The peregrine falcon is the fastest member of the animal kingdom, reaching speeds in excess of two hundred miles per hour during their hunting dives. Kelly couldn’t break one fifty, yet. Her flight form was heavily modeled after the famous bird but something changed when she scaled it up to a larger size. Or maybe the loss of speed was from something more subtle? She knew the texture of her feathers, the bone structure and muscle assembly all played a role.
She’d studied up on birds and bats, dinosaurs and airplane wings. It was pretty much her first reaction after she realized that her powers weren’t limited to the human form. Everything taught her something she could use to fine tune her flight form and who wouldn’t want to fly?
It was hard to tell time when she didn’t have a watch but she was pretty sure her first class was about to start. The foot traffic around the Tower was picking up and most of the added volume was in all black uniforms. She turned to make one final loop before landing, not able to resist tinkering with the tail feathers a bit.
The sky went dark around her, something else was in the air with her, something huge. She dove frantically, almost losing control as she went as close to straight down as she could. She changed back to human right before she hit. Her legs broke on impact but she was fixing them even as she looked up. Her jaw dropped in awe.
It was a dragon.
There was a giant, red, fire breathing dragon circling the Tower’s stone spire. Well, technically, it wasn’t breathing fire just now but Kelly had no doubt that it was capable. It was big and beautiful and terrifying and everything she’d ever imagined a dragon should be. It circled around in a long, lazy loop, just like she’d been about to make.
The great beast landed and disappeared with a little popping noise and where it had been there was just a girl. No, not quite the same spot. The new girl had appeared maybe twenty feet to the side. Short, but not as short as Kelly, she had red hair in a pixie cut, freckles and a pug nose. She was wearing a trainee uniform. Kelly remembered reading that there were at least four classes of trainees at any given time, sometimes even more, but they must be in the same one because Kelly kinda recognized her from the fight thing yesterday.
She wanted to go up and say hi to the other girl, but come on. The redhead could turn into a dragon and Kelly couldn’t even get her flight form working right. While she hesitated, she could feel her face changing. Her nose was a little different and there was a tingling sensation on her face. She concentrated and managed to stop it before her hair changed too. She liked the blonde pigtails she had now. By the time that was done, the girl was gone, off to class.
“So you’re the bird! Hi!”
She looked up and there was another girl, backlit by the morning sun, hovering just a few feet off the ground. Kelly raised a hand to block the light and get a better look.
“Uh… yeah. I’m Kelly.”
The new girl was tall and kind of skinny. Not model skinny, just regular skinny. She had that dirty blonde or light brown hair that was always so hard to describe. Her face was pretty normal, nothing special just sort of plain. Except for her eyes, they were a little off, too widely spaced or a little too big. Kelly wasn’t sure.
“Samantha Soar. Nice to meet you.”
She landed and took a step forward, one hand out to shake. Kelly took it, a bit surprised. No one back at her old school had ever been this nice to her. Of course, this was a training base, not exactly a school.
“I saw a giant bird yesterday morning and I almost freaked out. I thought you were a real bird and you were just frickin huge! I don’t do anything but fly so I was kind of afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it around here. Like, you were big enough to eat me so I couldn’t go up anymore because then I’d be in your territory. But I looked it up and the biggest bird in the area is a vulture or buzzard or something like that.”
Kelly needed a moment to process all that.
“There was a dragon. It was a huge, scaly monster… and you were scared of me?”
It was actually kind of flattering.
“Kerry, you mean? Sure, she’s big and all, and I guess kind of scary, but she’s obviously a person. Dragons aren’t real unless some nutcase Richards type made a Dragon Bomb but I think I’d have heard about that. If you’d been a real bird you might’ve been dangerous to me but she was obviously empowered. So, she must be in the Citadel and that means she’s on my side and it turned out you were too! Plus, I met Kerry while we were waiting to fight yesterday and she was really nice.”
Kelly was starting to get Samantha’s rhythm down.
“Don’t we need to get to class?”
“Oh, yeah. Let’s go.”
“You fought a dragon yesterday?”
“Well, no, not really. I mean, we got paired up in the first round but we were two of the last to go so we had plenty of time to do some talking. I told her what I could do and she told me what she could do and it was really obvious who was gonna win, right? Like I said, all I can do is fly. What good is that in a fight, especially against someone who can do that? But she was really nice and promised not to hurt me.
“When we started, she just turned into a dragon. But not that one, she didn’t have wings and she was kind of dark green and snaky. Then she just sort of pinned me down with her hands and I shouted out that I gave up but there wasn’t a noise and I remembered I had to say ‘yield’ and that was it.”
It was now or never. Either she was going to make friends at the Citadel or she wasn’t.
“That does sound nice. Do you think you could introduce me?” Kelly asked.
Kelly and her training mates were waiting for Instructor Catharine to begin. She had arrived and taken her place behind the podium at almost precisely eight AM. Rather than begin speaking immediately, she had been fiddling with a big stack of papers. Her long brown hair was in a bun today. Combined with her glasses it made her look stern, in control. Kelly watched as the Instructor looked around and was surprised at the differences she saw in the others’ behavior.
Samantha was fidgeting nervously. Jenny was talking to Kerry with a quiet intensity that made her wonder what was going on between them. Isaac and Hector were both waiting, notebooks and pens ready. Jason looked perfectly attentive. He was staring straight at the Instructor, notebook out, paying no attention to the room around him. She thought there was something a little strange though. It took her a moment to figure it out. He wasn’t moving, no twitches, no shifting of position, nothing.
“Good morning, Trainees. I am Catherine Verres, a member of Citadel support and your instructor in Ethics.”
Her voice was clear to every member of her audience, some kind of amplifier or something. Kelly couldn’t see a mic but by now she’d figured out what having a regular name meant for a Citadel member. Instructor Verres didn’t have sound projecting powers.
“Yesterday, I sent you each a questionnaire, describing various scenarios. I have here the responses from everyone but the members of your class who elected to leave Citadel training in the interim.”
A hand shot up, Jenny.
“What do you mean? People quit already?”
“Yes. Three members of your training class chose to leave the program after your matches yesterday. There is no blame in it. We screen our applicants heavily but not everyone can face a beam of energy that cuts through steel without flinching. Some wounds can’t be treated by our healers, not immediately. Do you understand?” She waited for murmurs of assent before continuing.
“The purpose of this class is not to teach you a specific system of ethics. Frankly, you’re all too old to change your basic beliefs. You already have your own ideas of right and wrong. The only problem is, most of you have never thought about them. You don’t really know what you believe or what your priorities are.
“My only aim is to force you to fix that, to make you understand why you believe what you do. If you can, you’re less likely to hesitate when faced with a crisis of conscience. Keeping that in mind, let’s move on to the scenarios I gave you. I will read them aloud, one at a time, along with a selection of your answers. Please watch the screen as I do. I will not reveal the names of the responders.”
A white square appeared on the wall behind Instructor Catherine. It was at least a dozen feet on each side and Kelly couldn’t see any source of light for a projector or a screen for something like a TV. She was just thinking of Coach Achala’s recorded fight yesterday when a bridge appeared. No, it was a freeway overpass. She could see cars and roads and buildings and stuff so it was probably a picture from some city she’d never been to.
“You are in pursuit of an Empowered criminal. This is his first known crime, a nonviolent theft. He has a strong offensive energy power but no means of enhanced movement or defense.” Now the cars were moving. Just like yesterday, it was incredibly real. Kelly could’ve sworn it was just a giant window and she could actually see a real city through it. When she realized which scenario the Instructor was describing it made her a little sick.
“The chase lasts for some time but you have finally caught him.” A bright red light obscured the overpass, after it faded the supports were badly damaged. Kelly could almost hear the drivers’ panicked honking. “He lashes out, endangering the lives of a large group of nearby civilians.” One of the supports collapsed and the freeway started to crumble. She could see people still on it, trapped in their cars. “It is within your power to help save them or stop the criminal, but not both.” The scene froze. “What would you do?”
The entire class was quiet, still. All traces of inattention or fidgeting were gone now. Kelly remembered her answer from last night. She knew what the right one was, then and now. It was still obvious, but it seemed to matter more. Had she really thought about it before writing? Had she taken this seriously?
“Most of your responses fell into one of three broad categories. I will give examples of each and then we will discuss them. First, prioritize the criminal.” The scene resumed motion, the overpass was collapsing. “This trainee said, ‘I’d catch him.’”
A man in a crude mask and torn remnants of a costume ran into view, chased by another man in the black and white of a Citadel operative’s uniform. “’Just because he didn’t do anything before doesn’t mean he won’t later.’” Kelly watched in dull shock as they fought, red blasts flying out to no apparent effect on the operative.
“’If he does the same thing again, it’ll just put even more people in danger.’” Eventually, the fight was over. “’Better to stop him the first time.’” The criminal was on the ground, not moving. “’That way I save more people in the long run.’” The freeway’s remains weren’t moving either.
The scene reset. The operative and the criminal were gone. The freeway was up again, still on the brink of collapse. “The second category, prioritize civilian lives.” The scene started moving, the overpass collapsing, and an operative flew into view. “Save the people.’” The operative was surrounded by a purple glow that seemed to stretch out and hold the collapsing supports in place. “’If I don’t do that, then what’s the point of the Citadel?’”
The scene faded out and was replaced by another. The same guy, the Empowered criminal, was sitting on a couch in a trashy looking apartment. “’After the people are safe we can find the guy again.’” The man looked at the door, then stood up to answer it. There was a cop on the other side. “’We have to keep people as safe as possible.’” There was another blast of red light. The scene cut to an outside view of a large apartment complex.
Kelly watched, horrified, as the blast tore through the building’s wall, ripping a hole from one side to the other. The scene stopped after the building had collapsed. That had been her answer, more or less. Save the innocent, even if you had to let the bad guys get away. Now, she wanted to cry.
The scene reset. Kelly could hardly bear to watch it all again. “Third, your power makes the question irrelevant.” The bridge started to collapse. The bad guy ran past. “’If I can save the people and I can catch the crook, I can do both.’” A golden shape blurred past the fleeing criminal and on to the bridge. Kelly saw that he was down on the ground. His mask was gone and face was all bruised and his hands were cuffed behind him. She wasn’t sure but she didn’t think he was conscious.
“This is the only type of answer that I won’t accept.” The golden blur moved on and off the concrete structure as it collapsed. “Some of you will have a power that seems to negate a given scenario.” By the time it was done, there was a crowd of people, left behind by the blur, at a safe distance from the wreckage. “None of you have a power so great that you can negate them all.” The scene faded out and wasn’t replaced.
“Anyone who wishes to change their answers may send me a new response tonight. Take this seriously. These scenes aren’t real but they are all based on real events. Refusing to think about them now means you’re more likely to hesitate, to make a mistake you might not be able to live with when something like this happens in the field.”
Kelly was one of the first trainees to arrive for Physical Conditioning. One of the benefits of her power was that she could change from one outfit to another with less effort than it took someone to comb their hair in the morning. Coach Achala and a man in the now familiar Healer’s outfit were there before her, waiting in the center of the track.
The healer was sitting in a little folding chair, like something you’d take to the beach. Achala was just standing there, relaxed and smiling his friendly little smile like he didn’t have a care in the world. She liked him better than anyone else she’d met that worked in the Citadel program because he was just so nice. Sure, he’d had everyone fighting yesterday but hey, that’s pretty much what they were here for.
It didn’t occur to Kelly that before those fights, Achala had given his students a very practical, very brutal demonstration to serve as their standard. It wouldn’t have changed what came next but she might not have felt quite so betrayed.
“How many laps!?” demanded that Duncan kid. She hadn’t liked him much yesterday but she had a lot more sympathy now.
“As I said, one hundred and five laps.” Achala didn’t seem annoyed at the question. He was just smiling that same little smile. Kelly didn’t think it was quite so friendly anymore. “You may use your powers to help, but you must actually run the distance. Flying in a circle or teleporting from one point to another will not count.” Kelly, along with about half the other trainees, moved to the track and started jogging. The rest just sort of milled around.
“Please begin. This will be the only assigned exercise for the day. Class will continue until everyone has finished or given up.” A few of the stragglers perked up. Coach’s smile faded a bit. “Please note, refusing to partake in training will be considered a statement that you wish to quit the program.” Everyone was moving now.
Jenny was still smiling, not in a smug way or anything. She just seemed really cheerful and determined. It was like she had to do something hard but she was certain it’d work out okay in the end. The weird thing was, Kelly noticed that whoever was near her seemed to relax a bit and kinda run in time with her for a while.
“It’s a marathon.” Hector had fallen into place next to her.
“Huh?” Three laps in and her legs and stomach were starting to hurt.
“One oh five laps. If the track’s about the same as a football field, that’s an actual marathon.” In the black shorts and tee-shirt that were their exercise uniforms, Kelly could see that Hector was in a lot better shape than she’d thought.
“How. Did. You. Know. That?” she asked. She was really out of breath so she started upping her muscle tone and tried to make the little sacs in her lungs bigger. It was hard to concentrate while she was running but after a moment she felt it working. Her stride got smoother and she was breathing better.
“Just looked it up. A couple of me are back in my room. Doing homework.”
“That’s nuts!” Breathing was a lot easier now, but that just meant she actually had to be careful not to yell. She and Hector kind of split to each side to pass a chubby kid she hadn’t noticed before. He wasn’t doing too good. “So we can either run a marathon or we have to quit? On the first day of real training? What the heck?”
“I know. I’m in pretty good shape but not marathon shape.” Hector turned his head to look at Duncan.
The guy was running flat out, really fast, and he was the first person she’d seen that was smiling who wasn’t Jenny. Well, and some of the people who were running near Jenny for a bit. But his was different, not cheerful at all. It was mean and nasty looking.
“Well, anyone with Strong or Speed style powers is gonna be okay. I don’t know why they didn’t warn the rest of us.” Hector said. As if to emphasize the point, Isaac ran by. It didn’t even look like he was trying hard. He didn’t smile or wave or anything.
She knew he was mad at Hector. He’d just left this morning, without eating any of the food Hector made. When she’d asked him what that was about, Hector had just said he’d made a mistake during their match the day before. She didn’t see any reason for Isaac to be mad at her though.
Four laps now.
“Did you do sports or something? You must be in really good shape. I don’t see how splitting up would help you here.” Now that she was in a better condition herself, Kelly was feeling pretty good. Just running was boring though.
“I tried out for pretty much everything. Didn’t make the football team but I did soccer, basketball and baseball.” Hector still wasn’t winded. It was pretty impressive for someone who was basically normal. Well, his body was. His bodies were? Whatever.
“How did you have ti- oh. Never mind.”
“What about you?”
“No. I wanted to do soccer but they wouldn’t let me. Cause of my power.” That wasn’t really it but it didn’t hurt as much if she put it that way.
“Oh.” Hector probably got it. He was really smart. But he didn’t seem to care, so she was okay with that.
They were starting to catch up to the chubby kid again. She felt bad for him. He was really working hard but he obviously wasn’t going to be able to do this. She could change her body however she wanted and this was still tough. He’d only just started and he could barely keep moving. The boy flickered.
“What the-?” she said without thinking. The boy had just sort of changed his posture from slumped over to upright with no in between. It was like bad stop motion from an old movie or something. Now he was running easy, like he’d just started out.
“Huh. Weird.” said Hector. Just then, a dragon, only a little one, it was about the size of a car and didn’t have wings, came running past them.
“Yeah. Don’t get me wrong. I love being awesome, but some of the other powers here are really cool.” Apparently, Jenny and her group had caught up to them while they had slowed to watch Kerry.
“Definitely cool.” Kelly laughed. She decided she liked Jenny almost as much as she liked Hector. Now that she was here, running didn’t seem so boring.
This was actually kind of fun now. Kelly had already stretched out her legs to make her stride longer and expanded her rib cage to get more lung space. Now she was trying to figure out if it was safe to make her bones hollow, like in her flight form.
Less weight should make distance running easier but they might break if she tripped. Everyone else in the little group that had seemed to form around Jenny was just bouncing along in happy silence. It was kinda cool. She didn’t know most of these guys but they were definitely running together. Their feet were even hitting the ground in time with each other.
“Wait.” Hector broke the silence. “Does anyone else hear that?”
Jenny started giggling, all broken up like she was trying to keep it in. Hector was staring at the other girl now.
“Do… Jenny do you have your own theme music?” he asked.
“You can hear it too?” someone else added.
Jenny just started laughing. Really loud.
Everyone finished. Kelly could barely believe it.
All the people with physical powers finished relatively easily. The chubby guy had just finished his last lap, cheered on by a group of five that she assumed were his roommates. Apparently, his name was Drew.
She decided to go say hi and congratulate him. Kelly stopped moving when she got close enough to get a good look. He’d lost at least ten pounds since they started. What the heck?
“Everyone!” Coach Achala called out. “If I could have your attention. Congratulations. You have just run a little more than twenty six miles.” He paused as a couple of the others gave a half-hearted mixture of cheers and groans. “Please thank my friend, Stanton Aid.” He gestured to the man in healer’s greys.
The guy just nodded his head, not even looking up from the book he’d been reading. Wait, this guy was just relaxing with a book while they ran a marathon? That was kinda messed up.
“His ability literally aids anyone in the same room as him.”
“It doesn’t make you faster, or stronger. It simply allows you to endure. Your recovery is boosted as if you possessed a low level regeneration ability at all times.”
That was, Kelly didn’t even know what that was. She’d never even heard of a power like that.
“He has consented to be present during your Physical Conditioning sessions for the next two weeks.” The Coach’s voice grew serious, lost a bit of its ever present warmth. “I am afraid that after that you will have to make the run on your own. Those of you without powers that directly benefit you in this should take steps to maximize your gain in the meantime.” He paused for a moment. “Perhaps carry weights with you for the next few days?”
Was that… was he joking?
“For now, you have an hour to eat and refresh yourselves. Basic Combat will begin then.”
In a daze, Kelly joined the crowd filing out of the room. If this was what the man did for their first day of what amounted to gym class, what did Coach Achala have in store for a super powered self-defense course?
Lunch at the Citadel cafeteria passed in a blur. Kelly was dimly aware of the other trainees, but was too busy eating to pay much attention. Samantha and Kerry sat next to her but she couldn’t talk to them much with her mouth full of food. Jenny joined them after she tried to talk to Isaac for a little bit. He was off by himself, apparently not in the mood for company.
Hector was part of at least three groups. Jason was in one of them but he didn’t seem to say much. By the time Kelly made her third trip through the line and finished eating, she had to run to make it back down to the class’s exercise area before Basic Combat started.
Kelly wasn’t the last one back, but the only person to come in after her was a big guy with a light pattern of scales and no skin. It would have looked kinda neat on him but he had that whole “don’t mess with me” vibe going.
Isaac had the same vibe, a little, but on him it might just be because he was older and, yeah, because Kelly hadn’t ever really known a black man before. Together, that was a little intimidating. Oh well, she’d have to work on that. He seemed like a decent guy when he wasn’t mad, so she’d just have to make an effort and get to know him better.
Coach Achala called everyone into a group and began explaining his plan for combat training. It was… well, it was just crazy.
“You will work in pairs for the day. One of you will be naked, with your hands bound and head covered. The other will strike you. You may not attempt to dodge or block. Neither of you may use powers. Tomorrow, we will reverse the roles.” Kelly was shocked that no one had walked out the door or started yelling yet. “I realize some of you cannot turn off your abilities. I have arranged today’s pairs in such a way that this should not matter.”
Kelly went numb at the thought. Naked didn’t bother her. Technically she wasn’t wearing anything right now. The clothes she had on were just a part of her body. She had as much control over them as her hair or hands. But being blind? Having her hands tied? Not to mention just standing there while someone was hitting her? She’d been helpless before. She didn’t like it.
“Sir?” she asked. “Can I… can I ask why? I mean…”
“Kelly Protean, yes?”
He was smiling at her. He wanted her to… and he was still smiling at her?
“I cannot teach you to be fighters in a month. But I can give you the two most valuable tools a fighter needs.”
He actually sounded sad. Kelly didn’t even know what to say.
“There will be two lessons today.” he said, loud enough for the entire group to hear. “Some of you will learn what it is like to hurt another person. Some of you will learn what it is like to be hurt.” He just let the brief explanation sit there. That was supposed to make sense?
“So… if I let someone tie me up and hit me… that’ll make me a better fighter?”
“Yes.” he said simply.
Apparently, he thought that really was enough of an explanation. She almost left. A lot of the others were pretty clearly thinking the same thing. But if she had to choose between letting a crazy person have her beaten and not being an operative… well that really wasn’t so hard a choice when she put it like that.
Kelly didn’t know her partner for the drill, a boy named Greg or maybe Craig. It was pretty obvious why they’d been paired up. He was almost as short as she was. They’d been assigned to work together but neither one was interested in making small talk. He looked away when she took off her clothes. Or, well, when she reabsorbed them, really.
She put on the head cover herself. It was just a black sack. The cloth was rough. She could breathe okay, but she couldn’t see anything. Kelly turned around and put her hands behind her back. She didn’t know if… Greg, it was definitely Greg. She didn’t know if Greg was staring at her when he tightened the little plastic zip tie things or not, but he was definitely going to have to for the next part.
They stood on the mat, facing each other. Kelly was pretty sure she was facing him. She didn’t know how long they just stood there before they started. She could hear everyone else moving around. Some of them had started already. There were little cries of pain or surprise. Someone had just fallen down. A girl was crying, just a little. How could she hear something so quiet when the room was so loud?
Eventually, he hit her. Not hard, but she couldn’t balance right like this and she fell down. Falling without being able to catch yourself with your hands really hurt. He helped her back up. Then he hit her again. She was a bit more ready and his punch was even lighter this time. She didn’t fall down so he hit her again, the shoulder this time.
Kelly had to struggle not to hunch over, try to protect herself. She wanted to get big. She wanted to grow spikes on her skin or armor or extra eyes or something. He hit her again, harder, and she fell down again. It hurt this time too. Her stomach was sore. So was her butt and her hands.
He helped her back up. He tried to say something but she wasn’t listening, couldn’t.
It went on for a while.
Coach Achala made Greg start hitting her harder. She hated him.
She felt her nose break. She screamed and started choking. Greg was shouting for a healer but she was already fixing it. Coach Achala said that she shouldn’t do that again unless she thought her life was in danger. She hated him.
It stopped for a little bit while he talked to Greg. When they were done talking something was different. He wasn’t hitting her as often and maybe not as hard but she fell down more and they seemed to hurt more. It was like… no it wasn’t just like that, he’d actually told Greg where to hit her so that it would be the most effective. She hated him.
It was over. He said they could stop and go home. She didn’t listen to anything else, just changed to her combat form. It ripped through the ties and she tore off the hood thing and then she was running up and through the halls until she was outside and she could see the sky.
She was flying. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t as fast as a peregrine falcon. She didn’t care if there was a dragon above her or a girl she barely knew trying to get her attention. Kelly closed her eyes, felt the air parting over and under her. She was flying. For now, that’s all that mattered.
Kelly landed on the roof, changing back to human. Well, kind of human. He stretched out his arms, elongated in what he thought of as his climbing form. The window he’d left unlocked was easy to open and the tail helped him keep his balance while he slipped through it.
He could hear his roommates, talking downstairs. They didn’t sound happy. Kelly didn’t blame them. He wanted to go join them but… no. Not yet. The flight had helped but he needed to do something more to feel normal again.
Kelly got rid of the tail and the claws, changed his proportions back. He switched his clothes to shorts and a tee shirt then searched the room for his cellphone. When he found it, he did the only thing that had always made him feel normal, no matter what his body was at the time.