“You ready for Advanced Naptime?” asked Sean.
“I dunno, man, not everyone has quite the backround you do,” I replied.
“I’ve heard Intro to Metahuman Theory and History can be dead boring.”
“Depends who you ask. It sounds pretty interesting to me.”
As we approached the door, we spotted Dr. Rayne approaching from the opposite direction.
“Morning, gentlemen,” he said, nodding our way.
“Morning, Professor.” said Sean.
Dr. Rayne held the door to the lecture hall open for us and followed us in.
“You’re still a bit early, so go ahead and take a seat.”
We took seats towards the middle of the room and watched as the room filled up. It was a required class for everyone in the metahuman studies major- which included most of the Hero program. Once all the students had arrived, apart from a few stragglers, Dr. Rayne started outlining the syllabus for the semester. It seemed to be a heavily academic class, which made sense- it is a history class after all, so I could see where the metahuman population would find it boring. Just about anything is more boring than being a hero- although sometimes, I’ve come to understand, boring is preferable.
The rest of the class was generic stuff- the first confirmed metahumans, the first heroes and villains. Dr. Rayne brought up some of the most powerful, people like Atomic and Onslaught, and most famous metahumans, like Paragon and Denizen, and pointed out that the two were not necessarily the same group. He also highlighted an interesting trend for us. The first people with powers were relatively weak, then there was a sharp spike within the next years. The average power level then dropped, though not quite to it’s original level and with a few notable exceptions, and has been increasing steadily since.
“There are many theories as to why this is. Your homework is to research these theories, write up a short summary of them, and be prepared to discuss them next class,” finished Rayne just as the class ended- the timing was uncanny.
Sean tapped his black-gloved hand on the arm of the seat as he stood up.
“See? Naptime 101,” said Sean.
“I thought it was Advanced Naptime?”
“Not even,” Sean joked.
I laughed as we left the room along with a horde of other freshmen.
“You know,” I commented to Sean as I pulled my backpack over my other shoulder, “I’d bet at least half the room was in the Hero program.”
“You think?” he asked. I knew he already knew it was true, though.
“Yeah. There was a telepath in the third row who caught some of his stuff falling off his desk with his mind, Liam and Sasha were there, he can turn invisible, she teleports, and there were a few others, like I think I ran into an empath earlier, too. It’s kind of entertaining how easy it is to pick them out.”
“…really,” he replied cautiously.
“I’m pretty sure the Metahuman Studies branch is mostly just a cover for the Hero program, to excuse the extra students and to keep them apart from the others. Of course, they can’t exactly exclude normals from it.”
By this point, we were headed back to Jean Elliot dining hall for lunch. I happened to know Sean had the more physical part of the Hero Program after lunch, and I had other plans. Tomorrow started Intro to Metahuman Ethics and Psychology, or IMEP. I had actually looked forward to MEP and MTH -ethics and psychology, and theory and history, respectively- as they were the part of the freshman year of the Hero Program I could actually participate in. The combat and power training were still closed to me, but I was hopeful. If the Redemption thing turned out well, I could be in it this time next semester.
After the first year, the two classes split into four, going into more depth, and adding a Philosophy and Implications class. After that, it split into a number of smaller, more focused classes. Hopefully I would be able to get enough out of this Redemption program, I wouldn’t be too far behind.
I spent lunch chatting with Sean and Sasha, who had come to sit with us alone, leaving Liam sulking at another table across the room. I’m sure there was a story there. I hoped Liam wouldn’t blame me, but I didn’t hold out much likelihood for that. After a bit, we were joined by Wren, who had apparently decided to change his major to Metahuman Studies after the first class, realizing that he would be happier keeping music as a hobby and not a living. Kevin was not happy, evidently, at having his friend switch out of the major he was in, but I gathered they could work something out, rooming in the same building, after all.
After lunch, I headed back to Planchett to change. Once I was in my room, I pulled out and putting the lightweight, utilitarian body armor my dad gave me for graduation, “just in case,” -a reminder of my not totally normal family. Over it, I pulled on a hoodie and some sweatpants, though those were just to cover up the body armor until I was off campus. After changing, I left Planchett and headed down the hill off the east side of campus into the city. Once I was off campus, I ducked into an alley and pulled off the hoodie and sweatpants. I knew it was a bit cliché, but it works. Some of the more established heroes have figured out better ways I’m sure, but the duck-into-alley was probably pretty much the standard for beginners.
I reached inside myself and pulled out some darkness. It flowed from my pores and clung to my skin and clothes, covering me with a uniform blanket of black. This was part of my grandfather’s legacy, so I didn’t enjoy having to use it, but it meant I didn’t have to bother with a costume. I could feel the air passing through it, passing through me as if I wasn’t even there. Solid objects didn’t do that, or liquids, as far as I knew, just air. As it passed through me, my cells grabbed oxygen out of the air, eliminating the need to breathe at all. I remembered the instructions I’d been given, and headed to where I was told to go. I was met by the sight of a dark-suited figure as I entered the warehouse.
“Good afternoon. I’m agent Jamisson. I’m sure you understand the need to talk in person, as being who you are we couldn’t trust your normal methods of communication.”
As I approached Jamisson, I looked around and spotted Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm settled discretely in vantage points on either side of the large room. I nodded, and then, realizing the movement would be very hard to make out, said, “Okay.”
As I spoke, I used a trick I’d discovered a few years back, slowing down the air a tiny bit as it passed through my vocal chords, making my voice sound much deeper, but without the distortion of electronic adjustment or the tells of someone deliberately speaking differently. Jamisson handed me what looked like a sleek smartphone and a charging cable almost identical to the one I found in Sean’s luggage.
“This is your communications device. Vibrates once for non-urgent messages, pulses constantly for urgent ones. You can use it to track your teammates’ locations and, yes, for them to track you, with permission. Everything going through, both in and out, it will be screened. More carefully than usual, in your case. Keep it on you at all times. You’ll be meeting with the Wardens of Tomorrow here tonight just after five. At no point will you enter the Warden’s building. Do you understand?”
“Yes. This warehouse is reinforced and insulated for metahuman training.”
“Good. I’ll be watching you.”
His last comment gave me pause, but then I realized that it made sense. If I was to convince people that I was not secretly working for Denizen or some other villain, they would have to have pretty much constant surveillance. It would only take five minutes to slip some key information off or get orders. Less, if I were prepared. I turned and left the room.
“Thank you,” I said as I left the warehouse.
“Good luck,” he replied quietly.
* * *
“First, you will be fighting your friends and classmates eventually, and I want you to remember that you will not hold back against them. At the same time, do not kill anyone. There is a healer on staff, but she cannot raise the dead. For this reason, we will be doing some basic training for the first few weeks. Second, you will not use your powers in this class,” there were groans all around the room. Sean didn’t much care, though. He understood that he did actually need to know how to fight without his powers.
“My job is to keep you physically able to fight, which many of you won’t get if you’re sitting back shooting lasers from your testicles or whatever it is you do. The power training tomorrow is when all that happens. People with physical powers or powers you can’t turn off are an obvious exception, so we will be grouping you together for the majority of the combat trials. Third, you will do what I say. Doesn’t matter what I say, you will do it. You may only question my orders if you are physically or psychologically unable to do what I am saying, but you will do so in the privacy of your own mind and you will damn well try anyway. This does not mean I will be telling you exactly what to do all the time, but when I tell you to do something, it will be done. Now, on to the most important part of this class. Run.”
Coach Masters finished his speech and pulled out a black bag as most of the class started running around the Davis Gymnasium, a large room almost directly under the school’s normal gym. The few who didn’t catch the order or weren’t listening were called out almost immediately.
The coach flicked his right hand out from the black bag in his left. A small, smooth pebble bounced off the bridge of one of the students’ noses, presumably Shaw.
“Jordan! Esther! Hastings!”
Most of the stragglers had caught on by now. The coach walked around the inside of the raised track, occasionally flicking stones at whoever was last. At one point, a rock caught one of the students in the back of the knee, causing them to trip and crash to the ground. As he pulled himself back up, he was hit in the side of the head by another stone. Sean looked over from his position comfortably just ahead of the mass of average students to see that the coach was on the complete opposite side of the large room. As he watched, the coach saw him looking and gestured his direction. Sean realized a almost too late what the coach had done and barely dodged the pebble speeding his way. The coach smiled briefly.
His aim is amazing, thought Sean. After that, he was careful to keep one eye on the coach, who had started throwing rocks twice as fast after the first lap, and indiscriminately, though those in the back did get hit slightly more often than those in the middle or front, though at one point, one of the students started running much faster than most people could normally -a speedster, probably- and took several pebbles to the forehead for her efforts, the force of which almost knocking her over. They continued this way for at least a mile, by Sean’s reckoning, at which point almost everyone had been hit at least once, some much more than that. Sean had managed to dodge most of them, having figured out to watch the coach early on, but had taken one to the stomach which would probably leave a nice bruise.
“Being able to run is very, very, important. Not just for running away,” added the coach, seeing the looks on some of the students’ faces. “In order to stop a crime, you have to get there fast enough that it won’t have ended, and being able to chase someone down is usually the line between success and failure in these cases. I will be testing how fast you run, how long you can run, and how well you can run with distractions. Like being on fire. Or being shot at.” The coach said this completely deadpan. The students held no doubt that he was serious.
“Now,” coach Masters was almost gleeful as he continued, “run faster.”
* * *
Later that day, Guardian Angel walked into the meeting room in the Wardens of Tomorrow floor of the Warden’s building. He had received a message from Jamisson a little while ago giving a location where they could train as well as information that he would be meeting an extra there, whatever that means. Kismet was characteristically already ready to go when he arrived, but the others were still arriving or getting ready. Dame Danger was wearing a prototype exoskeleton she had been working on, but couldn’t get the legs to move, so she was frantically cutting and re-soldering wires. Shockwave and Plateau wandered in slightly after Guardian Angel, and Legion arrived after several minutes. Once they were all there, Guardian Angel led them to the warehouse marked on his communicator. He was somewhat skeptical at first, but as he entered the warehouse, he saw what he assumed was the extra Agent Jamisson had mentioned.
A dark figure stood in the center of the warehouse, perfectly still. It was hard to tell it’s exact dimensions, as it absorbed all the light hitting it, even with Guardian Angel’s expanded visible range. It wasn’t large, but was still fairly menacing. As Guardian Angel and the Wardens of Tomorrow entered, the dark figure shifted.
“Guardian Angel,” The figure spoke, with a deep, resonant voice, “I am Shadow.”
“Holy shit!” cried Shockwave, shifting into a sprinter’s pose.
“Relax, this is an extra who will be training with us,” said Guardian Angel. “Shadow, these are the Wardens of Tomorrow. Dame Danger, Kismet, Legion, Plateau, and Shockwave.”
“A pleasure to meet you all,” the Shadow said. The greeting seemed so dissonant with his appearance that it broke the trepidation that the Wardens of Tomorrow were feeling.
“What do you do?” Asked Dame Danger tentatively.
“Yeah,” added Plateau, curious.
“Not much. Well, a bunch of minor things,” said Shadow. “This is the most impressive of them, though.” He gestured at himself.
“Right, let’s get to work,” said Guardian Angel.
* * *
Locus looked down the identical hallway. It had been hours since the group had been separated, but he had yet to find anything but the same long, rough stone hallways. He reached out a hand and pulled. The carvings on the walls warped and compressed as the hallway in front of Locus shortened, and he crossed the distance in a single step. After he passed, he released his power and the hall snapped back to it’s original length. Locus looked down the two branches of the corner. Two more hallways, exactly the same as the last. He let out an uncharacteristic roar of frustration and starter tearing at the wall in front of him. He pulled the wall apart, more and more, simultaneously making it thinner, and kicked at it until the now paper-thin sandstone shattered like an eggshell. The light shining through the opening was a welcome change from the eerie smokeless torches that burned in the hallways.
As he stepped through the hole he had made, the floor shuddered underneath him, and there was a grinding sound as the light suddenly receded away from him. He pulled the gap into the outside towards him, but he couldn’t do it fast enough, and his hope receded into the distance. He collapsed to the floor and his composure broke, and he wept as he hadn’t since that day many years ago.
* * *
Guardian Angel watched as the Wardens of Tomorrow experimented with their powers as he had instructed. There were occasional loud bursts from where Shockwave was seeing how short a distance he could go. After the initial test, Guardian Angel was reluctant to let Shockwave go full-speed.
Dame Danger had gotten her exoskeleton working and was testing it’s latency against Kismet, who was working on sparring someone stronger than her. Guardian Angel had Plateau experimenting with his fine control, making intricate shapes. He has also given Plateau a handful of sand and told him to experiment with small things. So far he has accidentally stabbed himself with a needle thin spike of silicon and made a grain of sand into a large stone cube, which he proceeded to drop on his foot. He was getting more careful, though, which was good.
“Legion. Why don’t you see how many clones you can make?” Guardian Angel asked Legion.
“No thank you,” he replied
“May I ask why?”
“Because this sucks.”
A second copy of legion split off from the original and walked a few paces to his right, passing through the first like it wasn’t even there. Guardian Angel flinched as the clone pulled a handgun out of a utility compartment on it’s back and killed itself, immediately dissolving into ash, which itself faded out of existence.
“They can only last a maximum of between ten and seventeen seconds before they have to die. I feel it, every time. To me, if I die, I jump back a bit and try again. It means I can’t die, I think, but it hurts like hell every time. I don’t know if I can have more than one at once, but I don’t think it’s worth testing.”
“Where did you get a pistol?”
“I’m a hero whose only power is dying repeatedly.”
“Ok. Let’s focus on strategically not dying, then. Swap out for Kismet, give her a break while I talk to Shadow.”
“Can do.” He sounded relieved.
Shadow ran over from where he had been spinning around 180 degrees with his weird teleportation. Guardian Angel had told him he was focusing too much on replicating other people’s powers and not experimenting with his own.
“Yes?” Asked Shadow.
“I want you to try something. I’ve been watching you experiment, and I noticed something.”
“Try teleporting, but only moving your arm or something. Just change positions.”
Shadow stood still for a moment, then suddenly shifted to a fighting stance. He laughed.
“Oh wow. That feels weird.”
“ You’ve been doing that every time you ‘port, just a little bit. You just didn’t notice, I guess. You’re probably going to do a lot of hand-to-hand, so go spar with Kismet. See how you can incorporate that in.”
Shadow jogged off to meet Kismet.
* * *
Bulwark and Paragon had actually managed to find each other. Bulwark being able to easily push through the sandstone walls, had smashed her way through several walls before happening on Paragon trying to block a flow of sand from a hole he had punched in the roof. As she had come into the hallway with Paragon, the wall shuddered and the hole slammed shut behind her.
“Bulwark! I am very glad to see you.”
“Let’s go find the others.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Paragon forced a smile.
Not so far away as they might believe, Locus’ communicator started pulsing. He jerked upright from where he was huddled on the hard stone floor.
“Yes?” He choked out.
“Locus! This is Dr Mind. I’ve cobbled together a signal amplifier that can go through a few of these walls. Is your communicator getting a GPS signal?”
“No, of course not. We’re underground.” The dry air was taking it’s toll on Locus’ throat.
“Hey, hey, calm down. Okay, I’ve set mine up to transmit the satellite’s signal. Your communicator should point the way to me as long as we’re not too far apart.”
Locus looked down at his communicator. The GPS indicator was showing a very weak connection. He put it back to his ear.
“You know we’re not supposed to tamper with these things,” his voice was more lighthearted, but it seemed forced.
“I don’t think that really matters, right now.”
Locus started laughing for a few moments, then pulled himself together and started heading towards the signal.
* * *
Kismet was having trouble fighting Shadow. Her style relied heavily on peoples’ tells, telegraphing their moves before they make them, and being able to see the tells before the person even knows they’re going to attack. Shadow didn’t do that at all, he was just standing there one moment, then suddenly was striking, no transition. He also didn’t breathe, as far as she could tell, so she couldn’t rely on that- a lot of people, especially martial artists, take a deep breath just before attacking. She could still see the attacks coming, but later than she was used to. He had been awkward at first, but he had quickly adjusted to fighting Kismet.
She narrowly dodged a quick jab and returned with her own, but he shifted just out of the way, barely seeming to move. She stepped back and they circled each other warily. She wasn’t used to fighting people with reflexes as fast as hers, and it was beginning to wear her down. She lunged forward, faster than any untrained normal could, but he saw her coming somehow and jerked out of the way. He brought his hand out at her side as she went past, but she twisted in mid air and blocked his punch, but doing so messed up her form and she overbalanced and fell heavily on her back.
“That was a good one.” Shadow extended a hand to her.
“Man, your powers, whatever they are, pretty much counter mine.” She joked as he pulled her up. “Yeah, but-”
“You landed a few good ones,” said Shadow.
Dammit! Thought Kismet, and started again. “Yeah, but it felt like punching wood.” She was more patient this time, waiting a few seconds before responding to his next comment.
“I’m wearing body armor under this.” He gestured at the darkness covering his body. “Sorry. I probably should have told you.”
“Oh. That makes sense. It’s not actually the darkness?”
“Nah, that’s pretty much insubstantial. It covers my identity, but that’s about it.”
“That can be useful. At least you don’t have to bother putting on a costume.” He laughed.
“There is that. I think I’m done with this for now.”
“So, are you going to be in the Wardens of Tomorrow?” she asked, and had to mentally stop herself from responding to his answer before he replied.
“No.” He chuckled joylessly. “I’m not even allowed in the building.”
* * *
Dr Mind reached the room first, bleeding and torn fingers clutching his disassembled communicator and stood in the center as he watched the doorways shift and change as the hallways around it shuffled around. Shortly thereafter, Locus entered from the opposite sides with red-rimmed eyes locked on his communicator.
“Mind, I thought I would never see you again,” Locus cried joyously. It was such a break from Locus’ stoic costumed persona that is surprised him for a moment, but he knew the man under the mask well enough to take it in stride.
“Can I have your communicators?” asked Dr. Mind. “With two I should be able to amplify the signal from this. Yes, thank you, I know we’re not allowed to tamper with these.”
Dr. Mind set about disassembling the communicators and wired the three’s components together, stripping wires with his fingernails and twisting them together, receiving occasional shocks which he ignored completely.
“There we go. Now we should just stay still and wait,” he said once he deemed his work satisfactory.
After a few minutes, the blur that was Blueshift sped in through a doorway that was only open for a split second and stopped, panting for breath.
“Found the room right away,” he grunted out and took a deep breath, “but the hallways kept forcing me farther away. How is this guy so powerful?”
“We’re fighting on his home turf. If this was happening on our territory we would not be having nearly so much trouble,” explained Dr. Mind. “Now, if I could have your communicator. I need to boost the signal more.”
Blueshift handed it over wordlessly and watched as Dr. Mind daisy-chained it in with the others.
“And now we wait,” he said when he had finished.
“This room seems to not be affected as much. It’s strange,” commented Locus, who had shifted back into his costumed persona. Dr. Mind took this as a good sign.
“Indeed. I believe we have either hit a weakness in his power, or he wants us to gather together.”
“I hope it’s the first one.”
A few moments later, there was a series of gradually louder crashes, culminating in one of the walls crumbling before Bulwark’s formidable strength. Paragon stepped through the hole just behind her, and once they were through, the wall on either side of the hole slowly ground closer together, accelerating until it slammed shut behind them.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Bulwark, succinct as always.
* * *
“Okay, we’re going to be doing this fairly regularly. Let’s head back to the Warden’s building.”
Guardian Angel noticed Shadow quietly slipping out. He didn’t stop him.
Once the group was back at at the Warden’s building, they all got out of costume and shortly later, a group of five high-schoolers and their college-age chaperone left the building after a tour. Several floors above them, a red light on the console blinked incessantly. Jamisson walked over and pressed the ‘accept call’ button.
* * *
“To sit in solemn silence,”
The man in the cell spoke for the first time in his imprisonment, his sing-song tenor ringing out through the cellblock.
“In a dull, dark dock,”
The cell was meticulously clean, as was it’s inhabitant.
“In a pestilential prison,”
The bed he sat on, like the rest of the cell, had been designed for people like him, so nothing could be hidden from view or made into weapons.
“With a life-long lock,”
There were no guards, just the Warden and the eyes of a thousand cameras.
“Awaiting the sensation,”
The sounds of fighting could now be heard in the distance, with a series of dramatic explosions.
“Of a short, sharp shock,”
There was a crash as the black concrete wall of his cell shattered.
“From a cheap and chippy chopper,”
Through the wall, Shatterpoint pushed what was now no more than rubble into the cell.
“On a big,”
The figure in the cell stood. He was tall and slender, the top of his head dangerously close to the ceiling of the cell, and conveyed a sense of elegance, even in his prison attire.
He stepped through the hole and tipped his head down to Shatterpoint.
He took the mask that Shatterpoint was holding out and pulled it on, straightening his back, his posture suddenly shifting, becoming more dangerous.
Masquerade was free.