Hector woke himself up early, so he could get breakfast started for himself as well as the other people in the house. He made oatmeal first. He had a big pot, so he could make enough. He went upstairs to check on his mother. She was still asleep, resting happily. He didn’t bother adding anything to it, just a little butter. After setting that out, he got out the ingredients for pancakes.
Eggs might have been easier but, given the last two days, everyone could use a good breakfast. His alarm went off. Time to get to the restaurant, he was opening today. Don’t forget the coffee. Isaac seemed to really need it in the mornings. Another him served out the oatmeal and he started eating. There was one more thing he had to do. He knocked on Isaac’s door.
He could hear movement on the other side of the door. Good, at least he hadn’t woken the big guy up. The door opened, just a crack.
“It’s Hector. Can we talk for a bit? Before the others are up, I mean.”
Isaac didn’t say anything for a moment. The door opened a little more, just enough for Hector to see his face. He left the house, starting the walk to the Citadel proper and its armory. Isaac hadn’t shaved yet. He wore a white tank top with his uniform pants and boots. It made him look less controlled than normal. Hector remembered what the man was like when he cut loose, less controlled was not a comforting sight.
“Yeah. That’s… that’s probably a good idea. Come in.” The door opened further as the big man stepped back. He sat on the edge of his bed while gesturing towards the room’s only chair. Hector closed the door as he entered, then took the proffered seat.
“Look-” Isaac started, before Hector finished sitting, “-about what I said the other day. I, uh, I overreacted.”
Okay, that wasn’t how Hector had expected this to go. He’d provoked the guy into a killing rage during a sparring match, one where Hector was in no conceivable danger, and Isaac was apologizing? “No, I-”
“You were trying to win.” The older man spoke right over his attempt to interrupt. “Trash talking is part of the game. If I don’t have my sh- my stuff together, that’s not your fault.”
“Um. Well, okay. I just wanted to let you know, I pushed too hard.” Hector was watching Isaac, carefully. The man’s reaction had been unexpected enough that Hector had done some research, trying to figure it out. Hector was humming to himself as he washed his car. Most of his lives didn’t need one, but he’d always wanted one. San Diego was just spread out enough to justify the expense.
He didn’t like what he’d found. “You told us that morning, you were empowered as an adult.” Isaac sat back, his face blank. “I didn’t really get the implication at the time but now… Yeah. Now I do.”
“What do you mean?” Hector didn’t like the look of Isaac’s face. That wasn’t just blank; that was cold.
“I didn’t… I didn’t go looking for your story or anything.” Not quite a lie. He hadn’t looked for it specifically, but he’d still stumbled across it. “I just… did some research on how different ages affect the process, okay? Most of them are during puberty, high emotional turmoil and all, right? Younger than that, you tend to get the weird powers. The ones that change your body or mind or something…”
Isaac was relaxing a bit. He started humming along as he washed up after his own breakfasts. Oatmeal was easy to make, but it could be a pain to clean if you let it set. Isaac seemed more comfortable with the path Hector was on. Good. “… but with adults, it takes a strong trigger. They’re more in control of their emotions, so it has to be something really intense. The flipside being, their powers are more traditional, something about stronger preconceptions of how they’re supposed to work. People that empower as an adult also tend to be stronger. A lot stronger.”
“Yeah. Don’t spread this around, but my testers said I was about as strong as anyone on record.”
“Wow. Yeah, that’s… I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened to trigger you, but I get that it wasn’t just being stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire and no jack.” Okay, that was a lie. He knew exactly what Isaac’s moment of extreme emotion had been. Why did the keypad never seem to work? He couldn’t open if he couldn’t get in. “Whatever it was, it had to be pretty bad and I’m guessing… I’m guessing something I said or something about the fight put you back in that moment.”
“Yes. It was… it wasn’t anything you said, exactly… just… my state of mind at the time I guess.” Isaac was leaning in. He looked frustrated and intense. Not a good combination.
“Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you getting help? I mean, the Citadel has to know what it was like and the psych interviews are really thorough, so…” he trailed off, not really knowing how to finish.
“I’ve got an appointment with Citadel Support for it on Saturday.” The frustration was gone, replaced by confusion. “Hector, at first I thought you were just a nice kid but now, well, you don’t really come off as a typical high school grad.” Ah, that question. Hector laughed, short and sharp. Maybe it was just a little bitter. Humming along, he finally managed to get the door open. Time to get to work.
“Isaac, how old do you think I am?”
“I’d guess eighteen to twenty just looking at you. Why?”
“Well, you’re not wrong. I was born in ninety six. But you’re not right either. How long have I lived since then?”
“What do you…? Oh.”
“Yep. There’s a reason I went with Hector Hive.” he said, emphasizing the last word. “I’m not a Multiple or Duplicate. Every one of me is distinct, individual, but we also share experience. I won’t bother telling you how many of me there are right now. But trust me, I’ve lived a lot more than eighteen years.”
Breakfast that morning was subdued. Hector could live with that; it was better than yesterday’s awkwardness. He made sure to set out a larger helping for Kelly. The shapeshifter had really been packing it down during lunch.
Hector didn’t want anyone to get less than they needed. He set his mother’s morning medications in a little plastic cup, set the cup next to her plate and carried her tray up the stairs. He was humming a little tune that’d been stuck in his head all morning. He barely gave any attention to the others’ quiet conversation about the day’s training.
“I hated it. Being helpless, it just bothers me. I know that’s not profound or anything but-”
“Hey, don’t worry about it kid. No one your size is used to it. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Personally, I found the Ethics portion to be more distasteful. I came here expecting to fight and, sometimes, to lose. I did not expect to have my motivations questioned.”
“Hey guys.” Hector called for their attention. “We should probably head out. If we wait much longer we’ll have to run. Pretty sure we’ll get enough of that already.” Quiet groans were his immediate answer. Kelly left the table then paused on his way up the stairs.
“Isaac? Are you and Hector okay?”
“Yeah. We’re good now.”
“I’m glad. I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t like it when you were mad at him.” Kelly paused, tense and nervous. “Was there… was there something I did that made it worse?”
“What? No! No kid, I never had anything against you.”
“Oh. I guess… I just thought, maybe you were mad at me too. I’ll go get changed now. See you guys in class.” Kelly disappeared, leaving behind the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs.
Isaac looked around, his brow crinkled with worry. “Did I really come off as that angry? I don’t even remember seeing him yesterday.”
Those sunglasses made it hard to read Jason’s face, but Hector would’ve bet the other boy looked just as surprised as Hector felt. How had Isaac not figured this out? Luckily, Jason answered before Hector had to try to come up with something appropriate. He smiled to himself. His car was clean, now it was time to start the waxing.
“Isaac, I think, perhaps, you should have a talk with Kelly about his power. It might save you some… consternation later.”
Hector looked over the room, trying to decide where to sit. He saw a spot near Kelly, in the back, and moved towards it. There was another, next to that Drew guy, and he decided to get that one too. Jason had picked a seat that was further off to the side than most of the trainees. He might want to sit by himself. Not a bad idea.
Hector looked for another empty area, then got a chair he thought would leave him without neighbors. He was the first one at the armory. He hadn’t expected much of a line at this time of day, but he’d thought there’d be at least a few others. Three was enough, for now. He’d want more when he got to Physical Conditioning, but he could just take care of that on the way over.
Instructor Verres- no, Instructor Catherine came in. It still seemed a little weird but calling someone by their first name was the polite thing to do, here.
“Good morning. I’d like to pick up where we left off, yesterday.” Huh, no warm up, just right to business today. “Pretend you’re a villain. Ignore whatever moral compunctions you would normally feel about a given criminal act. What would you do?” Wow, the restaurant had been trashed. What the hell? She reached for the stack of papers at her side. If anything, Hector thought it might be a little larger than yesterday. Maybe some of the rewrites were a bit more thorough?
“First response: ‘I’d head up to the Capitol Building and murder the Western President.'” There were a few scattered chuckles. “Ambitious. Given the powerset of the individual in question, I’d say about a ten percent chance of success. Class One threat.”
The chuckles stopped.
“Of course, that only takes into account what I personally know about the WP’s security detail. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t more. Odds of the subject surviving for more than a week, assuming success, effectively zero.
“Second response: ‘After spending a month or so doing the research, rob every bank in LA, simultaneously.'” Hector suppressed a grin. The laughter was louder, but different, too. Nervous? “There are a number of safety precautions listed that I won’t go into. I’d actually give this one a high chance of success, at least for most of the banks.” She smiled. There wasn’t much humor in it.
“Class Two threat. Taking into account those precautions I mentioned, I’d say about a month before death or capture. Less, if there’s significant civilian casualties.” He chatted with Mom, cheerful as he cleared away the remains of her breakfast. Mornings were both her best and her worst times.
“Third response: ‘Pick a city on the Battlegrounds border, then show off in public. Wreck a building and take out any cops that show up or something. Then, I declare myself the newest Lord of the Battlegrounds and rename the city after myself.'” Any pretense at humor was gone from her face and her voice.
“Hm. Given powersets and the nature of Stationary operatives in border locations, Class Two or Three. Depends on the city and the building.” “Assuming the operative in question is ignorant of the responder’s powers, their response is likely to be unnecessarily vigorous. Chances of success or survival are effectively zero.”
Hector tuned out, just for a bit. He was done with the permission forms. The armory guy walked him over to the certification range with some pistols and a couple boxes of ammo. The hims by Drew and Kelly were both paying attention.
The first step was always safety. Hector checked his earplugs. They had a good fit. His glasses were in place. There wasn’t anyone else on the range. The second step was familiarity. He picked up the pistol he’d been given, careful to keep it pointed downrange. Safety was on, he pulled the slide to make sure the chamber was empty. Good.
Hector didn’t recognize the gun, not even a brand, but the mechanism was smooth and the pistol itself was surprisingly light. Maybe a little too light? Recoil might be a problem. He set the weapon aside for the moment and began loading the magazines he’d be using for the certification shoot.
Hector was ready. He inserted the first mag, chambered a round, took a two handed grip and set himself in his firing stance. After a short wait, he heard the same tone used to signal the start of a sparring match. A target silhouette, just a simple outline on a stick, popped up at the five yard mark.
Hector took his time with his first shots. This was just the practice phase. He got five shots each at five, ten and fifteen yards to familiarize himself with the weapon. Good thing, too. His second shot went wide. He’d overcompensated for the gun’s weight.
Turns out, it doesn’t matter if your weapon is a little light when it doesn’t have any recoil. None. He hadn’t thought that was possible. Not without some kind of stabilizer, and he didn’t see anything like that. Guess that meant this thing was built by a Stark or a Richards type, or at least designed by one.
The practice shots were done. He changed magazines and set himself for the real thing. It started out the same. Targets popped up at each range and he fired at them. The only difference was, this time he only had three, five and seven seconds to hit each one, five times.
After that, a target appeared, farther back. Maybe thirty yards? Outside his range. At least, if he wanted to control where his shots went. It rushed towards him and, when he thought it was close enough, he started firing as rapidly as he could. The slide locked, meaning he was out of ammo, just before it passed the five yard mark and disappeared.
He reloaded as quickly as he could. Three magazines left. Targets began popping up and then withdrawing rapidly at random intervals and locations. He had to ‘disable’ as many as possible. Hector stuck to center of mass, headshots were for video games, and tried to get each one twice. Eventually, dummy targets began appearing.
Red silhouettes popped up at the same time as the black. Sometimes, one would swing up to block the other and sometimes one would appear by itself. Hector was careful to hit only the black, even passing on shots when he wasn’t sure he could hit the right one. He was down to three rounds in his last magazine when he heard the tone announcing the test was over.
He safed his weapon, removing the magazine as well as the round in the chamber, then set them both down as he waited for the Citadel Support guy to return. The gun’s barrel was pointed down range. The last step was always safety.
“Not bad, kid.” John Soans was a big man in his forties.
He had the kind of bulk that meant he used to have a lot of muscle and had let it turn to fat. He also had the air of no-nonsense competence that meant he’d been a range master for some time and hadn’t let any stupid teenagers hurt themselves or others. Hector appreciated the latter quality a great deal.
“You passed, barely. Most people don’t do so well on their first time.”
“Great! So that means I can check out a weapon for duty use? Including training matches?” Hector asked, smiling.
“Yep. That includes training matches. Same rules for lethal force as shooting lasers out of your toenails or whatever.
“Is there a limit to how many I can have out?”
“Just what you can use, son.”
Wax on. Wax off. Heh. He never got tired of that.
Hector’s smile got bigger.
Instruction Area, Citadel Hub
Hector had to fight to keep the smile off his faces. He was pretty sure Instructor Catherine wouldn’t appreciate it. He sat in the chair, next to Mom’s bed. They were watching TV together. Given what she was describing, it might bug the other guys, too.
“‘After practicing on animals and the homeless enough to master my powers, I would join the Citadel.'” No one was laughing at this one. “‘Once I was accepted, I would act like a regular trainee or operative. During the first Class One or higher event for which I am at the Citadel proper, I would murder the assembled personnel. After that, I would make my way to the Battlegrounds.’”
He let the outside door shut and went looking for the phone. The restaurant’s manager, Rick, was not going to be happy about this.
“’The confusion caused by the unchecked event should provide enough distraction to let me get away. Killing any Citadel Operatives or law enforcement that I encounter on the way makes sense, but I would not go out of my way to do so. When I have reached a city within the Battlegrounds, not a Border city but one well established, I would contact the Lord and petition to join him in a position of power and respect.'”
Instructor Catherine looked up, when she was finished reading that one. “I have my doubts about the subject’s ability to make it through the application process. As you will remember, the screenings are quite thorough. That said, the subject has gone through the same thing.
It might be doable. If it is, I’d rate that as a Class One or even an Extinction level threat. Depends on what the crisis is, when he makes his move. Please note, the powerset involved wouldn’t rate more than a Class Three, at most, under other circumstances.
I’m not bothering to read the thirty or so variations on ‘rob a bank.’ Does anyone notice a common theme?” She looked around the room, waiting for an answer. “You. Anna Insight I believe?”
She looked vaguely familiar. His car sparkled in the early morning sun. It might be just a little economy model, but to him it was a thing of beauty. The girl who’d fought Jason on the first day?
“Planning and scope, ma’am. The majority of the scenarios described spur of the moment crimes. There was very little planning or forethought. Those that did mention preparation, tended to be on such a grand scale that the likely response from Citadel, or other law enforcement, would all but guarantee their death or capture shortly afterwards. Is that correct?”
“Yes. That’s not quite universal, here or in the real world. However, most Empowered criminals tend to assume nothing can stop them. They just attack whatever target seems most appropriate to them. A bank or police station, something high profile and impressive.
“On the other extreme, you get what the media insists on calling supervillains. Empowered that realize they can be beaten in a straight fight, but think they can take on the world if they have the right plan. They tend not to think of the consequences of success. There is one more thing. Did anyone notice it?” Instructor Catherine searched the class for another volunteer as Anna sat down. “Go ahead.”
“The response.” Jason said. It took the cops almost an hour to show up. While they were waiting, Rick had him call the rest of the staff and tell them not to come in for the day.
“When the scenario failed to mention taking bystander survival into account, or when the described goal was essentially murderous, you always emphasized lethal force as the probable response. If it was something small scale, and the description included a sense of caution regarding civilian casualties, you rarely mentioned lethal force and emphasized arrest or capture.” He sat down after he’d finished speaking.
“Exactly. Again, not a universal, but very common. You’ll get a better explanation next week, during your Procedures training, but that’s basically right.”
Hector didn’t like the mood of the crowd, as the trainees filed out of the room. The only conversations were quiet and intense. All around him, faces were grim. Apparently, he was the only one who hadn’t been taking the scenes Instructor Catherine described seriously.
The attitude in Physical Conditioning today was totally different. Everyone with physical enhancements, the ones who could run a marathon without effort or bench press a car, seemed bored. They just moved onto the track and started running when Coach Achala told them to.
There was a little grumbling from the folks with less conventional abilities, but nothing like yesterday. It seemed like a lot of people had spent some time figuring out how to make it easier. Hector saw one guy, heavily tanned, with dark brown hair, raise his arms and let loose some kind of black mist. Maybe it was a powder?
Tendrils, of whatever it was, reached up and anchored themselves in the ceiling, at the center of the track. Then the guy just took off at a jog. Hector was pretty sure he was using the tendrils to support himself, but didn’t have a clue how they worked.
Others had their own tricks. Drew had lost at least another ten pounds and was running easily, now. Samantha was moving way too fast to be running normally, and her stride was much too long. He started picking up around one of his bedrooms. There was barely room to walk between the mattresses. Probably, she was just flying at ground level and pretending to run. Coach Achala didn’t call her on it so Hector figured he was expecting that sort of thing. Good.
Hector finished his first lap, running all out, and switched off with one of the other five hims waiting by the start point. Normally, he’d complain about having to pick up after a bunch of slobs. When he was the slobs in question, that didn’t work so well. No single body would have to run more than four and a half miles, with a nice break in between laps. In total though, Hector would have run the full length.
Jenny had a group formed up around her. They all seemed pretty cheerful. No tricks with them, though. Well, not tricks to make the run easier. Hector watched as, laughing, they did a single, simultaneous cartwheel. The group didn’t even break their stride. He really had to figure out how her power worked.
That was when the him that had been at the shooting range got back. Without a word, he walked up to the group of Hectors waiting by the track and started handing things out. They each attached a holstered pistol and two magazine pouches to their belts. The newly arrived Hector left as soon as the one running had switched out and received his own equipment. He still had to get back to his room and arm the hims there.
Hector hadn’t tried to conceal the handoff or his new equipment, so it was no surprise that the other trainees noticed. Really, the strange part was that it took until lunch for someone to mention it. Duncan was the first to approach him about it.
“Where’d you get the guns?” asked Duncan Nightmare. Mom was out, the combination of medication and food. He reached over and dabbed at the drool leaking from the corner of her mouth. Hector smiled.
“I just checked them out from the armory. I took the test while we were in Ethics this morning.”
“Really, they just let you walk around the place with a pistol.” he sneered. Duncan seemed to do that a lot.
“Have you paid any attention to the others?” Hector looked around for a moment. “I can see at least three people in the cafeteria carrying the same type of pistol.” Duncan didn’t even bother to look.
“Yeah, operatives. You’re just a trainee.”
“Duncan, look, I’ve got no idea what your power is, but just think about some of the people in our class. We’ve got a girl who can turn into a thirty foot long lizard, a guy that I know for a fact can put his fist through a person’s chest, and someone who can lose better than twenty pounds in twenty four hours.”
“Wait, what? What does losing weight have to do with…?” Confusion was a nice look on Duncan. Hector made a little vow to himself that from then on he’d do whatever it took to encourage that.
“They’re all things that regular folks can’t do. What’s a Stark made pistol compared to that?”
“They let you have a Stark weapon?”
“Nine, actually.” All four of the other Hector’s that were eating lunch with the class got up and began moving closer.
“What the hell!? Who the fuck did you blow for that?”
He walked over to his computer and started up the search engine. Hector didn’t have much on Duncan, but sometimes it didn’t take a lot to track down an Empowered.
“Duncan. Shut up and walk away. Now.” Hector was tired of the conversation.
“Listen to him, Duncan.” said the little red haired girl that no one in their right mind would ever want to piss off, “I don’t know what things were like for you back home, or why you’ve got such a shitty attitude, but no one here’s impressed.” When had she come over?
Duncan barely reacted to the building confrontation. His face relaxed a bit, going from sneer to a slightly sleepy smile.
“Fine, whatever. Watch your backs, though. It’s pretty obvious this little bastard is the wannabe bank robber and that creepy roommate of his is the genocide guy.” On that note, Duncan turned to go.
“I will. I’m always watching my back.” said all five of Hector. The other four had arrived and were blocking the angry Filipino’s exit. “Now I’ll be watching yours, too.” Hector parted to let him go. No one else spoke until Duncan had left the cafeteria.
“Man, what the heck is that guy’s problem?” asked Hectors’ would be rescuer.
“No idea. Thanks for the assist, Kerry.” Hector replied. The cops were finally done. They’d taken statements from Hector and Rick, examined the doors, then left. He started to drift back to his abandoned meals, one of him pausing to pat her on the back as he left.
“Don’t mention it. That guy’s been giving everyone crap all week.”
“Really?” Hector had noticed the way the guy was usually the first to argue with Coach Achala, but he hadn’t noticed Duncan with any of the other trainees.
“Yep. You should’ve seen the way he went after my roommate, Drew, this morning. Basically accused the guy of using steroids or something.” said the dragon girl.
“Well, to be fair, losing that much weight in a day is kind of weird.”
Kerry snorted. “A day. You know what his power is?”
“I don’t even know his full name.”
“Drew Stasis. He can freeze time for himself. Doesn’t need food or sleep or anything while it’s frozen, but he can’t move anything either.”
“Whoah. That’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah, cool. He’s basically spent two months getting into shape. It may’ve seemed like a day to us, but from the moment Achala said ‘Go.’ yesterday, Drew’s been running laps by himself.” Her face had gone stern. “Hours of running, staggering and sweating until he couldn’t go on, then resting. All of that, on a track filled with statues that look like his classmates.”
“Wow, that’s still pretty cool, but it’s also hardcore.” Well, at least now Hector knew what his power was. Determination. That time freezing thing might be useful too. “Makes you wonder. If that’s what the trainees are like, what about the actual operatives?”
They both turned to watch Coach Achala. He was eating alone, calmly and methodically. Each piece of chicken was sliced to the same size, chewed the same number of times, and followed with a sip of water. It should have looked mechanical, instead, it was serene.
Hector had spent the day doing research. Okay, he’d also attended Ethics and Physical Conditioning, gotten certified in pistols, gone to college level courses in mathematics, computer science, sociology and recent history. Multitasking was easier when you could be in more than one place at once.
This Hector had assigned himself two tasks for the day. First, learn as much about his instructors and classmates as possible. The incident with Isaac had shown him that what he didn’t know, could hurt others. The incident with Duncan had shown him that if he did hurt others, he wanted it to be on purpose. His second task was both simpler and grander, maximize himself.
Hector had been able to certify with a pistol because there was a shooting range near his house that was sloppy about checking IDs. He’d spent at least three days there every week for the last year. That hadn’t been because he’d known the skill would be valuable, it was just fun. Now he had to figure out every possible advantage he could.
The most important thing he’d thought of was also the simplest to accomplish: research everything. One of him was enrolled at UCLA. That one had split into three, and now at least one would always be in the school library. Student’s access may not sound like much of a resource, but that was literally hundreds of specialized databases at his fingertips. He could find out any fact he might need to know with a little research.
Some goals were obvious. Increasing his proficiency with a pistol, adding larger firearms like shotguns and rifles, martial arts, knives, clubs, basically anything to do with fighting, there was training available to Citadel members that cost nothing but time. He had plenty of that.
Other goals were more subtle. Carrying a double course load was trivial for him, but the cost would add up. Auditing additional courses was a good option. He’d already laid out bare bones degree plans for himself that included psychology, applied chemistry, languages and health sciences. There had to be more that would be useful to him.
Hector was just a regular human. Okay, he was effectively a small army of regular humans. However, if there was one reason for the Citadel to exist, it was that regular people couldn’t effectively control the actions of the Empowered.
If he was going to do his part, Hector had to find a way to push himself higher up the power scale. Becoming a small army of humans at peak physical conditioning, trained to the limit of the human mind, would be a small step in the right direction.