Jason shut the door of the incubator. Final yields were slightly greater than his earliest projections, though not so great as he might have hoped. It should be enough. More to the point, it would have to be. Finished with the private portion of his daily routine, Jason left his room and went down the stairs to join the others for breakfast.
Unusually, Jason was the last to arrive. This was not the meal’s only unexpected feature. Kelly was female. It was far more common for the shapeshifter to be male at home and, conversely, female during the majority of public social activities. Jason had not noticed any particular pattern when it came to combat training. Hector was at the table, eating, rather than at the stove or serving the others. This might have been due to the lateness with which Jason had arrived but he thought it was more likely related to the meal itself.
Hector had prepared a large quantity of eggs in a variety of styles. Jason also saw bacon, sausage links, patties and what he believed was skirt steak. There were pancakes, waffles, an item he did not recognize but seemed like a cross between tortillas and pancakes, all accompanied by honey, syrup and a selection of crushed fruit.
Isaac was drinking orange juice rather than coffee.
Jason could have asked Kelly about her atypical appearance. He could have commented on Isaac’s choice of beverage or Hector’s deviation from standard behavior. Normally, he would have given them a polite greeting and then done so. Today… Jason did not wish to do so. The idea of interacting with these people in such a way, as if he were reading from a script his mother had prepared…. it seemed unsatisfying.
In slightly more than a week, each of these people would most likely have graduated. In truth, Jason believed himself to be the one with the highest probability of being held back, at least at the moment. He expected that to be changed by the day’s end. Jason thought of Hector as his friend. They had shared confidences and exchanged aid on more than one occasion. Jason trusted him. He did not feel the same label fit his relationship with Isaac or Kelly… still, with his thoughts turned towards graduation, he realized he was likely to part ways with them. The Citadel was a relatively small organization with a large area of responsibility. The idea of that coming separation left him… unsettled.
Jason sat in relative silence and shared a meal with his companions. Rather than allow his mind to dwell on that pending separation, he chose to concentrate on this moment and its feeling of comfortable familiarity. If he had known that the others were doing much the same, each in their own way, he would have been shocked. Or as close as he could come to that state of mind.
Eventually, the meal came to an end. As another Hector came in and began clearing the table- Jason noticed he was setting the uneaten food aside rather than disposing of it- the four housemates discussed their plans for the day. It did not take long for two of them to discover that they had something in common.
“Hey Jason, I’ve got a challenge from you?” Kelly had been the first to speak. “Congrats man! I didn’t realize you’d gotten so far up the ranks. Last I saw, you were in the mid-thirties.”
“Thank you Kelly. However, I am currently ranked last in the class.” Jason had little trouble interpreting the look of confusion that his statement elicited, nor was it difficult to intuit the cause. He decided to explain. “Coach Achala told us that multiple challenges on the same day were allowed. I believe it was part of his initial description of the challenge system. The only requirement is that each challenge must individually be acceptable. Of course, a loss negates any further challenges that are pending.”
Kelly’s brow furrowed for a moment, then she spoke. “Huh. So you challenged whoever’s five ranks above you then five above them and so on, up into the twenties? That’s really smart. You could end up with a good ranking and only have to fight a few times, especially if you spent some time figuring out who’s likely to skip out on their challenges.”
“That’s not what he did.” Isaac said. Jason turned his head slightly, so that he could see the other man. Kelly did as well. “He challenged me too.”
Kelly’s eyes were slightly wider than normal and her voice was higher as she said, “Wait, what? No offense Jason but… well, Isaac’s really high up right now. I’m not sure…”
Hector, the one at the table, laughed. “Kelly, you didn’t look at the full schedule for the day, did you?”
Kelly shook her head. “No, I saw it was a lot busier than normal and figured that since this was the second to last weekend, a bunch of people would be desperate to make sure they ended up with decent ranks. I just paid attention to my own fights.”
Hector wore the same smile, or perhaps it should be called a grin, that he usually did. Jason thought that it might be a little more… well, a little more something than usual.
“I challenged everyone.” Jason said. Isaac nodded. The Hector at the sink laughed. Kelly sat back, eyes even wider while her mouth was slightly opened. “While the strategy you proposed,” he said, inclining his head towards Kelly, “would have likely resulted in a high rank for me, I believe that fully displaying my capabilities is more important if the Citadel is to place me in a position to properly utilize them.”
“Wha- but… Jason, are you sure you’re-?” Kelly seemed to be having trouble expressing herself.
Isaac interrupted her. “Just how much have you been holding back?”
Jason thought that this would be an appropriate time to give a smile, so he did so. He intended it to imply confidence. “A great deal.”
Four Hectors entered the room, each carrying a large pack that Jason knew were filled with a variety of implements. The one at the table spoke. “I’ve been helping him get ready. I even suggested to a few people that they coordinate challenges to make sure he ended up at the very bottom of the list. It would’ve been a lot easier if Anna hadn’t yielded to him during the first day.”
Neither of Jason’s other roommates seemed to have anything to say at this point.
“I’ve got all the stuff we talked about Jason. Is there anything else you need?”
Jason considered Hector’s question for a moment. “No. I will go to my room for a moment, then we may depart.”
Jason looked at the racks in his incubator. Each held six hundred tubes. There were seven racks. Each tube contained, he thought, a minimum of two hundred flies or larvae. Caring for the insects had been simple, at first. As their numbers grew, it had taken up more and more of his day. Another person might have found it amusing that so much work had gone into something that was over in a fraction of a second.
His gaze went from the top of the incubator to the bottom. Where it had passed, roughly a million fruit flies simply ceased. Their lives extinguished so that Jason could prove his worth.
Suzy looked up at the gate, nervous. On this side, the one she was meant to step through, it was… creepy. A large black square, she thought it was maybe eight feet by eight feet. The sides were traced in blue light, like a diagram drawn in the air. The surface of the gate itself, the face of that square, was black. A pure, empty darkness… it was like being told to step into the void.
She knew it was silly. It hadn’t bothered her on the way here. Plenty of Citadel personnel used them every day and she’d never heard of anyone being hurt, unless you counted all the operatives that used them to get to a combat zone. Suzy tightened her grip on the little flash drive they’d given her. She’d taken some time to skim through it earlier and, as far as she could tell, they’d left everything on it. They hadn’t removed anything. This was going to be one of the best assignments of her career, even if her producer wouldn’t let her run the juicy stuff. She’d still know it, could use it later. Whether it was part of a later story or just leverage, that footage would make her career.
Suzy Nguyen gathered her courage, took a deep breath, then she stepped into the darkness.
Jason and the Hectors carrying his equipment arrived before their roommates. Isaac had an appointment and would not need to fight until later in the day. Kelly had not challenged anyone or been challenged by anyone other than Jason. The shapeshifter had elected to spend the intervening time in flight.
One of the packs proved to hold several camp chairs. Jason and the Hectors sat in comfort while they waited. Jason’s matches would not begin until all other challenges had been resolved. Had he realized this he would have waited to consume the flies’ lives. He did not know their exact number but it was more, far more, than he had ever held before.
Each animal life he took gave him additional strength, added roughly half his base level. Four lives made him three time as strong as his body should be. This did not come with any corresponding durability. However, each life, plant or animal, allowed him to instantly recover from one injury.
Jason did not know how many lives he currently contained. There were far too many to count. If he did not move with exceeding caution, he could easily squander lives by injuring himself. Even a careless breath could do it at this point. He had killed every piece of plant life that he and Hector had passed on their way here, hoping that his power would expend that before the more useful animal lives.
“Hi Jason.” Jenny said, smiling. She was the first of their classmates to greet him or Hector. “I saw the challenge schedule so I just wanted to congratulate you.” His friend spoke louder than was her habit, at least when they were alone.
He hoped her actions were deliberate. He didn’t like the idea of her power causing her distress in relation to him.
“I know you’ve had a hard time figuring out how to use you talent in a fight.” she said. “Without hurting someone too badly, I mean. So, you know, congrats on that and good job!” she smiled. Then she leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.
She returned to the larger group of trainees that were talking amongst themselves. Many of them, especially the females, seemed to be watching him rather than their conversational partners.
“Well, I guess you two made up.” the nearest Hector said.
Jason turned to look at him. He did not care that the motion cost him a life.
“You know, after that fight you two had in Coach Achala’s class?”
Jason nodded to indicate that he remembered the incident. Jenny had apologized profusely. Her power had obviously caused the incident. She had believed that it was simply another action meant to ingratiate her to their classmates. It made sense to him. Jason, in no small part because of his ranking, was perceived as the weakest member of the class.
Jason realized that Hector had continued speaking. “I do not wish to talk about that.” he said.
“Sorry man, didn’t mean to step on your toes or anything. I just wondered how long you two had been dating.”
Jason did not reply.
“She’s pretty cute.” Hector said.
Jason reached for his glasses. Hector stopped speaking. Jason returned his hand to his lap, leaving the sun glasses in place.
The reporter stumbled as she stepped out of the gate. Its exit side was a few inches off the floor. James Lacuna stepped up to her side and placed a hand on her wrist while he reached across her back to grip her shoulder with the other. At first, she probably thought he was just trying to keep her from tripping.
“Thank you.” she said.
The look on her face went from vaguely confused and wary to sleepy relaxation as he used his power. She slumped back and feel into his arms.
“You’re welcome, Ms. Nguyen.” he muttered.
Modifying a series of memories that covered the better part of a week would normally be both difficult and time consuming. But this time it should be a simple job. After all, he had a video record of just about everything she’d done in that time.
“Which reminds me…” he said.
He took a moment to search her, replacing the flash drive she was carrying with one prepared by Analysis and making sure she didn’t have a backup.
On paper, George Dragon should have been one of the class’s most dangerous combatants. Like William Power, he was a Parker type. Strength, flight, enhanced senses, claws, scales and fire breath, it sounded impressive. Unlike William Power, his individual powers were, to put it simply, weak.
Literally every other trainee with enhanced strength could hit harder. His claws and scales were less effective than a flak jacket and a good knife. Night vision was useful but it didn’t make much difference in the average fight. He had to rely on his wings to fly, which left him relatively slow and awkward in the air. The flame breath… well, it certainly looked cool but, from a practical stand point, he was better off with a good gun as often as not.
The young man had been bitter at first, even considered dropping out of the program. The inevitable comparisons to the class’s other Dragon hadn’t helped. His session with Bruce Richards had changed that. The experienced instructor had told him that while his powers might be weak, at least by an operative’s standards, their variety still gave him something valuable: flexibility.
His strength wasn’t a useful weapon, but it let him carry a ridiculous amount of equipment. His flight might be slow and ungainly, especially with the extra weight, but George still had more battlefield mobility than most. The scales, claws and flame breath were now useful back-ups to his new, custom made inch-thick steel armor and M nineteen automated grenade launcher.
George regained his confidence and soon found that while his new approach still left him ineffective in a one on one confrontation with most of his classmates, he was invaluable in the group exercises. There are very few scenarios that don’t get easier with the application of a few forty millimeter grenades. It helps when the grenadier is highly mobile and too tough to be taken out easily.
All this goes to explain why George was the second lowest ranked combatant in the class. His talents simply lay elsewhere. He knew it and was comfortable with the fact. This is also why he considered letting Jason win. He didn’t know the guy but George had seen him in action enough to realize he was the only trainee less suited to a straight fight than George himself. Worse, he was completely lacking in useful, indirect combat skills.
That budding sympathy vanished when the fight started and Jason took off his sunglasses.
San Francisco Citadel Branch Office
Suzy Nguyen stumbled as she stepped out of the gate. Its exit side was a few inches off the floor. After regaining her balance, she turned to face the gate. From here, it seemed like she could see right into the Tower’s Gate Room. She reached out to touch the gate’s surface and her hand just stopped. She could see her skin compress but there was no sensation of resistance, no feeling of contact. Incredible.
After a time, Suzy left the gate room. She’d enjoyed examining the office’s single arrival gate, but the outgoing… That darkness was just creepy and she needed to call her office. They’d be happy to know that she had more than enough footage for a feel good special. It was a pity though, she’d been hoping for something more. Not necessarily a scandal or anything like that. Suzy just enjoyed knowing things. The right info on the Citadel could’ve given her leverage, maybe even made her career… ah well.
At least she had that girl’s impromptu speech. It would make a good focus for the story, especially if she framed it right.
That was what George had seen. If someone had asked him earlier, he’d have told them that that wouldn’t be such a big deal. With the kind of training the Citadel did… frankly, he’d thought he was going to die on more than one occasion. Since he couldn’t remember that one exercise, and with the way Retcon’s power was supposed to work, it was likely that he actually had. But when he’d looked into Jason’s eyes… He’d flat out known the other trainee could kill him. Not thought, not feared or understood, he’d known it. Of course he’d yielded.
The other trainees he spoke to didn’t get it. They watched the same thing happen a few times, spoke to Jason’s opponents, and they decided it was a trick. Obviously he’d been holding out, waiting till the last phase of training to show off part of his power set. The popular theory was that he had a more specialized version of Warp’s ability. It wasn’t until Jason’s ninth fight of the day that someone tested it.
Benjamin Stone’s terrakinesis was powerful, versatile and capable of affecting a wide area. It was generally assumed that if he’d had any interest in the challenge rankings, he’d have wound up in the top ten.
His classmates watched as Jason beat him effortlessly. Ben kept his eyes closed, relying on what he called his ‘tremorsense’ instead. He pulled stone walls from the ground to slow his opponent’s advance, formed the earth into spikes then launched them at Jason with incredible force and made a kind of rocky armor to protect himself and effectively magnify his own strength.
The spikes tore through Jason’s body but he healed instantly. The walls were taken down with a single, casual kick each. The fight ended when Jason methodically tore the armor from his body and placed a hand on his neck. He didn’t squeeze, but no one doubted that if he had, Ben would’ve died. After that, Jason gained three ranks without a fight. His opponents forfeited rather than step into the dome.
Samantha Soar couldn’t fight with her eyes closed and she refused to surrender. She still regretted yielding to Kerry without even trying. As soon as the match started, she drew two pistols and opened fire while flitting around the dome. She must have gotten at least a brief glimpse of his eyes because she had tears streaming down her face and her whole body was trembling. There was no indication that it affected her aim.
Between the shots, it took Jason almost two minutes to pull out the magnesium flare and set it off. Sammy screamed, dropped the guns and collided with a wall. By the time she recovered, Jason had his hand on her.
Michael’s forcefields barely slowed Jason down. Fred Ghost couldn’t phase his entire body at once and he still needed to breathe. Jason just set off a tear gas canister and waited, ignoring the other boy’s repeated, though successful, attempts to rip out several of his internal organs. As soon as the fight started, Kelly just collapsed to the ground and didn’t move again for several minutes.
That was how it went for a time. Most opponents Jason faced either yielded without a fight or were beaten through sheer, overwhelming power. The handful with abilities that should have given them a chance were all neutralized by some kind of trick from one of Hectors’ bags. Somewhere along the line, people just stopped trying. It wasn’t that they yielded, just that their fighting was… half-hearted.
That changed when he hit the top ranks.
In the first second of their fight, Drew left Jason covered with dozens of stab wounds. They disappeared and reappeared so quickly that he seemed to be a fountain of red. Jason was able to set off a smoke bomb and the wounds stopped appearing. For some reason, Drew was unwilling to enter the slowly spreading cloud of gas. Instead, he elected to use a pistol. Simultaneously, at least thirty bullets struck Jason in the head, essentially decapitating him. This was a traditional method of neutralizing high end regenerators but it did no more lasting harm to Jason than the knife had. Drew yielded when Jason prepared to supplement the smoke bomb with a pair of grenades.
Duncan was not present. No one had seen him since some time during the week.
Isaac’s fight completely terrified the watchers. His aura was silver-white and brighter than anyone but Hector had ever seen. There were no clever tricks or stratagems to this encounter. The two simply walked up and hit each other, once. The image displayed on the dome’s side cut out immediately.
Their Healer stopped the fight to find the dome’s interior riddled with cracks, some reached halfway through the wall. Anna Insight reported that there wasn’t so much as a single square inch of the inner surface that was undamaged. When the Healer entered, the two were standing in the center of the dome, casually speaking to each other. Isaac calmly conceded the match. If he was bothered by Jason’s gaze or the blood leaking from his own ears and nose, he gave no sign of it.
Gregory Warp came the closest to winning. Jason fell to the ground as soon as the match started, completely limp. Warp approached cautiously and reached down to cover Jason’s mouth and nose with his hand. No one had tried suffocation yet. It might have worked if that had not been the moment when the flash bang in Jason’s hand went off.
The disorientation it caused was enough to free Jason from the grip of Warp’s power. By the time the other boy recovered, Jason had a hand on his shin and…
Saying that a limb or a bone is broken implies a whole object with ends that have been fully or partially separated by the damage. After Jason squeezed, Greg’s leg was not a whole object, damaged or otherwise. It was a badly leaking container of red mush.
Anna’s fight was odd, though not if one were familiar with their first encounter. Before the Healer had given his speech, Jason asked her a question.
“Can you tell how many?”
“Four hundred thirty two thousand nine hundred and twelve.” she answered, followed by, “I yield.”
Keridwyn Dragon’s fight was odd in a different way. Before approaching the Healer, Jason put his dark glasses back on. More accurately, he put on a replacement pair. Two of Hector’s five bags had proven to contain replacement uniforms and accessories. Jason’s ability instantly eliminated any damage to his body but it did nothing to protect his wardrobe.
It caused an expression on Keridwyn’s face that he judged to be ‘curiosity.’ When she confirmed this by asking him a question, he was quite pleased.
“Why the glasses?”
“Your previous reaction was somewhat… excessive.” he told her.
“My what? When did I…?”
He was momentarily puzzled but soon realized the source of confusion. “It occurred during the full class training session, roughly two weeks ago.”
“The one no one remembers?” Her voice was less forceful than usual.
“It is a side effect of Senior Operative Retcon’s power.” he reminded her. “Anyone she revives is returned to the same state they were in at the time of initial exposure, both physically and mentally.”
“You’re… you’re saying I died. Someone… managed to…”
“Yes. The majority of the class was killed in the course of the exercise.”
Jason was accustomed to thinking of the petite redhead as quite pale. However, in the wake of his statement, she grew even more so. He was mildly surprised that she did not ask how he was able to remember the event. Even those who had not fallen during the exercise had been ‘Retconned’ after Keridwyn’s… adverse reaction.
The fight itself was quite short. Keridwyn summoned her dragon to take her place and it vanished immediately. This happened three times as Jason strode from one end of the dome to the other. When he reached her, she was still unusually pale. Her eyes were wide. She was making a series of small trembling motions.
Jason placed his hand on her shoulder. He did not exert any pressure. By now it should have been clear that touching his opponent was tantamount to a victory.
“That’s not your real power, is it? The strength, I mean.” Keridwyn’s voice came slower and more quietly than her norm. He simply gave the smile that Hector had once called creepy.
Obviously, his final match was against Jenny Awesome. They met in front of their Healer. Jenny spoke first.
“You could take them off again, if you wanted.”
Momentarily puzzled, Jason soon realized what she wanted and removed his sunglasses. He also smiled at her. The expression was not meant to communicate anything in particular. Jason did not smile to elicit a response from Jenny. He simply… smiled at her. It felt nice.
Jenny’s return expression was far more than just a smile. Although she did also smile, just a little. Her eyes were not open quite as wide as they were a moment before. She stopped standing perfectly straight, lowering her shoulders and resting her weight on the flat of her feet rather than mostly on the balls. The near constant, minor motions disappeared entirely. In short, Jenny went from a near perfect picture of vibrant energy to happy, or perhaps content.
“Why do you do that?” he asked, genuinely curious. “I know what people see when they look into my eyes. Why do you respond so differently?”
“Hm?” She sounded distracted.
Jason repeated himself.
“It’s personal.” she said.
“Oh.” Jason had not expected the rebuff. “You do not need to…”
She giggled. “No. I mean… it really is personal. You could kill me. Every time I look… it’s a reminder that you could kill me. Any time you wanted to.”
Jason blinked. “I fail to see why that gives you such pleasure.”
“No?” She was still smiling. “Jason, if you decided to do it, then I’d just die. There’s nothing my power could do to save me. And it really would be your decision. It can’t influence you or… I don’t know. It makes sense to me.” She looked down, losing some of that contentment.
“Maybe it’s that dying like that, it’s a guarantee that I’d be free of its control? And… and if there’s one thing it can’t control, there must be others. I guess… when I look into your eyes, I feel like things could work out okay for me.”
He thought about it for a moment.
“I am not certain that I follow your logic, but I suppose that is not necessary. If my power… my gaze, can help you…” He thought about it for a moment, decided he had the right word. “…then I am happy.”
The two stood there, quietly smiling. Eventually, like all good things, it came to an end.
“Um, I’m sorry to interrupt you, Trainee Grim, Trainee Awesome, but the match…” The Healer’s posture was slightly hunched, his voice low and hesitant, but he was correct.
“I am sorry Jenny, but it is time to start. I believe I will be free tomorrow, if you wish to spend more time together.”
“I’d like that.” she said, nodding. “We can start, I guess. There’s… there’s just one thing I wanna do first.” She turned to face the nearby crowd of trainees and shouted. “Hey! Hey guys!” Shortly, all eyes were on her. “Um… look, this is kind of hard to explain, but… I need you all to do something for me. It’s gonna sound a little weird but I think we’re all friends by now so I hope you’ll just trust me on this.”
Jason watched as Jenny spoke. Many of his classmates nodded or spoke very quietly in response to her request.
“Me and Jason, well… this fight’s kind of personal. I know you all want to watch, but… please don’t. For me? If you want to stay and show your support or something, that’s cool and I really appreciate it. Could you just… turn your backs or something? Please?”
It took Jason a moment to understand what she intended. Once he had, he approached Hector while Jenny spoke to the Healer. His other friend had helped him a great deal, providing information on their classmates’ abilities, mindsets and commonly used tactics. He had also developed many of the battle plans that Jason had employed to defeat those who would otherwise have been likely to negate Jason’s power. He had not been able to come up with anything to give Jason an edge over Jenny.
This was why the duplicator was so surprised when Jason requested such an innocuous item. Hector couldn’t even remember why he’d brought it.
As Jason approached his entrance, he saw the Healer turn his back on their combat dome as well. Once the doors closed, he raised the item. It was a common cigarette lighter. He used it to produce a small flame. It required a great deal of care to avoid shattering the device in his hand. Once it was lit, he held his hand in the heat for several minutes.
After he let the flame die, he showed Jenny his hand. The palm had a small blister.
Jenny wanted this fight to be personal. She had done her best to insure that her power would not interfere. Now, Jason had done the same. If such a simple thing could make Jenny happy, then Jason would do it for her. After all, she was Awesome.