Kelly woke with the weird, full body tingling sensation that meant he’d done a major shift in his sleep. He opened his eyes and saw a masked stranger, wearing a grey uniform, leaning over him. This wasn’t his bedroom.
“What’s going on?” he asked, his body tensing up and gaining weight as he got ready to fight.
“Stay calm. You’re not in danger Kelly.” the man in grey said. He had that tone people used when they were trying to stay cool, even though they were actually nervous or a little afraid.
Oh right, he’s a healer, the one from the match. Why hadn’t he recognized him?
“Do you remember what happened?” the healer asked him.
“What?” Kelly was still bleary so he took a moment to look around. This definitely wasn’t his room. He could feel a cold, hard surface beneath himself. The walls sloped up to form a dome. Wonder where the light’s coming from? He couldn’t see a bulb and there were no windows…
It snapped back into place when he saw his cousin Jim, crouching down on the balls of his feet and staring at him, concern written all over his face. “The fight. Guess I lost?” Jim’s worried look was wiped away as he started laughing.
“Yeah,” Jim answered, eventually, “you lost. You really don’t know what happened?”
“The trainee isn’t showing any signs of injury or distress. I think we can cancel that request for Aid.” the healer spoke into a device on his wrist. When he’d finished, he stood and addressed them both. “James, please fill Kelly in on the details of your match. Kelly, once you’re feeling a bit less disoriented, you’re free to go.
“Given the way your power seems to work, we don’t expect you to have any issues but if you’d stop by the medical area in the next twenty four hours, we’d really appreciate it. There’s a few tests we’d like to run. Also, yes. I’m afraid this will count as a loss. You won’t be able to challenge again for another week.” And with that, the healer turned and walked away. If he felt any concern about leaving a patient who’d been missing a head, just a minute prior, he didn’t show it.
“What the heck?” Kelly asked, confused. “Last thing I remember, I was having trouble with my shape. I couldn’t move right. Everything was too heavy or too light. Guess I need to do some more work on the nerves and stuff.” He looked at Jim, waiting for him to fill in the missing pieces.
He had that look on his face, like the time he’d bitten into one of Mom’s cookies and she’d mixed up the salt and the sugar.
“Okay, well, the dragon thing? That looks awesome. Don’t get me wrong, but…”
“Just spit it out.”
“Yeah, do you remember hitting me with your tail?” he asked.
“You managed to get out of my reach and I couldn’t walk right. I knew you wouldn’t be down long, so I was about to try breathing fire at you.”
“That explains it.” Jim said. “You remember when we were kids, that time at the beach when my dad was trying to get the fire started? He had a little bitty flame thing going and then he just grabbed the lighter fluid and sprayed?”
Kelly laughed at the memory. “Yeah, the flame ran right up the stream and he freaked out. Dropped the lighter fluid and ran off.”
“Okay, well the reason it didn’t blow up in his hands is because they make those things with vapor locks or something. I’m guessing, however you set up the fire breathing, it didn’t come with anything like that.”
“No, I adapted it from a snake, a spitting cobra.” Kelly explained.
“No wonder, that thing was creepy as hell. Right up until your head blew up.”
What? “My head-?”
What? Kelly just blinked. He had no idea what to say to that. Even for someone like him, whose conversations had the tendency to get a little surreal sometimes, that was a new one. “How am I still alive?”
“You didn’t know?”
Man, Jim could be frustrating sometimes. “Obviously not. Stop beating around the bush and tell me, okay?”
“Well, it’s like this. Remember that time we built that half-assed tree house?”
“Are you going to remind me about our childhood every time you tell me something? Because that’s going to get old real quick.” Kelly said, sitting up so the conversation didn’t feel quite so much like he was back at the shrink’s office.
“Hey, we haven’t seen each other since my dad got his job in LA. Five years ago?”
Kelly had brought up a perfectly reasonable point and Jim got all defensive. Just like old times. “Something like that.”
“I didn’t even know you’d joined. Maybe I’m feeling a little nostalgic,” Jim continued, “regardless, do you remember or not?”
“Yeah, we didn’t use long enough nails. One of the boards came loose and I fell, knocked the wind out of me and I went out like a light. But I was okay when I woke up, a minute or two later. You totally freaked and that was it for the tree house.” Kelly said, going along with his cousin’s trip down memory lane.
“So no, you didn’t remember.” He’s got that look on his face, like he bit into something sour but didn’t want to spit it out. This was just like that thing with old Mrs. Givens’ cat, all over again. “You didn’t get the wind knocked out of you. Your head hit a rock, about the size of a baseball. You’re damned right I was freaked out.” Jim paused, took a deep breathe, then went on. “Kelly, we were just kids, but I knew what it means when you see a bloody hole in someone’s skull.”
“What? I wasn’t really hurt, I just-”
“No. Kelly, you should have died. I watched my cousin, my best friend, die because I didn’t pick the right size nail. You have any idea what that’s like? Then you rippled, just like you do when you change, and you were fine. The blood was gone, the hole was gone, and you were complaining because your back was a little sore and you were out of breath.”
“Oh.” That was just… “I didn’t know.” Kelly said. “I mean, I can heal most things just by thinking about it. Changing from one person to another is a lot bigger than changing from a person with a cut in his arm to a person without one, but…”
“You didn’t used to be able to change into fucked up dragon things,” Jim interrupted, “just into different people. Did your power change or…?” he trailed off.
“No. I just figured it out. I can do pretty much anything, but if it’s too different from human I need a sample first, and I have to plan it out.”
“So you got a sample from Kerry?”
“I…” Kelly was speechless. “I didn’t even think of that. No, I basically tried to build a dragon from scratch.” Would that even work? Did Kerry really change into a dragon or was it just some kind of projection? And, if it was real, would she be willing to help Kelly out? She was nice, but that seemed like it might be a big deal…
“Anyway, we’re off topic.” Kelly said, bringing his thoughts back to the exploding head thing. “If I do something that’s not alive, a chair or whatever, I have to concentrate to keep the change in place. Soon as I lose my focus, I go back to my last viable form.”
“Shouldn’t you be a non-headless dragon, then?” Jim asked.
Huh, he hadn’t thought of that. “Um, apparently not? I guess I don’t have as good a handle on this as I thought. But apparently, my power treats a corpse as a non-viable shape change and snaps me back.” Kelly went quiet as the implications of that hit him. It meant…
“Does that mean you can’t die?” Jim asked, quietly.
“I don’t… I mean, I never even realized…”
They both sat there, awed by the situation. Well, Kelly was awed. Jim was a bit more practical.
“We’re not gonna figure it out sitting here. And they’ll probably want this dome for someone else’s match pretty soon. Wanna go grab something to eat in town and catch up?”
“Sounds good. Kind of a long drive for a burger though.” Kelly pointed out. It’s always a burger, with Jim. The guy eats whatever you stick in front of him, but if he gets to choose, it’s always a burger.
“Nah. We can just take one of those glowing gate things that breaks every conventional law of physics and head to San Diego. I found this great burger place there, last Sunday.”
Kelly just smiled. “I’ve missed you, Jim.”
“What the hell are you wearing, Hector? This isn’t a kindergarten class.”
“Duncan! That’s messed up, man. What the hell is your problem?” Samantha came to his rescue, her face flushed and her hands clenched into fists. The rest of Hector kept watching the matches while the one Duncan had accosted slid his hand down to his new equipment belt.
“Well Duncan, I’ve got a match scheduled in a bit and I don’t want to know what it’s like to get my jaw slapped across the room. So I brought some extra equipment.” Hector felt a chill run down his spines and all the little hairs on his arms stood up. He set his hand on the item he wanted. If Duncan escalated, this was going to get bad but at least he’d be able to do something. He just wished someone tougher than Sam was his backup. Kerry had worked wonders last time. Of course, Jenny would be even better.
“Trainee, shut it down. You’re disrupting the fighters.” The newcomer had Chinese features. His hair was cut short and he was wearing an operative’s uniform, just like theirs but with a white shirt instead of black. “Hector, stay. The rest of you, go home or go watch one of the fights, quietly.” he said, voice and eyes as hard as cast iron.
Duncan’s demeanor changed, instantly. “Yes, sir.” he said, lowering his face, now wiped clean of the hostile sneer Hector was used to seeing on it. Duncan left immediately, but Sam lingered, for a moment, before taking to the air. She was out of sight in less than a second.
“No problem, Hector.” The operative stuck out his hand. Hector fumbled with the canister he’d been holding, shifted it to his left hand, then extended his right to shake. The stranger slapped his hand aside and plucked the item out of his left. “I don’t shake hands with recruits. I just wanted to see what you were holding.”
Hector stepped back, too surprised to respond with any kind of grace. “What the-?” The motion had been so smooth that Hector hadn’t even been able to track it.
“Why the OC spray? You’ve got a pistol and a bean bag gun. Why not use one of them?” The man’s voice was cool, analytical, but there was a wry twist to his mouth.
Who was this guy? “Sir, I’m not sure how tough Duncan is. The pistol might’ve killed him.” he answered, doing his best to keep his tone polite. At least he had plenty of experience as a waiter and bar tender to help with that.
“And the bean bags?”
Hector stifled a frustrated sigh. “Same issue. I don’t know how tough he is, might not have done anything. Pepper spray should have at least some effect on him.”
“Good thinking.” He broke into an outright grin, nodding. “You haven’t figured out how to access the fight archives yet, but I know you watched him fight the Juggernaut.” His face relaxed, a little more serious. “Why don’t you know how strong he is?”
“How-? Who are you, sir? How did you know our names? What I’ve been-?” Hector couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so flustered.
“Operative Bruce Richards, Deputy Director of Training and your next Conditioning Instructor.” he replied, radiating self-satisfaction.
“Holy shit! You’re a Richards type?” Hector asked.
“All that, and my power type is what you picked to focus on?” Bruce laughed. “C’mon Hector, I thought better of you than that.”
“Sorry, sorry sir…” That name was familiar, so was the face. “It’s just, I’ve never met a Richards type, they’re so rare, and I didn’t think that I’d run into one here…”
“Yeah, most of us don’t go in for the fight stuff.” His grin was as big as Jenny’s. “I’m a bit of an exception though.”
“So, so you’re here to watch us fight? For your class on Monday?”
“Nope!” He was still grinning, cheerfully amused by Hector’s state. “I came here because I wanted to talk to you, Hector.”
“Me?” Hector slowed his breathing, trying to calm down. “Well, uh, what can I do for you, sir?”
“It’s about your challenge.”
“Before I go any further, tell me what you’re carrying.”
“Okay…” Hector paused, going over the list in his head. “Well, like you said, I’ve got my pistol. I wasn’t planning to use that though. I just thought I should get in the habit of having it on me. The bean bag gun,” he hefted the item in question, “it can fire gas canisters too. The bags shouldn’t do too much damage to a normal person, long as I’m careful about face shots, and the gas is just a more concentrated version of the pepper spray.”
“Okay, but the gas doesn’t disperse much, won’t cover the whole combat room.”
“No sir, but enough of them will. I can fire a lot.” Bruce nodded. “The gas mask is pretty self-explanatory. The vest won’t do anything for me today,” he said, touching his chest, “but it’s the same thing as the pistol. I’m going to have to wear it pretty much all the time, so I want to start getting used to it now.”
“Um, I’ve got two grenades, a flash bang and fragmentation.”
His future instructor interrupted, “Why no tanglefoot bags? You’re checked out on basic restraints.”
“No point.” Bruce nodded, again. “Also, a shock baton.”
“Now that one, you’re not certified in.”
“No sir, I had my first class last night but the movements are the same as the telescoping baton. Sones authorized it, as long as I keep it on the lowest setting.”
Bruce Richards just stared at him, his eyes probing, before he answered. “Shit. You really did figure it out.” Hector watched as the man lost his confident posture, slumping in… Was that regret? “I’m betting you didn’t tell Sones who you were fighting?”
“No, sir.” Hector answered, confused.
“Go to Viewtube.” Bruce paused, until Hector nodded to show that one him had done it. “Do a search for Intervention Prime, one three two three. That’s in numbers, not words.”
“Yes, sir.” A moment later, “It’s a private video, Instructor Bruce.”
“Password is gloria non duret, all one word.”
The other him entered it then hit play. Exactly one minute and forty two seconds later, his jaw dropped. All of his jaws dropped. He looked up at Operative Richards. Hector felt… he didn’t know what he felt.
“I, I didn’t know. I…”
“National security. We don’t let combat footage of Intervention Prime out. Most of the time, we don’t even release their names. You can probably guess why.”
“I… what should I do? Forfeit, or…?” Hector couldn’t fight him, not after he’d seen that.
“No, he wouldn’t want that. Just go on, like you would’ve if I hadn’t talked to you.”
“What else did he do? Prime only comes out for Class Two and up, I know that much.” Hector had tears in his eyes. He’d recognized the city. It looked different today, but it was still there. He’d grown up in a suburb of Carson City. His mother was still alive, bad off as she was. Neither of those would have happened if not for…
“He did enough, Hector.”
Neither of them had anything else to say.
“I apologize for interrupting, Deputy Director, but I’m afraid Trainee Hector and I have a match that’s scheduled to start.”
It was him.
“It’s no problem, Senior Operative Juggernaut. We were done here. Hector, I’d like to go over some of your training requests, but that can wait until Monday.”
Hector couldn’t answer. There was something in his throat. He just nodded, instead.
“I’ve asked you before, please, I prefer Coach. Or just call me Achala.”
“I will, as soon as you call me Bruce.”
Hector understood how the Richards type felt. He didn’t know if he could go through with the plan he’d had.
“Come on Hector, Healer Andrew is waiting for us.”
“Please enter the dome.” said the healer. “You may begin as soon as you hear the tone.”
“Thank you, Andrew. Good luck Hector.” Coach Achala was already wearing the same pair of gloves he’d had on when he fought Duncan. Hector watched him smile at them both, before putting on a white mask. It looked like a ski mask that had been tailored for him, no mouth hole, tight fitting with a pair of lenses over the eyes.
Hector just nodded, unsure what to say and more than a little sick to his stomach. He put on his gasmask.
They entered the dome through opposite sides. Hector stared at his opponent, the last man in the world he wanted to hurt. But… that operative, Bruce, had said that Achala would want him to fight. So… fine. He’d do his best. Outside the dome, Hector began to circle it, leaving behind new hims. When he’d completed the circuit, there were enough of him to give a full, panoramic view of the entire combat room.
Hector didn’t watch himself fight during combat practice, would’ve counted as using his powers which was still off limits. They hadn’t let him watch anyone else fight during the initial rankings, presumably to keep anyone from getting an unfair advantage. But from what he’d been told by the healer at the time, it should be allowed now.
He studied his opponent, noted that he wasn’t standing still. The movements were small, far too subtle to be noticed from his position across the dome. Achala was swaying back and forth as well as making little circular motions with his arms. The only things perfectly still were his feet. That confirmed it. Hector had been right about his power; he wasn’t a Strong type at all.
Hector heard the tone. The match had started. He ran as quickly as he could, to the left and to the right, splitting off new bodies as he went. Coach Achala dipped into a pouch and flung a handful of the ball bearing things he’d used against Duncan. Hector watched, even as four of his six selves in the dome were cut down. These were smaller. Achala had been able to hold more of them and scatter them in a wide arc. Only the two most widespread Hectors, the ones who were also closest to Achala, had escaped injury.
He split up again. Some of him continuing on, along the dome walls, others doubling back to concentrate on making more of himself rather than closing the distance. Coach Achala had abandoned the wide arcing throws in favor of more careful, targeted ones. He seemed to be concentrating on the Hectors that were getting closest to him and he hadn’t missed yet. The little metal balls tore through Hectors’ ballistic vests, and his chests, like they weren’t even there. Then, they bounced harmlessly off the dome walls and fell to the ground.
He judged that a few of him were close enough, so they raised their bean bag guns and began firing. Most were still too far for real accuracy, he needed to be within about twenty feet, but three hit. Achala, still throwing those little balls with devastating precision, didn’t even flinch. The bags either burst or bounced off when they hit.
“That’s not supposed to happen.” said several of the outside Hectors. “Those things are rated to stay intact through a ridiculous level of impact.”
Achala abandoned the throwing and ran forward. He struck several of the Hectors, still firing the useless bags at him, between him and the center of the room. Hector cried out. Some of him had been struck a glancing blow by Achala’s arms or hands as he passed, one had been directly in his path. That one virtually burst apart as the coach moved through him, the others fell with shattered limbs or ribs. Achala stopped running when he reached the center of the room but he didn’t stop moving.
He gave a little flick of his wrists, then Achala was holding a pair of… jump ropes? The Hectors outside were too far to see in detail and the ones inside had their vision obscured by their gas masks. Each had a small handle with a thin cord attaching it to a weight about the size of a gumball.
Achala spun them, one in each hand, in circles that never quite intersected but covered all of the area around him. The cords stretched out about fifteen feet. Every Hector within that area died in seconds, cut limb from limb as the cord or the weight passed through their bodies without resistance.
Hector backed up, putting space between his selves and the man. Achala pursued, but couldn’t move quickly enough to catch more than a few Hectors without breaking the rhythm of his spinning ropes. Hector set a few of himself to making replacements for those that Achala caught, while the rest of him switched from the useless bean bag rounds to the tear gas canisters.
Achala dropped the ropes and ran to the nearest downed Hector. Even as the first muffled thump of a canister firing became audible, he’d stripped the feebly resisting Hector of his gas mask and pressed it against his own face. He ran from the spot, fumbling with the straps until the mask was able to stay in place on its own.
“Damn. I really thought that would work.” said the outside Hectors.
“Uh… Hector?” called one of the other trainees. “Could you stop the creepy talking in unison thing? It’s really distracting.”
“Sorry.” he said, careful to keep it to just one outside Hector. “First time I’ve had to concentrate this hard in a long time.”
Achala had retrieved his ropes and resumed the deadly circles. He was moving faster now, catching more Hectors, but still not fast enough. The outside Hectors let him see the field of combat despite the haze of tear gas beginning to fill the dome. Coach Achala was able to put down any of him that got too close, almost instantly, but he couldn’t cover enough ground.
Hector could make more of himself faster than he was being killed. He’d even been careful to keep a few hims out of the fray, so he still had a full supply of equipment. However, nothing he’d tried had been able to get through Coach Achala’s defenses.
Despite his earlier reluctance, Hector found himself desperate to break the stalemate. Well, he had two strategies left. Four Hectors armed and threw flashbangs at Achala. The rest closed their eyes, opened their mouths and covered their ears. In the enclosed room, large as it was, the effect was awful. Even the outside Hectors staggered back. But the disorienting effects faded quickly, for him, and then a dozen Hectors were charging the coach from all sides, stun batons extended.
Hector had given up on any weapon that relied on impact or penetration before the fight began. The Viewtube videos he’d found, what must have been Achala Juggernaut’s early career, had made it obvious they wouldn’t work. The only reason he’d bothered with the bean bags was to check whether impacts from different directions would work and to keep Achala occupied while he spread out to fill the dome with enough of his selves that he’d be able to replace the ones lost to the man’s irresistible blows.
The stun batons looked just like the telescoping clubs that had replaced most cops’ nightsticks. The only visible difference was a little button near the base. It sent an electrical current through the extended portion that was strong enough to put down a regular person. There was another control that could increase the shock, enough to affect the low end Strong types and maybe kill someone without physical powers.
The charging Hectors had their batons set to the lowest level. It would be enough. Achala’s power let him stop impacts but it shouldn’t do anything to resist the flow of electricity. If Hector could get in a single blow, it should end the match. It didn’t matter. Achala met the oncoming Hectors with his ropes and not a single one made it close enough to touch him.
“Incredible.” Hector was careful to keep the exclamation to a single outside self. “I knew his pain tolerance had to be off the scale, but the man’s gotta be the next thing to blind and deaf right now. He hasn’t even broken rhythm…”
Three Hectors, far enough from Achala to be momentarily safe, pulled out the devices for his last plan.
“Coach!” he shouted, “Please stop for a moment!”
He let the ropes fall idle, though he kept up the little swaying motions. The three Hectors raised their arms. In one hand, each held a fragmentation grenade, the pins were in the other hands.
Hector kept his voice loud, practically shouting. “I don’t know if the dome’s big enough that it counts as an enclosed area for one of these, but with three, I don’t think it’ll matter.”
“You’re willing to kill me to win a training match?” asked Achala, his voice more curious than anything else.
“No, sir. Kill radius is about fifteen feet, sir! But the injury radius is closer to fifty.” Hector, all of him that were present, studied the man before him. “I don’t think you’re anywhere near as resistant to overpressure as you are everything else, but I’ve got more if I need them.”
Achala grew still, ceasing the constant, subtle motions. “No, you are correct about that.” He stood straight, covered in Hectors’ blood, surrounded by his bodies. “I yield.” He stood, surrounded by Hectors’ broken weapons and amidst a haze of tear gas, and he gave a little bow. “Well done, Trainee Hive. Thank you for the match.”
Hector heard what the Coach had said. He’d seen the difference in how he moved. Back then, there was an incredible liquid grace to his every motion. Now, Achala still had grace, but it was a controlled thing. Hector had seen the little trembles, involuntary tremors in his hands. He’d thought the difference was just age, but now he knew better.
Hector knelt, like a Royal Knight to the Monarch. One knee bent, the other knee and his two fists touching the ground, his head as low as he could get it, it was a gesture of perfect respect and submission. At least, according to Hollywood. Hector hadn’t ever been to England to see a knighting in person, couldn’t ever go.
“Ah.” said Senior Operative Juggernaut. “He told you, then. Probably showed you that damned video too.”
Outside the dome, Hector heard Duncan’s sneering voice.
“So, did you put out yourself, or just have one of your clones do it?”
The Hector he’d been speaking to turned around. “What?”
“To get him to go easy on you. Did you blow him yourself, or what? Maybe a group thing?”
Hector drew and shot him, three times.
“I dunno if you’ve taken a close look at a good map or not, but on a global scale, three thousand kilometers isn’t as big as it sounds.” Hector told Isaac.
“You’re talking about King in Winter, right?”
“Yeah. His area of influence, the region he froze when he got his Empowerment. Don’t get me wrong, that’s huge… but if it’s actually centered on the North Pole, it’s mostly water.”
“Didn’t the guy say that was part of what had people so freaked out?” Isaac asked. “I mean, that much water changing to ice seems like it should’ve had some pretty bad effects on the rest of the world. I can see that being pretty scary.”
“You’re right. There was a whole bunch of speculation at the time about that, the planet’s rotation, something to do with the freeze and melt cycle of the Arctic Ocean and the polar caps, all sorts of stuff. But that’s not what I meant. The only countries that were directly affected, that actually had cities or towns destroyed, were Russia and Greenland.”
“But he said that King in Winter was the reason Russia and Canada broke up. If Canada wasn’t even harmed…”
“That’s what I meant, Isaac. I mean, there were probably some scientific research posts or something in the region, but in terms of actual population loss, Canada was pretty much untouched.”
“Hm…” Isaac took a moment to process, “so what about the other two?”
“Russia had a couple small towns I’d never heard of before. Greenland took real damage, at least a dozen. But… this was nineteen twenty eight.”
“After Tyrant, you mean.”
“Yeah.” Hector answered. “Not really an issue, at that point.”
“So if it wasn’t panic over how much damage Winter did, what was it?”
“Ever heard of Red Thursday?”
“I’m guessing that’s not anything like Black Friday?” Isaac replied.
Hector smirked. “Not quite. It was about a week after the freeze. Three groups, I guess you’d call them terrorists or rebels, whatever, attacked more or less simultaneously. They killed government leaders, blew up power stations, that sort of thing. All over the country.”
“They used teleporters, phasers and Speed types to do a ridiculous level of damage. Combine that with how scared everyone was by Winter and the Tyrant… remember, no one knew their effects wouldn’t spread any further yet, and that’s where the real breakdown started.”
“Okay, so how come I’ve never heard of this?”
“Isaac, have you ever actually done any research on King in Winter?”
“No, I never really had any interest in Empowered stuff. Not until-” he closed his eyes.
“Hey, it’s cool. I know.” Hector said. “My point is, this isn’t on the net. I had to go back to microfiche of newspapers from the twenties, at the UCLA library, before I could find any real accounts of it.”
“So you think there was some kind of cover-up?”
Hector’s jaw dropped. I, I didn’t know. I…
“Hey, relax.” Isaac said, concerned. “We’re just bullshitting, here.”
“It’s not that, just crossover from one of the other mes.” Hector hesitated, trying to recall the earlier thread of the conversation. “Anyway, no, not exactly a cover-up. I mean, I found the articles in a public library, not exactly something that requires a high level of hacking, just time and effort. I think most people just like the other version of the story better and the Citadel, for some reason, wants us to think the same way.
“Threat perception. The Citadel wants its operatives, and people in general, I guess, to think in terms of the big guys, instead of focusing on the damage a group of Empowered can do, like- Wait, who did you say they were?”
“I didn’t.” Hector replied. “The biggest group was the Angels of the Lord, the other two were the Committee for Progress and Society Without Leaders. Religious nutcases that thought Empowered were angels in human flesh, a group of Empowered with mental abilities that were sure they could run things better than the humans and a bunch of psychotic anarchists inspired by the guys that killed Franz Ferdinand and started the First War.”
“That’s it then!” Isaac’s face transformed with excitement. “It isn’t about people in general, it’s the Empowered. How many off the scale Empowered can you think of?”
“Um, gimme a sec.” Hector paused to think. “Well, King in Winter and Tyrant, obviously. There’s the guy that set off the Bug Bomb in the late eighties, whatever his name was. The Monarch, or do you only want the bad guys?”
“No, count her- them, too. Anyone that’s so strong there’s no way to really deal with them.”
“So that’s four, plus William Power, Monster and Chemo.” Hector added, grimacing at the last name.
“I’ve never heard of Chemo but I don’t think Monster counts, he’s been running around free for thirty years and he barely does any damage, not on this scale.”
“Chemo… he was a dying cancer patient, probably triggered from the frustration, maybe bitterness. Turned into a giant crystal thing the size of a car and just went running around Carson City. He let out a kind of gas. Anyone that came into contact with it collapsed in pain. Some people went crazy, others died from heart attacks or whatever.”
“Well, that’s pretty bad but…”
“They sent in Intervention Prime. William Power himself couldn’t stand up to it, just started screaming before he was close enough to reach the crystal and flew off. Worse, the gas didn’t fade when he left the area. It just kept spreading.”
“This thing took down William Power and I’ve never heard of him?” Isaac’s eyes were wide. “How did they…?”
“They dropped C- another Prime member, someone with a strong offense, right on top of him. He destroyed the crystal, killed Chemo, but he didn’t have any toughness. The fall almost killed him and Chemo’s gas…” Hector had to stop, just for a moment. “Like I said, the gas kept expanding, even when he was gone.
“The free floating stuff died out eventually. But the people affected, well, it turned out that the gas was actually alive, a cloud of little parasite things. Anyone affected by the gas, everyone but William Power, they had that same level of crippling pain for the rest of their lives. No one’s ever found a drug that can kill the parasites and, since it’s an ongoing thing, most Healer types can’t do anything about it either.” Hector tried not to let the bitterness seep into his voice.
“How do you know so much about this one?”
“The hospital, the one Chemo was at when he changed? My mom was in a different ward, giving birth to my little brother.”
“Oh.” Isaac’s voice was quiet. “I, I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“Sorry… I didn’t…”
“No.” Hector had to work to make himself cheer up, but not as hard as he used to. “I know your tragic backstory, only fair that you get to hear mine. Besides, I was too young to really remember.”
“Then, is your mother…?”
“Yeah. She’s still alive, but she’s bedridden, needs constant care.”
“That must be hard, being away from her, even for something like Citadel training.”
Hector smiled. “When I first started taking care of her, she told me she didn’t want me missing out on my life just for her sake. I promised I wouldn’t. You can probably guess how that worked out.”
“Oh!” Isaac smiled back. “Ha, I guess so.”
“Damn. I really thought that would work.” Hector said, then shook his head at Isaac’s confused expression. “So yeah, Chemo and Monster, just because they each beat William Power and we’re counting him. And if you’ve never heard of Chemo, there’s probably a bunch more neither one of us knows about.”
“You’re right, but I think that still supports the point I was gonna make.” Isaac said. “It’s not about controlling the public, it’s about the Empowered. They want them thinking that the only ones who’re a big deal, the ones that are a threat to a city or the country, are the unstoppables. That way, the ones with a taste for violence, the criminals, don’t go on a rampage just because they can juggle cars with their mind or something.”
“Instead, they stick to regular crime, small scale stuff.”
“That or head off to the Battlegrounds, yeah.”
“Isaac, you realize this’s how that started, right?”
“The Battlegrounds, Canada was the first part of it.”
“Really? I always thought it spread up from Mexico.”
“No. I found that, too. Those groups, the Angels, the Committee and the Society, they basically tore Canada apart. But they couldn’t hold onto it. Once order broke down, more and more Empowered kept showing up. A group or a strong individual would claim a territory, sometimes they wanted to rule it, sometimes they were just protecting their home, and another would come along to knock them down.”
“What about the military?” Isaac asked.
“This was just after the First War, conventional militaries didn’t have any kind of answer to Empowered back then. It just sort of spread through Canada, then down through the mid-west. Mexico had their own break down, but that wasn’t till the forties.”
“So there were two Battlegrounds back then?”
“There still are, sort of. Depends on if you count the Hive States.”
“The Bugs?” Isaac asked.
“Yeah, but they hate that name. The Battlegrounds were sort of pushing in from below and above when the Bug Bomb went off. After that, we got the Fractured States of America, instead of the USA.”
“And now, the Citadel doesn’t want new groups trying the same thing.”
“Maybe. It’s just a theory.” Hector said.
“Sure.” Isaac agreed. “But it makes sense.”
“If we’re right, is it wrong? What the Citadel, the government, is doing.”
Isaac didn’t answer right away. “I don’t know. But I think it might be necessary.”
Hector glared at him. “Really? Did you have to phrase it that way?”
“To get him to go easy on you. Did you blow him yourself, or what? Maybe a group thing?”
Hector drew and shot him, three times.
“Fuck. Isaac, I gotta go. There’s something I’m going to have to take care of.”
The Sparring Field
“Hey guys, what’s up!?” Jenny called.
She’d been forced to stop by her room and pick up the package after therapy so she’d arrived, late, to find the other trainees acting weird. There were fewer than she’d expected, even considering that a lot of people wouldn’t be able to challenge today. That wasn’t too strange, it was still too early for people’s patterns to be set in stone, but the ones who were here were clustered into groups. The biggest was a little over a dozen people. She thought she knew most of them, while the rest were in gatherings of three or four.
Drew appeared in front of her. “-enny!” he flickered, “-he-” flicker “Duncan!” flicker “-they took-”
This was important. She could hear the low, bass rumble that meant the situation was building to something ugly. Dammit, she’d just wanted to get the damn fight over with and now she was going to be stuck in some sort of drama.
“Drew,” she said, noting that her voice came out firm and commanding, “calm down. You’re going in and out.”
God dammit, he was so frustrating some times.
“Sorry, Jenny.” He must’ve taken the time to collect himself. The change was obvious, slower breathing, eyes not so wide and he didn’t do his stop motion change of posture after every third word. “It’s Hector. He fought Coach Achala, and-”
“Is he hurt?” she interrupted.
“No, he’s not hurt.”
Obviously. Why had her power made her ask that? The guy was basically invulnerable, unless you had some way to take out every one of his bodies at once.
“Good,” she said, sighing in apparent relief, “after what Coach did to Duncan last week…”
“Jenny, you don’t get it. Hector won! He beat Coach Achala!”
The bass picked up a bit, got a little more urgent.
“I don’t get it, then. What had you so worried? You’re usually so calm…”
Of course he was. If anyone had the time to think things through before acting, or reacting, it was Drew. What next, compliment him for being so punctual?
“Right after he won, Duncan was giving him a hard time.”
Naturally, Duncan gave everyone a hard time. She couldn’t find it in her to hold it against him, though. She was pretty sure his power was influencing his behavior. If anyone could understand that, it was Jenny Awesome.
“He said… uh, he said that Coach Achala let him win. That Hector had…” He blushed, just for a moment, before flickering again, then he had it under control. Drew still looked a little embarrassed.
“I can guess.” she said, wryly. “The guy has kind of a fixation. Makes you wonder if he didn’t get bottle fed a little too much.”
Drew laughed. People always laughed at her jokes. Why? That one didn’t even seem to make sense.
His face grew more serious. “Jenny, he shot him.”
“Asshole!” She sounded outraged. Even felt it a bit. She was having a harder and harder time telling the difference between what she felt and what her power wanted her to feel. “Just because Hector can take it, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for Duncan to-”
Oh God, no. Did he mean-?
“Jenny, Hector shot Duncan. Just pulled out his gun and bang. It was so fast, no one could stop him.”
Not even you, Drew Stasis? She wanted to ask, but that would have hurt his feelings, made him like her a little less. Couldn’t have that. Was this her fault? Winning against the instructor was pretty impressive, probably a lot more impressive than her beating up poor little Anna Insight. Did her power set this up so Hector wouldn’t outshine her?
“What happened next? Is he… is Duncan okay? Is Hector in trouble?”
“No, Duncan’s fine.” He shook his head. “Apparently, he’s tough enough that a pistol can’t do much more than leave some bruises. I can’t believe you’re actually worried about him. You’re a better person than me, Jenny.”
“Drew, we don’t really know Duncan. Don’t know what his life has been like, what his power’s put him through, nothing. I know he’s a jerk, but no one gets that way without a reason. We should… we should try not to be so hard on him.”
A bit afterschool special, but at least she more or less agreed with what she was saying. For once.
“I’ll, I’ll try and remember that.” He smiled. “You really are awesome.”
She wanted to scream at him but just smiled instead, a little proud but not enough to seem arrogant.
“But what about Hector?”
“That’s what everyone’s talking about. There was another instructor, Bruce something, he took Duncan and Hector off to see Director Shift. Hector had, like, forty clones and they all went off in a crowd. I think… could he get kicked out?”
“I… I don’t know.” she said. “This has to be a pretty big deal. I mean, if Hector shot someone without a pretty good reason, that’s… Yeah. He could get expelled from the program. It could be a lot worse than that.”
Jenny waited, while the bass died back down. Neither one of them said anything for a bit. The music came back, something lighter, a little livelier. Time to change the subject, apparently.
“Do you know where Anna is? I wanted to talk to her before the fight, make sure there’s no hard feelings.”
“Before the fight?” Drew said. “Jenny, she left about an hour ago. I don’t think you need to worry though, Kerry didn’t hurt her or anything. Anna just forfeited. They didn’t even go into the dome.”
“What? Kerry challenged her too?”
“You didn’t know? Kerry was in second place last week, but she didn’t challenge. She didn’t think she could beat Greg, still thought he was the next William Power.” Drew explained. “So, when Anna won, Kerry sent in her challenge for this week right away.”
He grinned, “Did you see that fight, by the way? It was great! He just stood there, waiting for her to collapse like everyone else did. She wasn’t affected by his hallucinations like they were, but he didn’t know! So he walks up to make her yield and she trips him. The next thing you know, she’s got him in an arm lock and he’s screaming out a surrender faster than I could’ve. It was hilarious.”
“No, I… I had an appointment. I couldn’t make it. Guess I was just lucky no one challenged me or I’d have had to forfeit my place.” She checked her schedule, just to be sure. “Looks like that means I’m going up against Kerry.”
At least that explained why her power had made her stop and get the package before coming to the Sparring Field.
Drew’s face lit up. “Wow. You’re fighting Kerry? Do you think you can win?”
“Of course I can!” she said, a huge grin plastered on her face, “I’m Awesome.”
God, she was sick of saying that.
“Do you have any defensive abilities I need to be aware of?” Victoria Healer asked.
“Nope, normal human.” Jenny answered.
“I’m a little complicated.” Kerry added. “When I switch to dragon form, I’m pretty tough. If it dies or gets knocked out, I turn back to regular me.”
“Does the damage carry over? And do you have any defensive abilities when in your standard shape?”
“No ma’am. The dragon is some kind of projection, like a forcefield or something but flesh and blood. Regular me is just… well, regular.”
“Very well. Trainee Jennifer, your use of force against Trainee Keridwyn is unrestricted, while she is in dragon form. While Keridwyn is human, and at all times in Jennifer’s case, lethal force is defined as severe trauma to the head or torso, as well as anything more severe than a broken bone in the limbs. If either of you breaks through the dome’s wall, or states the words ‘I yield,’ you forfeit the match. Is that understood?”
“Yes.” answered Jenny.
“It is.” added Kerry.
“Trainee Kerry, please enter the dome. Trainee Jenny, remain for a moment.” After Kerry did as she was asked, the healer began speaking in a more relaxed tone. “Jenny, are you sure you actually want to do this?”
She sighed. “Depends how you mean that.”
The healer raised a single eyebrow.
“Well, I’m not exactly looking forward to fighting a dragon, win or lose. I don’t much care if I’m in first place or not, either. But I’m pretty sure my power wants me to be at the top of the class and I don’t like the idea of what it might do to make that happen if I don’t fight.” Jenny blinked, surprised at how frank the statement had been. “How-? How did I just say that?”
The healer smiled, maybe. It was hard to tell with those masks they wore.
“Simple. Director Shift and Instructor Juggernaut made sure that the healer for your scheduled match,” she winked, “was someone that found blunt speaking and honesty impressive.”
“Oh. I’m… not sure how to feel about that.”
“It was hoped that you would appreciate the chance to speak your mind.”
“I… I do. It’s just, well, this isn’t actually a chance to do that. More like I have to.”
“I’m sorry Jenny. It’s not meant to take advantage of you, just make things a little easier for you.” Victoria Healer paused, “If there’s anything you’d rather I not know or if you feel pressured, just ask me to back off. I promise, I’ll do my best not to use your… nature… against you.”
“Thank you, Healer Victoria.” Fuck. “I really appreciate your candor. Is there anything else, before I go in?” Fuck fuck fuck. This was bad.
“No Jenny, go ahead. Good luck.” Victoria said.
Jenny headed through her door, into the dome. This was bad. It hadn’t ever occurred to her that the Citadel could essentially control her, just by picking the people she was around with care. This was really bad.
The tone sounded and Jenny’s thoughts vanished in a surge of fast paced battle music.
Kerry was surrounded by a bright, silver-white light. When it faded, an enormous dragon had taken her place. The scales over its back and sides were red and gold. Its underbelly was pale white. It stretched its long neck and spread its bat-like wings wide. A great roar of triumph and fury echoed off the sides of the dome.
In defiance of any rational thought, Jenny found herself running towards it, a fearless grin plastered on her face. Kerry lunged forward, her jaws spread wide. A great gust of heated air preceded the flames that poured forth. Jenny leapt to the side, barely avoiding it.
“Arrow!” she cried out. Damn, she’d been right.
Kerry moved her head, following Jenny’s movement in an attempt catch her with the flame.
“Black arrow!” Jenny could feel the pressure on her, more than she could possibly resist.
The fire exhausted, Kerry reared back, roaring again. She swept her wings forward, unleashing a wind that hurled Jenny back, almost into the wall.
“I have saved you to the last.” Jenny could barely follow what she was saying. Her head hurt from the impact. The music was louder than she’d ever heard it. She pushed herself to her feet, that stupid grin still in place. “You have never failed me and always I have recovered you.” She reached into the messenger tube she’d been carrying, the package, and drew forth the collector’s item.
Kerry lunged forward, the four fingers of her long, sinewy arms outstretched. Each was as long as Jenny’s leg. She darted forward, dropping the tube and keeping hold of the arrow. Before Kerry could grab hold of her, she dove forward, beneath the great dragon’s body.
“I had you from my father and he from of old.” she proclaimed, rolling to her feet and spinning to face Kerry.
The dragon’s tail lashed out at her as Kerry spun to face her. Jenny jumped straight up to avoid the blow.
“If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain,” she shouted, “go now and speed well.” A bird landed on her shoulder. She didn’t bother wondering where it had come from. That sort of thing just happened to her.
Kerry reared back again, raising a shrill cry of frustration. Jenny hurled the arrow. It had cost her thirty dollars plus shipping and was made of resin. She was pretty sure it had never belonged to her father or been forged under a mountain. Nevertheless, the arrow flew straight and true. It cut through the air, striking the hollow by Kerry’s left breast. It pierced through a damaged scale and she fell to the ground, writhing and crying in pain. Shortly, she vanished in a flair of that same silver-white light.
“What the Hell!?” Kerry demanded.
Startled, Jenny cried out and spun around, her arm outstretched. Kerry crumpled to the ground as Jenny’s fist struck her in the side of the head. Apparently, the girl had returned when the dragon died, in the same spot she’d occupied before the dragon first appeared. The tone sounded, announcing the match’s end.
Both doors opened. Jenny could hear cheering and cries of excitement coming from outside. The healer, Victoria, entered at a run and knelt over Kerry’s unconscious form.
“Is she okay? I didn’t mean to hit her so hard…” despite the concern in her voice, Jenny knew the answer. Kerry would be fine, the healers were capable of correcting damage that was far worse than a simple blow to the temple.
Purple sparks flickered around Kerry’s head, where Victoria Healer’s fingers rested upon it. “She’ll be fine. Just a minor concussion, I think.” Naturally. “I’ve already fixed the damage. She’s just resting right now. Should wake up with a headache, but that’s it.”
After the reassurance, Jenny turned to one side of the dome, presumably where the largest part of her audience was.
“Yeah! I did it!” she cried, her voice filled with simple joy.
Hurray. She was in first place, now. Even as she began celebrating with all of her ‘friends,’ and commiserating over poor Kerry, she just wanted… well, something else.
Something else wasn’t an option. Jenny was Awesome, she wasn’t allowed not to be.