“I’m so sorry, I forgot to tell you I had a dentist’s appointment-“
“Kid, you don’t need to lie to me. I watch the news.” Mr. Chase leaned onto his desk, looking serious, his silver ponytail swinging. Nick, also known as Plateau, grinned.
“You can’t blame me for wanting to keep some plausible deniability.”
Mr. Chase couldn’t keep up the serious act and cracked into a smile as well.
“I’d tell you not to do it again, Nick, but I doubt it’s likely you’d listen, given the circumstances. Just keep your head down in school and don’t get yourself killed outside of it.”
“What can I say, I’m a busy man.”
“Aren’t we all?”
Mr. Chase had figured Nick out the previous year, but he, bound by teacher-student confidentiality, had refrained from sharing the information. They’d become good friends, as close as a teacher and a student can be. He was probably the main reason Nick hadn’t been expelled after the incident last year. Mr. Chase was one of the teachers he would miss next year when he headed off to college. He would probably end up in the Hero program at Collswell University, so he wouldn’t be far away, but even so he would miss him.
Nick ambled off to lunch, taking his time. He had, like many seniors, after his first few years come to the realization that there was really no rush to get to lunch, given the quality of the food.
When he reached the cafeteria, he mentally noted the locations of the other Wardens of Tomorrow. He wasn’t the official leader of the group, but he was there at school with them, unlike Guardian Angel. He scoffed at the idea. Guardian Angel didn’t really know any of them; his plans were almost always other people’s suggestions reworded so he could claim they were his idea. As a leader, he was standing in the way of something actually collaborative, like what they’d had under Phenomena, so he could seem like a leader to the public.
Kismet was sitting at one of the booths with a group of “cool” girls, who managed to seem socially important by saying as little as possible. Kismet had managed to rise in their ranks through her amazing ability to dismiss other people’s ideas with a snarky comment even before they’d finished talking. She was a good influence on them, he was sure, but Nick actually didn’t enjoy talking to her in her civilian persona. She was… much more aggressive. It unnerved him how different she was out-of-costume.
Dame Danger was at one of the round tables at the edges of the cafeteria; not cool enough for a booth, not enough friends for a long table, said Plateau’s more cynical social instincts. She was talking animatedly with another freshman whom Nick recognized as Adam, the cyborg. Cyborgs were exceedingly rare in the States, mostly due to the extreme regulation on tinkers ever since Metatron, the only Nightmare-class tinker on record, took over Japan. Only very recently were embargos on commercial implants relaxing, but they were still prohibitively expensive because of safety and security requirements.
Jet and Legion were sitting at one of the long tables with some group Jet was a member of; a chess club or something, Nick wasn’t sure. Legion wasn’t a member, but Jet had learned that it was not a good idea to let Legion eat alone every day and insisted that he eat with them. It was an arrangement which Nick fully endorsed.
He spotted one new face he hadn’t been expecting. Emily was standing by the outlet of the lunch line, browsing the crowd much like Nick was himself, though the intent was different. She looked lost, whereas Nick knew exactly where he was. Nick strolled over to her, taking advantage of his above-average height and the musculature he’d gained from regular hero work to part the crowd before him. People tended to get out of his way after last year.
“Hey,” he said as he approached her. “You new?”
Emily glanced over at him briefly, before giving him a longer, appraising look.
“Yeah. Just transferred here from Hillglade.”
“Thought so. Come on, I’ll give you the grand lunchroom tour.”
She didn’t seem to recognize Nick, but he wasn’t surprised. He looked a lot different in-costume. He didn’t exactly show off in civilian clothes, but his physique was hard to hide. Years of spending most nights climbing skyscrapers had left him with a body that, while not quite the herculean physique of strength-based heroes, was undeniably more muscular than average.
“It must suck, changing schools for your senior year,” Nick said idly.
“Yeah, well it’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” Emily replied bitterly.
Nick mentally kicked himself when he remembered why she’d probably been transferred. Since her father had been exposed as the villain-for-hire Shatterpoint, she and her mother had been put an informal witness protection program. Not wanting to delve into that, he changed the topic.
“So here’s the usual arrangement; Jocks to the right, broken up by sport. From back to front we have football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse and hockey, track and field and cross country.” Nick pointed to each of the tables as he named the group which frequented it. Nick turned and addressed the other half of the room. “On the left are geeks, broken up by subject. We have cape-watchers, gamers- the videogame type, board-gamers, general computer nerds, math and science buffs, history buffs, the band, and the robotics club.”
“Wow, you guys like to keep everyone seperate here,” Emily said, somewhat skeptically.
“Yup. There was a movement by the student government to ‘mix it up’ at lunch, but it failed after three days when they realized they had no way to enforce it.” Nick gestured to the back of the room. “There we have the thugs, the goths, the bitches, and the fashion collective- though the last two are pretty much indistinguishable from the outside. Only they know the difference.”
“Heh. I think every school has something like them.”
“And in the middle, we have the void. Nobody wants to sit here except people who don’t have anywhere else to sit.”
“We sitting here?”
“Nah, let me show you where I usually eat.”
Nick led her over to one of the few tables he hadn’t identified for her.
“I’m not really sure what to call this one, but I like to think of it as the ‘nice people’ table.”
Nick introduced Emily to the others, people with whom Nick had built a rapport over the years. It was a pretty good stratified sample of the rest of the lunchroom, made up of those who, for some reason, weren’t welcome or didn’t feel comfortable in whatever group they would otherwise have been a part of- a cross-country runner who was socially ostracised by the team when it came out he was homosexual; a cape-watcher who had the gall to believe that UMBRA was right to ban vigilantism, and others with similar stories. They’d all been bullied at some point, some more severely than others, but after regularly risking your life as a hobby it just seemed so petty to Nick. Here, they all belonged. Nick made sure of that.
“I started out by thinking about my most successful projects, like the lightning rod and the pulsed energy projectile system, and found kind of a common theme, that they both use lasers. I know that can’t be my specialty, though, because I didn’t make the lasers, only the rest of the devices. The laser diodes are prefabbed. So that got me thinking about what else was similar to that and remembered Dr. Destructo’s trademark Disast-O-Beam. I opened it up -Mind has it in a display in his lab, a trophy, I guess- and poked around a bit. I couldn’t figure out how it worked; it couldn’t be gravity, it’s way too weak, and it certainly couldn’t be either of the nuclear forces, ’cause they don’t have the range. So I figured it must be electromagnetic, kinda like Dr. Mind’s Superconducting Levitation Device. It didn’t, though. Instead, and this is really cool, it somehow increases the zero-point energy of the target, which induces something kind of like an amped-up Casimir–Polder force that does all kinds of neat things.”
Adam understood a few bits and pieces -he had a scientific dictionary pretty much built into his head- but the overall concepts Jessica (whom he still thought of internally as Dame Danger) was describing almost without breathing escaped him. Though he chafed at the reference to Dr. Destructo, his erstwhile creator, he didn’t complain. He was enjoying having people talk to him- he was used to people being too afraid of him to talk to him. This was a new experience for him.
When the lunch bell rang, they both headed their separate ways.
Adam was walking to his Advanced Physics class, which he had begrudgingly been allowed to test into by the administration even though he was a freshman, and already few years ahead, when an unfamiliar hand clapped on his shoulder. He turned and came face-to-face with a lanky raven-haired boy who stared intently at him, as if searching for something in his face.
“What do you want?” Asked Adam suspiciously. The LED in his eye blinked yellow, and his eye twitched involuntarily at the sudden light in the corner of his vision.
The raven-haired boy’s eyes widened with sudden excitement.
“Oh man, they were right! You’re a chiphead, like us.”
“Like whom?” Adam was excited now as well. The other boy’s enthusiasm was quite contagious.
“Oh man, you gotta meet the others. I-” he cut off abruptly and looked down the hall. The lights were flickering out one by one down the hall before coming back on, creating a moving patch of darkness that advanced rapidly down the hall.
“Gotta run,” said the raven-haired boy, and the swath of darkness enveloped them. By the time it had passed, he was gone.
Emily absent-mindedly doodled on the paper before her. She couldn’t create the glowing lines her power was showing her, not in public, but she could draw them on paper with a pen. Doodling was normal behavior, she figured.
Since the explosion in the first fight with the Upright Man, she had a better understanding of what they did. More than just explosive runes, they were a channel for force. They were far more passive than she had thought at first. The most basic was just a circle, a compact feedback loop which would build up energy and store it until it exceeded its capacity -that’s what had happened in the fight with the Upright Man- or she broke the circle deliberately.
She had found, after some experimentation, that she could direct the force along channels she set down, for example, something like a power symbol -a circle with a line extending from it- would release all of it’s force in that one direction. She discovered that this could get interesting after creating a pencil that could only move in one direction, redirecting all forces exerted on it. When it reached the wall of the Wardens of Tomorrow lounge and couldn’t push through it, the connection to the surface of the pencil broke, destroying the lines and leaving it stuck into the wall.
At the moment, what she was sketching looked like some kind of bizarre circuitry. A circuit to prevent rotation was doodled in a corner, an odd-looking spiral capped at the center with a small teardrop-shaped loop to reverse forces back outwards. She hadn’t tested it, but logically it should work, equally resisting angular forces in one direction. A pair of them in opposite directions for each axis, six in all, should be able to lock an object’s rotation.
Now, she was sketching a mechanism to redirect gravitational force. That was surprisingly easy- just a few loops to redirect downward forces upwards. Theoretically, it should be able to hold weight, too, because that’s just another force. Being able to move was only a matter of tilting it forward or back and redirecting the forces at a different angle.
Emily jerked up from her doodling. The girl behind her was peering over her shoulder.
“Oh, just… doodling.” Emily was
“Looks like a fancy circuit board.”
“It’s not. It’s just a doodle.”
The other girl cocked her head.
“Sure it is. See, that’s a diode,” she reached an arm over Emily’s shoulder and pointed to a teardrop-shaped loop designed to prevent forces from going the wrong direction, “that’s a capacitor,” she pointed to a circle, “and that’s a resistor,” she pointed to a pattern designed to let her control the amount of force passing through. “It has way too many inputs and outputs, though. Hey, are you Japanese?”
Emily was taken aback. A lot of people were still suspicious of Japanese people, but the girl seemed genuinely curious and excited.
“Half. My dad was.”
“Coooool. Does he have any, you know,” she tapped her head, “chips?”
“What? No. He got out before the whole thing with Metatron.”
The girl seemed disappointed at this.
What is with her? wondered Emily.
“How do you know all that about circuitry anyway?”
The other girl rolled her eyes.
“It’s kind of my specialty. Want to see? Watch this.”
The lights went out suddenly and the room exploded into a cacophony of confusion and surprised shouts. A few girls screamed, and the teacher, a strange silver-haired, ponytail-wearing man named Mr. Chase, immediately started calling for calm with the most relaxed voice in the entire room.
“Would everyone please calm down, it’s just a power outage,” shouted Mr. Chase over the chaos.
When the red emergency lighting flared to life, though, it clearly was not just a power outage. The doors had slammed shut and gone into lockdown mode, the hinges becoming rigid and the windows going opaque. Next to Mr. Chase stood a girl, holding a palm to his head, fingers splayed. Her face was covered with a strange mask, segmented down the center, with sleek, beveled fins curling out from the forehead. Beneath it, her eyes were a solid mirror sheen, gleaming red in the emergency lighting.
“Listen to the man and don’t panic,” she said. Her voice had an odd synthesized quality to it that made it sound not quite natural. “Now, this…” She relished her next words. “Is a stickup.”
In every occupied room around the school, a similar scene was playing out. In each class, one member took the teacher hostage in front of the class, extorting them with the threat of messily killing the teacher in front of them.
In a few, though, it wasn’t going quite as planned. For example, the one Emily was in.
“Any valuables, please place on your desk to be collected. Your parents have been contacted, and I will notify you that you may leave when your ransom has been paid. Now, do any of you know what this is?” The girl held up a hand. On her palm was a glowing purple ring attached to a tube running into her wrist. Her skin parted around it disturbingly, but with no signs of any irritation.
“PEPS,” said someone from the right side of the room.
“That’s technically correct, but what I have here is a heavily modified version of the Pulsed Energy Projectile System manufactured by Atlas. They come in all shapes and sizes; depending on who does the mods, but they share a name: the Herokiller.”
There was a collective gasp around the room. Everyone knew there was a black market in Collswell, run by the Peddler, but seeing that kind of weapon firsthand was still terrifying. The PEPS was a line of nonlethal weapons designed by AtlasTech. When asked to explain how it worked, Atlas famously said “Exploding lasers, my dear.” AtlasTech was a technology giant, owned by a giant of a man. Atlas was not himself a tinker, rather he employed a whole team of tinkers, offering them equipment and publicity in exchange for his name on their products. AtlasTech was the company that put out the Powered Fast Response Armor, the first real mass-market power armor. The PEPS was released as a nonlethal alternative to the HT20 short for Hard Target 20 mm caliber, which came in Model S (Soft), Model M (Medium), and Model H (Hard). The PEPS was a peashooter compared to the Hard Target line, so safety concerns were minimal. It sold well- the appeal of a longer-range, more accurate alternative to the conventional taser was quite attractive, especially for law enforcement agencies. And then it got into the wrong hands. An unknown black-market tinker modified a crate of PEPS to short the equivalent of the entire battery through the weapon, turning the nonlethal targeted plasma burst into a deadly weapon. The girl at the front of the room brandished hers threateningly.
“If you all behave, I won’t have to-”
There was a sharp pop and a flash of light and the girl at the front of the room collapsed to the floor, spasming and hissing through gritted teeth.
Emily looked around the room, confused, as did most of the students.
“Well,” said Mr. Chase shakily, though starting to regain some of his usual relaxed demeanor. “I guess we all know one of the hazards of implanting homemade circuits in your brain. Shorting out.” Emily followed his gaze to one of the students- the girl who had spoken up earlier. She was hiding a metal box under her desk, still lined up from her shot. After a moment, Emily recognized her. Dame Danger.
Well, that explains how she ended up in a senior-level physics class. Hell, even then she’s probably not even trying.
In a another room, upstairs in the “Social Studies” wing, a similar series of events was taking place.
The moment the lights went out, Kismet leaped out of her chair and vaulted over a row of desks. When the emergency lights came on, she was back in her seat, a trail of blood across her fist. The limp body of a boy whose face was covered with a strange mask sprawled on the floor.
“Don’t even try it,” Kismet muttered.
In yet another room, Adam looked up and noticed the raven-haired boy he’d run into earlier tapping his fingers on his desk. After some analysis, Adam realized that the patterns in the boy’s tapping were very similar to those of someone typing on a keyboard. Curious, Adam opened up his vision to spectra used for various communications wavelengths, and discovered that the boy was broadcasting, from the base of his skull, on a wavelength just below that used for wi-fi. After breaking some sloppy encryption, Adam listened in on what he was broadcasting and just caught the words,
‘Let’s do this,’
before the lights cut out.
Adam spent the few seconds the lights were out hacking into the electronics haphazardly implanted in the boy. They communicated through a short-ranged bluetooth-like network which had almost no security on it.
I guess they didn’t feel like running wires through their nerves. Makes me glad I run on fiber-optics.
Adam let the boy make his threats just to be sure he had criminal intent, then overloaded the communications chip in the base of his skull, filling his auditory nerves with the sound of a jet taking off from point-blank range and his eyes with the light of a supernova. He wouldn’t go blind or deaf, because there was no physical damage, but it would disable him for a while and burn out the chip.
Adam searched through the wavelength he was transmitting on again to identify more of them, only to find that they were frantically scrambling their encryption, locking him out. It looked like some of them had caught the peripheral of the blast and were not eager to share the same fate. Adam ducked out of the classroom and set out to find the others.
In another classroom, a student stood and approached the girl threatening his english class.
“Really? Are you really going to kill me?” he said.
“Luke, what are you doing?” hissed another student, tugging at his sleeve. Luke brushed him off and continued advancing.
“It has a nonlethal setting,” explained their captor indignantly. “But yes, I will use it on you.”
“Go ahead then. I’m not stopping you. Do it.”
The girl hesitated.
“What? Don’t want to hurt someone?” taunted Luke.
Steeling her resolve, the girl flexed her fingers and the purple ring flared, a beam of invisible infrared light spearing out and hitting Luke, forming a ball of rapidly expanding plasma at the point of contact with a sharp *Snap!* and a smell of ozone. Luke fell to his knees, for a moment, gritting his teeth, but then rose and continued advancing after a few moments. His movements now were painful and jerky, but he continued advancing.
The girl fired again. This time, Luke stumbled and fell on his face. The girl stepped back in disbelief as Luke started slowly pushing himself back off the ground, and then pitched forward as the enormous wooden spoon wielded by Mr. Brant connected with the back of her head and she toppled, unconscious.
“Well, that’s a novel use for the learning spoon,” commented Mr. Brant. The spoon was a prop used often by Mr. Brant (who had been nicknamed “Mr. Rant” by the students) which he used whenever he felt he had to spoon-feed students knowledge. “Luke, are you okay?”
“Fine,” grunted Luke. “Thanks. High pain tolerance.”
“Thank you. I think you just saved us, after all.”
“I contacted Jamisson, he said we’re on our own. Apparently our wise leader is otherwise occupied,” snarked Nick as he pulled on his costume. “So since I’m the oldest, I get to lead for once.”
I’m older than you, thought Emily, but didn’t mention it. She knew she was inexperienced.
Nick had contacted all of the others and told them to meet him in the library, which was otherwise deserted. When they’d arrived, he was waiting with a gym bag packed with all of their costumes. The students had mostly stayed in the classrooms, barricading themselves in, but the Wardens had all managed to slip out. The three girls were changing on the other side of a high bookcase.
“Who are these people?” Emily asked. Being new to the school, she hadn’t run into them before.
“Chipheads,” said Jet, pulling a face. “Other schools get normal gangs, we get Chipheads and Boosters and crap. Guys think Metatron’s some kind of savior.”
“That’s not totally true,” corrected Dame Danger. “They’re more about collective consciousness than one dominant ego with subordinates.”
“Wow, must be super easy to cheat on tests,” commented Emily.
“Adam, you said you could sense their communications?” Said Plateau, pulling the topic of conversation to strategy.
“Yes, but they’re all encrypting them better now. I can’t access their implants directly like I could the first time.”
“You can still tell where they’re coming from, though, right?”
“Yes. They can’t hide that.”
Plateau cracked a grin. “Excellent. Let’s-“
“Let’s go hunting!” Cried Kismet.