want to order a pizza?”
Barry sighed loudly. “You promise you’re not giving up?” Aaron rolled his eyes at the question but nodded in response. “Good, because I swear I will track you down and kick your ass if you do. Let’s get sushi instead, I’ll grab the menus.”
“GOD DAMMIT!” Scott’s curse echoed through the forested simulation room as he watched his third target, the simulated strongman, roll through a pair of ‘civilian’ bots as the magnetic slug tore into its chest.
The frustrated young Super stomped his way back to the observation benches to enter the reset code into the camouflaged control pad and waited for the robots below him to be reset.
“Last run for the day, Mr Jameson.” Scott started at the unexpected declaration from behind him, before turning to face his Ranged Combat Instructor. “You’ve already given the repair systems quite a long project to complete before class tomorrow.”
“Sorry, Professor. It’s just so damned frustrating.” The short, sandy-haired youth turned back to look at the scene but didn’t give the ‘start’ command. “A strongman would really bounce like that, wouldn’t he?”
“Not all of them, Mr Jameson.” Anthony moved up and seated himself on one of the benches. “Ms Jacobson, for example, would absorb too much of the kinetic energy to be launched that far, and some are so heavy that you’d be more likely to punch through them with a projectile like yours.”
“It’s stupid, I should be able to do this. Lord knows that mom spent enough time training me how to check for clear firing lines behind a target.”
“Firing lines tend to be easily predicted, Mr Jameson. A bouncing and flailing body tends to move a bit more chaotically.”
“But I can’t engage a target until it shows itself as hostile, and the big one doesn’t engage in anything overt until he’s in the middle of the crowd. How the hell am I supposed to take him down at a safe angle when he’s surrounded?”
“That’s part of the challenge of this course, Mr Jameson.”
Scott rolled his eyes at the predictable response from his Instructor, then turned his attention back to the ‘at rest’ course in front of him. The silence stretched on for several minutes as the Sophomore examined the simulated crowd milling through their routines. Finally he walked back to the bench and punched in the shutdown code for the course.
“Calling it an early night, Mr Jameson?” There was a note of surprise in the Instructor’s voice.
“Sorry not to give you another show, Professor.” Scott smiled as he began making his way back down the hill and towards the simulation room’s exit. “I think I’ve got this figured out now, though.”
“Gotta run, Professor Banning! I’ve got some Control exercises I still need to work on!”
James Rachd was a man who had seen a lot of violence in his lifetime. His tours with Force Ops had been anything but bloodless, and his career as a Hero was mostly comprised of being called in to situations that needed a very ‘final’ resolution. He’d dismantled rogue Supers and Powereds with calm precision, and literally scraped the remains off his armored gloves and boots without showing any outward emotion. Yet the grizzled Combat Instructor found himself wincing as his opponent rolled to a stop and immediately began to pull herself to her feet.
“Dammit, Johnson. STAY DOWN.” A small trickle of blood ran down the bald man’s face as he barked out the command, a testament to his opponent’s persistence with the spiked knuckle-dusters she’d worn for this challenge.
“Nuh-uh.” Tasha was grinning as she pulled herself fully upright again, her self-healing abilities repairing even the catastrophic damage from each of the MUCH stronger man’s blows in fractions of a second. “We’ve barely gone for ninety seconds, Coach. And you only let me get the one hit in so far.” The heavily muscled woman threw herself again at the Instructor, literally glowing with energy as she turned both her healing and amplifying abilities inward at the maximum she could sustain.
Rachd stepped in to meet the rush and landed a skull-cracking jab. He was unsurprised his extremely persistent opponent refused to go down, but her deft evasion of his follow-up blow did catch him off guard. The solid haymaker that landed cleanly in the Instructor’s left eye drew more blood, but it also left the tall girl far too exposed.
“And we’re done.” The coach accompanied his statement by switching his technique from striking to grappling, easily flipping his opponent to the floor. He felt both arms break under his hold, as well as a symphony of additional wet *CRACKS* from somewhere in the muscular woman’s torso.
There was a genuine look of admiration on the man’s face when the girl wrenched one of her broken arms free, even as he cleanly intercepted the instantly healed limb as it swung wildly for his face again. Bone gave way again under the man’s grip, carefully maintained this time as he wrapped the shattered arm around its owner’s throat and applied enough pressure to cut off her airflow.
Tasha continued to struggle for several long seconds, even getting an angle to slam repeated kicks with a heavy boot into the back of Rachd’s skull. The Combat Instructor never flinched from the assault as it slowly wavered, then ceased at the same time his opponent stopped glowing.
“HEALER!” Rachd’s bellow would likely have been heard without the benefit of the combat room’s monitoring equipment, and the petite form of Kaori Kimura was through the door before the echo died away.
Almost the same second the Japanese girl had line of sight to her injured classmate, Tasha was sitting up and coughing wetly. A moment later the familiar glow of her own power rippled across her body, and the muscular woman was pulling herself to her feet.
“Dammit, if I could’ve gotten you in both eyes I bet I would have taken you out.” The cocky tone seemed completely out of place from the woman who had just recently been laying broken and half-dead on the floor, and it forced a gravelly chuckle from the Combat Instructor.
“You still weren’t hitting hard enough to blind, Johnson. And blinding a strongman isn’t necessarily a GOOD idea unless you’re sure you’ve got someone on your side to take him down. It tends to just up the collateral damage.”
“So what I’m hearing is I need better spikes for these gauntlet things.” Tasha waved her hands expressively, showing off the recently acquired items. “That or I need to do this final with some REAL weaponry. Something I can get some leverage behind.”
“So drop Close Combat next year and stick with Weapons.” The dismissive advice from the Instructor was met with a disdainful look from his student. “Either way, that was almost two minutes. You actually hurt me a little bit there, and you were smart enough to go for the eyes instead of being the hundredth student to get a leg crushed trying for the groin shot on a strongman. It’s good enough for a low C at least.”
“You’re bleeding out of your eyeball and I made you flinch. High C, at LEAST.”
Rachd chuckled again as the Sophomore attempted to negotiate a better grade. “Low C, passing grade, and I’ll admit in a room full of recording devices that you did far better than I ever thought you would. Nice work, Johnson.” Tasha actually flushed at the unexpected compliment, staying silent long enough for the bald coach to stalk in close. “Now take the grade, and don’t let me see you in this discipline next year. Got it?”
“You know I’ll find a way to pass again, grumpy old bastard.” The muscular woman didn’t flinch back from the glare her response elicited.
Rachd finally broke eye contact with a deep, genuine, laugh. “I actually believe you might. Now go focus on the stuff you’ve got REAL talent for. Dismissed, Johnson.”
The Close Combat Instructor remained where he was standing as the taller student exited, and allowed a smile to make its way across his face at the cheering that met her as the door opened.
“So, two weeks into the new term, progress reports please?” Dean Jilles made her request to the Instructors gathered in the conference room as she entered and made her way to her own seat. The first week back from break had been nerve wracking for all of the HCP staff, as they’d deeply wanted to still be out on the street hunting for clues on the people who’d attacked them. The people who had killed one of their own.
“You first.” The quick response from Overton’s Weapons Instructor was met with a chorus of nods and sharp looks at the Dean. “We stayed off the streets like good little boys and girls, and you’re coming from meeting with Mayhem. How are her people doing?”
Kathryn sighed, but wore a wry smile as she internally acknowledged that she would likely have made the same demand with reversed positions. “The clues are still there, Mayhem’s people are GOOD. Better at this than we were at any rate.” The Dean pretended to ignore the hurt look her Subtlety Instructor shot her as she continued. “It probably helps that they aren’t so close to the problem, emotionally. They’re convinced that there’s at least three different origins for the trails we’ve been hunting on, and at least one of the ‘masterminds’ is getting a bit desperate.”
“Oh?” The question from the Focus Instructor packed an incredible amount of meaning into a single syllable.
“Someone is looking to actively hire some of the local low-level Super criminals to try and somehow back us off.” The Dean allowed a moment for predatory smiles and stifled chuckles to surface around the table before moving on. “Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, the locals that aren’t already off the streets and in prison have been staying that way because they’re smart enough not to tangle directly with Heroes. And even though the attempt to start a direct confrontation reeks of desperation, there haven’t been any real leads to indicate where the orders are originating from.”
“Our European technopath at work again, covering trails?” Hai’s question drew some dark looks around the table. Heroes were never happy to be reminded of criminals beyond their jurisdiction.
“No, he’s a completely separate entity so far that’s being tracked through different means. Our biggest local agitator is going the opposite route to avoid leaving an easy trail, all signs indicate extremely low-tech with multiple couriers making blind drops and pickups. One of Mayhem’s people says it reminds her of an insider trading case she had to study back at college, which may indicate that this trail heads towards a corporate villain as opposed to a Super.”
“What kind of Hero studies insider trading at college?” The rhetorical question from Rachd was answered with a smile by the Dean.
“The kind with a Juris Doctorate and a day job as an attorney. Some people are just overachievers I guess. In any event, our biggest fear has failed to materialize; our opponents are not so connected that they’ve noticed the difference between US being out on the street and Street Level’s Subtlety Heroes stepping in for us.”
“You said three origins for the various clues. One’s the escalating low tech looking for muscle, two’s our overseas Super hacker extraordinaire,” Anthony Banning was listing off points on his fingers as he spoke. “Who’s three?”
“Three is our least obvious trail right now, to the level where not all of the Heroes think that it’s actually a lead on one of our current enemies. Just a lot of little signs that one or more outsiders are actively trying to pick up any information they can about local Supers’ activities, including local Heroes. The people working for this last potential person or group are being ultra-cautious. Any hint that we’re questioning the same locals that they hit up for intel and that trail goes cold instantly.”
“Sounds like at least one of our opponents might be getting ready to make a break for it rather than stick this thing out.” The observation from Elena drew mixed reactions from around the table.
“Then they’ll find out it’s a little too late for that.” The finality of the Dean’s answer drew another round of predatory grins from her Instructors. “Now, YOUR turns. Progress reports?”
“Freshman aren’t doing so hot as last year’s crop, but that’s a pretty high bar to hold any HCP class to if we’re being honest.” Rachd actually sounded proud of his students, a tone that shocked the other professors as he continued. “Twenty six made it through, but after two weeks on this side of the break I’m pretty sure we’ve got one more washout that’s hanging on by a thread. Trevor Gelden is a great blaster, but he’s rapidly falling behind the rest of the Combat class since he pretty much refuses to fight without his powers. We could try transferring him to Alternative, and letting him know exactly WHY that’s happening, but color me less than hopeful that it’ll get us any improvement.”
“I agree with Rachd’s assessment on the Freshmen, though I don’t think we should bother transferring Mr Gelden.” Elena’s harsh assessment drew some surprised glances from the others. “He barely made it through the physical requirements last semester and he’s not working to improve in that area. Even if he can hang on til the end of the year, he’s not going to be able to advance. He picked Combat, give him another week to prove if he can hack it and then…” The Alternative Instructor trailed off with a dismissive shrug.
“Alright, who wants to go first on the Sophomore class?”
“They’re going to burn themselves out if they keep going at this rate.” The quiet assessment from the Weapons Instructor was met with sad looks of agreement around the table. “The Juniors and Seniors too, they’re all pushing too hard without enough downtime. We’re going to need a plan to kick them out of overdrive or we’re going to lose half of them to mental fatigue.”
“I don’t know about ‘half.'” The interjection from the Focus Instructor managed to sound amused and serious simultaneously. “But it’s going to hurt their performance in the long run. I say we let them run with it until spring break, and if they haven’t started slowing down, we can take some direct action.”
“You have something in mind, Laurence?” The Dean’s question drew a smile from the older telepath.
“We have all the resources of the HCP to work with, I’m sure we can come up with SOMETHING to distract eighty-eight college students with for a week. Overton’s program has never done any major sponsored spring break events, like those at Korman, Lander or West, correct?”
“Nothing like the long tradition of drunken rafting and setting small forest fires, no.” Elena’s response drew chuckles from the gathered HCP staff. “Now what do you have up your sleeve, old man?”
“We all have quite a number of favors we can call in, and I believe our students’ mental well-being is worth a few of those favors to each of us. And since HCP sponsored spring break festivities are traditional at more than half the other programs, there would be nothing untoward for our Oversight Committee to report if we were to launch such a tradition here.”
“There would be if we suddenly did it for JUST the Sophomores.” Dani’s observation was heavily tinged with suppressed curiosity. “But you’re talking about something for ALL the classes, since it’s not just the Sophomores that are overworking. I think you’re overlooking the biggest problem with an ‘HCP Spring Break’ though.”
“Bet you a case of twenty year reserve that I’m not.”
The Weapons Instructor snorted dismissively at the bet. “Never take a wager from a telepath in the same room as you. So how do we get the kids to all sign up for your great spring break escape?”
“Easy. We don’t ask them to. We just shanghai the lot of them!”