Back on Task
“Dean Jilles! You’ve been a hard woman to track down this week.” The greeting held genuine warmth, and a faint note of reproach, as the blonde woman entered the Dean’s office.
“It’s good to see you too, Janet. I have to thank you again for coming to our rescue with our spring break plans.” Kathryn Jilles stood and came out from behind her desk as she welcomed her friend. “Everyone that’s made it back to campus so far has been relaxed and happy. It looks like our fortifications will be unneeded.”
“Fortifications?” Disbelief and curiosity warred in the taller woman’s tone as the pair moved to sit at the office’s small table, where a steaming pot of coffee awaited them.
“HCP students can be a bit intense, part of the reason we needed them to take this break so badly was that this batch has had a bit more than usual to focus on. Making them TOO intense, if you will.”
“And that clearly doesn’t answer my question. Did you somehow forget which of us is the telepath, Kathryn?”
The petite Dean smiled as she poured two cup of coffee. “Take a large group of far too intensely focused Supers, then force them to take a break. We were simply preparing for some possible backlash from our actions.”
Janet snorted in pure disbelief this time. “Right, because the students you offered a free, all-expenses-paid vacation to are going to be enraged after the fact.”
“And YOU’RE supposed to be the surprisingly attentive one, Janet. Like I said, we didn’t offer them a break, we forced them.”
A hint of worry crept into the taller woman’s expression. “You mean like, you threatened their grades or standing in the program to get them to go, right?”
“That too. We recruited the Advanced Mind students, and a couple of others with impressive immunities, and we drugged the rest to ship them off to the boat while they couldn’t protest.” Dean Jilles grinned hugely at the flabbergasted expression on her friend’s face. “THEN we left them a detailed message telling them that remaining on the cruise and having fun was mandatory. I have to say, that cruiseline must be TRULY exceptional for us to have gotten as little flack from the students as we have. You said it wouldn’t be a problem to reserve fifty or sixty spaces annually for Overton’s newest tradition?”
“Reservations aren’t a problem as long as-… You’re kidding, right? Tell me you didn’t ACTUALLY abduct your own students to get them onto that ship?” The final words came out as an almost whispered plea.
“I could tell you that, but it would be a lie. Don’t worry so much, Janet!” Kathryn leaned back in her seat and maintained her wide, contented smile. “Now what was the caveat you were about to add to our future reservations?”
“We won’t be able to swing an all-expenses package every time, or the casino credit, unless your faculty wants to pick up about a hundred grand in expenses every year.” Janet tried to calm herself with the mundane details, and took a long sip from her coffee.
“Please tell me that I’m not somehow an accessory to kidnapping or something?” The attempt to self calm wasn’t working very well.
“An extended chemical nap followed by an all-expenses vacation? Have you ever LOOKED at the contracts and waivers that HCP students have to sign? We could have dropped them into the middle of a warzone and told them their spring break task was to make it back to the states alive with their SI requirements intact and it would be legal.” A pause as the petite woman finished off her coffee. “Several of them would very likely try to kill or maim all of their Instructors upon return in that scenario, of course. Fortunately the cruise was such a resounding success that no such unpleasantness seems to be forthcoming from our students in the near future.”
Janet was still a little shell-shocked by the conversation, but she didn’t miss the odd qualifier the Dean used in her last sentence. “Busy week, then?”
Kathryn’s smile twitched slightly. Even a non-telepath would have no trouble reading the extra question hidden in those three words. “It was, and it shall be an even busier one in the future. Fortunately, as an old friend of mine pointed out recently, there are some impressively well trained professionals that are more than happy to help shoulder some of the load for us.
The blonde woman nodded her acceptance of the somewhat evasive answer, and the two women lapsed into companionable silence as the Dean refilled both mugs. The quiet lasted for a long moment before it was broken.
“So how much would it run for me to get onto a cruise like that over the summer?”
The muscular bald man paused at the entrance to the combat room as a flash of memory came over him. Himself, more than a year and a half prior, tossing a file onto the discard pile with absolute conviction that the applicant within simply didn’t have what it took to be in the HCP. A wry smile spread across his face as he palmed the control panel to open the door, and it grew wider as he saw the small frame of his opponent. Scott Jameson stood calmly in front of his own entrance door, surrounding by slowly orbiting plates and rings of dark metal, and looking not the least bit intimidated at the fight he was about to engage in. A fight against Rachd, in Rachd’s own element.
Sometimes there’s a good reason we admit based on a majority vote instead of a single decision I guess. “You ready, Jameson?”
Rachd’s grin shifted to one of predatory anticipation as the ten second countdown began. His opponent’s expression didn’t change at all, but Scott shifted his feet to a ready stance. The final chime sounded, and the muscular Combat Instructor was instantly dashing across the room; inhumanly powerful legs pushing with such force that the reinforced concrete cracked beneath his feet. A flash of surprise in his eyes was all the reaction the bald man had time for as his opponent ALSO accelerated directly forward with incredible speed.
Scott shot across the room at his larger opponent, dragged by his power’s effect on a pair of metal rings he held in front of him. The surprise counter successfully caught Rachd far enough off guard that he didn’t defend as the small youth veered to narrowly skirt the large man’s leg, the trailing collection of metal smashing into Rachd’s knee with an almost deafening crash.
The Combat Instructor went down hard enough to leave an imprint in the reinforced floor, but was back on his feet before his opponent could cancel his own momentum. This time as Rachd closed the distance he saw a flash of worry in his opponent’s eyes, but the boy was up and out of his reach before the muscular man could grab him, and the angle was all wrong to try a leap. The coach skidded to a halt and turned to face the sophomore again, still wearing his predatory grin.
“Not bad, Jameson. Not nearly ENOUGH, but not bad.” Rachd began stalking towards his opponent this time, keeping himself balanced and ready to intercept another evasion attempt.
The Combat Instructor wasn’t surprised this time when Scott came right for him again, matching his own measured pace as the two closed the distance. The grin shifted to a true smile for a moment. The bald coach had honestly not expected any of the sophomores, save the current top two, to try and match him head on.
Rachd closed the final few steps in a blinding rush, but Scott’s reflexes were more than up to the task. Surprise briefly flashed across the coach’s face again as his opening grab was intercepted by a massive ‘hand’ composed of about a quarter of his student’s orbiting metal. Surprise deepened and invited pain along when the grip tightened enough to actually begin crushing the Combat Instructor’s hand.
You underestimated another one, Jim. You really need to get that looked at, it’s like you’re developing a soft spot for this class or something. Rachd forced the pain out of his expression, bringing back the earlier predatory grin as he reached forward with his other hand. As anticipated, the second grab was also intercepted, and now the two were briefly locked together in the sort of hand to hand ‘contest of strength’ that showed up in so many movies.
Reality worked a bit differently, and Rachd nodded his appreciation as his opponent lifted him off the ground almost immediately. The muscular man needed leverage for a contest like this, but the magnetically held metal was its own leverage point.
“Uh, you should surrender now?” The Combat Instructor laughed out loud at the surprise and uncertainty in his student’s tone.
“Didn’t expect this to work so well?”
“I kinda hoped, but… no, not really.” Rachd laughed again at the boy’s honesty.
“You’ve only really forgotten one point. A VERY important one, mind, but only one. That being said, you just set the bar pretty damned high, Jameson. If you don’t fix it going forward, I will throw your ass out of my program.”
“So, I win?”
“Not quite.” Before the sandy-haired youth could react to the words, Rachd lunged forward to slam his head into one of his opponent’s magnetic ‘gauntlets’ with an incredible amount of force.
The magnetically reinforced alloy buckled a bit under the strain, the construct fraying around the edges, but more importantly; the impact set off a concussive shockwave only a couple of feet from Scott Jameson’s unprotected, and unenhanced, ears.
The small youth staggered in pain as the close proximity shockwave burst his eardrums, and he lost the focus needed to maintain his magnetic hold. Rachd caught his opponent by the uniform before he could fall, holding him aloft for a moment and looking him in the eye.
“You probably can’t hear a damn thing right now. Go to the infirmary and get your ears fixed up.” The Combat Instructor set the young man down and pointed to reinforce his instructions, receiving a pained nod in acknowledgement.
Rachd watched his opponent exit the combat room, and hid a small smile when he heard the chorus of cheers from his classmates that greeted him. He remained where he was for several long seconds before looking up at one of the recording devices.
“Scott Jameson Close Combat final. B plus.”
The blonde girl sighed loudly as another concealed canister burst, dousing her with something exceptionally foul smelling. She imagined any of the other sophomores would have been incapacitated by… whatever that stuff was by now. She managed to smile grimly to herself as she continued through the long-unused maintenance tunnel. I have a solvent that will take this crap right off of me. Nothing was triggered before I got here, the damned thing HAS to still be here this ti-…
The train of thought was interrupted by two more bursting canisters and some kind of flashbang going off. “REALLY?” Amelia couldn’t keep from shouting at the tunnel as she wiped the unknown, dark fluid out of her eyes. “I mean, I get using something as a deterrent, but does anyone REALLY rig twenty of the SAME DAMN THING?”
The tunnel chose not to answer, other than to echo the frustrated woman’s shout through the enclosed space. The powerful Super sighed again and tried to ignore the horribly sticky feeling seeping through her hair to her scalp. She could see the end of the tunnel from here, it wouldn’t be that much farther to reach her objective. Having already spent over an hour trying, and failing, to discern what exactly was setting the traps off, Amelia broke into an elated run at her nearness to the goal. Unfazed by another two detonations and an electrified floor panel, the blonde girl was grinning excitedly as she finally reached the junction of ancient piping that marked her goal.
Amelia paused for almost a full second as she examined the network of rusted tubes and the reinforced concrete behind them, then she shrugged and jammed her arms straight into the mess and began tearing. Professor Martinez didn’t say anything about style points. Get the damned thing and get out.
After a few seconds of blindly groping through the dense materials as if they were little more than a thick curtain, Amelia found the open pocket she was searching for. A few excited moments later, and the incredibly powerful girl was grinning madly at the garishly painted safe waiting for her. Her hand practically shook with excitement as she reached forward to triumphantly claim her prize, and she nearly squealed with glee as she pulled the object from its resting place. Impossibly strong fingers were brought up to tear into the metal, when the safe’s door swung carelessly open.
Amelia felt her jaw drop in shock as she regarded the barren interior before her, and tears formed in her eyes. The top ranked sophomore didn’t consciously choose to destroy the garishly colored object, but the sound of straining steel echoed loudly through the tunnel for several seconds as she compacted it into a ball small enough to fit in one hand. After another moment of inspecting the safe’s remains, she carried it with her back to fork where the unused tunnel split off from the rest of the network. Amelia left the brightly painted ball embedded there, a testament to an already empty safe, and began to strip out of her ruined uniform right there in the passageway.
Her previous attempts had hammered home the fact that her clothing was far more likely to suffer harm than she was, so she’d thought enough ahead to store a change out of the line of fire. A five gallon jug of special, industrial strength solvent had also been stashed here, and Amelia took a few minutes to step back into the side tunnel and eradicate all traces of the mystery liquid before putting on the clean clothing.
Well, that’s a perfect run of zeroes for me. Six safes found, six safes empty. I guess I won’t be the strongest Subtlety major in history after all! Amelia tried to smile at her own joke, and deep down she’d always known that this was definitely NOT the field she would excel in. For a moment, the powerful woman contemplated the other options that the Instructor had dangled in front of the Subtlety class.
Steal the info, or the item from one of the others before they can turn it in, or try to get a hold of a forgery so good it can fool Professor Martinez. Either was a pleasant fantasy, but Amelia discarded both. She was honest enough to know she had no real shot at making, or acquiring, a forgery at that level. And I’m not taking anyone else’s shot away from them. I failed at Subtlety, time to move on.
But as the young woman trudged her way back towards the townhouse she shared with her friends, she couldn’t keep tears of frustration from spilling down her cheeks.
The massive crystalline form smashed through the middle row of industrial shelving and flung itself into the four-man melee waiting for it on the other side. Rather than attempt to separate and contain the robotic combatants, Collin opted to incapacitate each with a quick application of brute force.
Another group of potential hostiles down, and the powerful shifter turned and leapt into the air again, aiming for the hanging cables of an old ceiling crane making its way slowly around the factory perimeter. From his new vantage Collin quickly scanned the cluttered factory for any signs of further robotic opponents. The second ranked sophomore was so focused on his task, he nearly plummeted from the hanging cable in shock when the crane braked to an abrupt halt and the ‘all clear’ sounded.
“That was an impressive display, Mr Gauge. Please return to the observation area.” Collin immediately dropped the thirty or so feet back to the floor, doing far more damage to the concrete than to his immensely durable form.
By the time Collin had reached the Control course exit, he had reverted to his human shape and wore a wide grin. The grin persisted until he reached his destination, where it wilted quickly under the glare he received from the Control Instructor.
“I understand that you are, functionally, a Strongman, Mr Gauge.” Collin stood stock-still in front of the petite woman as she began speaking. “I understand that the primary tasks for a Strongman, particularly as a Hero, involve either breaking things, or standing in the way of things.” The small woman clicked a small remote concealed in her hand, turning on the massive viewing monitors behind her.
“But can you PLEASE explain to me what the hell you were thinking in there?”
The muscular red-haired youth gulped nervously as he surveyed the images on the monitors. To his left was a beautifully timed shot of his explosive entrance through one of the non load-bearing walls. The right monitor showed the remnants of the several ton industrial shelves and racks that he had more or less obliterated as he took a shortcut to deal with the final group of robots. The center screen, the only screen playing video instead of displaying a still, showed his tactics in three of the five encounters on the course; namely the parts where he had just broken several limbs and made sure the hostile robots were too far apart to continue trying to kill each other.
The muscular youth pointed at the center screen. “In a real world situation there’s no realistic way for a Hero to discern a bystander who’s fighting back from an assailant trying to do someone serious harm. With healers available for after-action cleanup behind Heroes, the best solution for someone with my powers is to incapacitate everyone involved in an altercation and sort things out after the risk of death is removed.” Collin kept his tone calm and rational as he responded to the Instructor’s question.
“The shelving was maybe not a completely necessary destruction, but minor collateral damage is definitely a worthwhile price to pay for getting to a potentially lethal fight a couple seconds faster.”
Professor Nguyen nodded in acknowledgement of each of his answers, actually looking faintly surprised that he had either considered these scenarios in advance or was doing a marvelous job of making up rationalizations on the spot. “And what about THAT one.” A jabbing finger pointed at the still shot of his entrance.
“It’s a well-known fact that bad guys are ten times more likely to surrender if the Hero makes an awesome entrance.” Collin managed to keep his expression absolutely fixed and his tone perfectly serious.
It took several seconds before the rest of the class, politely silent to this moment as they watched the interrogation, broke down laughing. Even the professor couldn’t completely suppress a smile that twitched at her lips as she waited for the noise to die back down.
“I don’t think I’m familiar with that exact statistic, Mr Gauge, but it sounds fascinating. Have a complete report either proving or debunking those numbers on my desk by the end of next week; I’ll make sure you have archive access to after-action reports for the last… five years should be sufficient.”
Collin swallowed hard as he realized the enormity of the assignment his flippant remark had just landed him, but his jaw dropped in shock when the petite professor smiled again and gave a knowing wink before turning to the rest of the class.
“Now unless anyone else has some statistics they would like to research, I believe this course will be closed until repairs can be made. Everyone please head for the elevators so we can get to the alternate course before the end of the class period.”
The red-haired youth stayed behind as the rest of the class left, debating whether his new assignment was real or simply a joke to match his own response. Finally he shrugged and headed off in the direction of the archive rooms. If it’s real, I’ll get in, if it’s not, I won’t!
Zach Snider took a deep breath, and slammed his hand forcefully down on the control panel to start the simulation.
“Gently please, Mr Snider.” The Ranged Combat Instructor sighed as he saw his student already sprinting away towards the crowded park scenario; too focused, and too far gone, to have heard the gentle rebuke. “Honestly, it’s not that hard to remember. Robots? Go ahead and hit them. Touch screens? DON’T hit them.”
The gathered Ranged Combat class chuckled at the Instructor’s theatrical complaint, but the sound died quickly away as everyone watched the dark-haired youth sprint down the hill. Zach was currently the only student in the class who had not satisfactorily complete the course. His power, while definitely useful at range, was not well suited to overcoming the more extreme distances involved in the current exercise. Anthony Banning was watching every bit as intently as his students, genuinely curious as to what new tactic the sophomore would employ today.
“Should he really be running towards the park BEFORE anything has happened?” The question from Zach’s large roommate carried an obvious, if unspoken, meaning. ‘Will it count if he does it like this?’
“The scenario is one where a Hero happens to be nearby when bad things start happening.” The professor pointed to the still running man, now turned to run along the jogging trail that circled the simulated park. “He’s definitely sticking to the requirements of the scenario.”
Mayhem broke out amongst the robotic mannequins in the park, almost as if triggered by the Instructor’s words. Everyone watched intently as Zach turned from the trail to face the panicking crowd, and leapt forward.
What is he-…
The professor’s musing was cut short as the sophomore suddenly blasted high into the air, drawing stunned exclamations and gasps from the watching class. Banning felt his own jaw drop open in shock for a moment before he figured it out. Looks like Mr Snider has figured out a new way to use that power of his.
An impromptu cheer broke out as Zach sailed through the air, easily a hundred feet up as he flew over the crowd and spun to seek out his targets. A few of the watchers winced at the unexpectedly massive impacts from the direction of the park as the dark-haired youth rained down blows at the simulated Super attackers.
He did say he got more of a hit when he had more momentum to work with. Anthony allowed a wide grin to split his face as he saw the last impact actually shatter the simulated Strongman. He wasn’t kidding. Another cheer went up as Zach whooped triumphantly from the air, having just finished the test with close to the fastest time in the class.
The cheering turned to a class-wide wince as the plummeting youth attempted to slow himself with another burst from his ability, only to miscalculate this time and send himself spinning into the grass with a loud thud. Several of the students immediately broke into a run to check on their friend, but the professor simply strode up to the console and punched in a request for a healer. He’d seen his share of rough landings over the years. This one was definitely not a pleasant experience for his student, but it was far from life threatening.
Having summoned the necessary aid, Professor Banning made his way over to join the rest of his Ranged Combat class where they had gathered around the supine form of Zach Snider. The tall professor leaned over his student, and was pleased to see he appeared awake and alert.
“So, how’d I do, Professor?”
“The jump was impressive, the 720 rotation in the air even more so. The enhancement in your destructive ability when you’re moving that quickly makes me think we should consider re-purposing you as live ammunition for Strongman types instead of an independent Hero.” The Instructor chuckled at the confused expression that flashed across the young man’s face at the joke, before he continued.
“Overall, outstanding, except…” The professor let his voice trail off and looked away meaningfully.
“Oh, shit. Did I hit one of the civilian bots? Did one of the attackers not stay down? What’d I screw up THIS time.”
Anthony managed to keep a completely deadpan expression in the face of the worried questioning. “You have REALLY got to work on sticking that landing if you want to impress the judges, Mr Snider.”