(I've waited all day in the pouring rain, but nobody came, no, nobody came)
And in the fury of this darkest hour
We will be your light
You've asked me for my sacrifice
And I am Winter born
Without denying, a faith is come
That I have never known
I hear the angels call my name
And I am Winter born –The Cruxshadows, “Winterborn”
I remember when I first met her. It wasn’t exactly the best of meetings, under the circumstances. Short, with a blonde pixie cut and a figure that argued with her blue eyes - with their yellowish edge on the irises like ice on fire - over which part of her deserved your attention. Her face was round, soft, pretty like the proverbial girl next door. The little firebrand of a woman was a bit hard to ignore, no matter how hard you’d try. God bless her.
“So you’re the new guy they hired for Range Four?” She also thought I was a complete asshole, a point I was in no particular disagreement on. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Shooting the students for hovering too long with rock salt? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
So there I found myself facing off with a woman about my age or a bit older who was glaring bullets at me over my performance a few days before. Carson had unloaded with both barrels for that one, and I could see why. I also figured out right quick I had to do something to get the kids’ attention in the combat and marksmanship classes and make them listen to me. I figured that rock salt was more or less harmless. Apparently I was wrong, even though the kids stopped ignoring me at that point.
“I ah.” I swear I was so eloquent that I could have conned Jesus into preaching Lucifer’s gospel. I couldn’t figure out any good answer to the question. Sure I could have gone off on the spiel about how it was for the kids’ own good and all that bullshit, but I didn’t even buy it except for its expedience as a solution, the easy way of teaching a necessary lesson.
While I stood there outside Range One, where Gunny Bardue was probably finishing his paperwork, with my slack-jawed dopey expression she just glared. “Wait, never mind, I don’t want to know. Look, just stay the hell off my range, and away from my kids, and you and I will get along just fine.” She turned away without letting me get a word in edgewise, and walked back to the Pistol Annex, Range Two. I could hear her boots tapping away along the corridor as she left, while I tried to think of a coherent response.
“Great Erik, at this rate you’ll have the entire staff hating you before the end of the first semester.” No one heard me talking to myself, for which I was thankful. I seemed to have this knack for pissing off everyone around me, or at least getting them to hate me on contact.
Even though I didn’t have a whole lot of options other than to teach at this school for mutant kids, I had to wonder if it wasn’t a mistake to come here. The more I saw, the less I could see a place for people like me.
Whateley Academy, September 27th, 2006
Erik kicked off the wall, did a half-spin to kick off the corner wall, then spun back to catch the ledge above. He pulled his legs up and kicked down, using his lower body strength to launch himself up so he could pull himself over the ledge. He hit the ground above, running for all he was worth as his pursuer simply took the expedient path of leaping the eight feet to land just beyond the ledge, and chasing at a truly terrifying pace.
He didn’t look back. He didn’t have time. One faltered step, one miscalculation, one moment of hesitation and he was a dead man. He covered the ground between himself and the alley at a breakneck pace, fighting to control his breathing as he vaulted over the roof of a Dodge Neon that was parked between him and his objective. His fingers barely touched the car, giving him just enough leverage to clear his whole body as he twisted sideways and hit the deck running again without losing speed.
The loud thump announced that his time had run out as his pursuer jumped twice, once off of the ground, then off the roof of the car. He saw the slightly smaller man fly over his head and land in front of him, absorbing the shock of the jump and beginning to turn. If the man got hold of Erik his life would be measured in seconds. Maybe if he was lucky he could survive for three.
There was nowhere to turn, no time to stop so Erik jumped, and kicked off the man’s shoulder as he turned, using him as a vault to hit a windowsill and leap across to a hanging fire escape between the two brick tenements on either side of the alley. One pull-up later and he was scrambling upward, skipping the stairs, and jumping across yet again to another sill to pull himself onto the roof and start running again. He covered the roof in the time it took for the sound of a metallic slam and the cracking of brick and mortar as the mutant chasing him made his presence known.
There wasn’t even time to swear as he leapt into open air over the empty street, two stories above the pedestrians and rare traffic. His feet slammed into the ground and he followed the momentum forward, hitting the ground with his hands, rolling along his back on the blacktop, and using the momentum to come to his feet running again as he hauled ass down the town’s main street to the startled looks of the people standing or walking by.
The stares turned to screams, a screech of rubber, and the sound of tortured metal behind him. The bastard chasing him probably landed on a car and kept pursuing. A beat cop was drawing his weapon as Erik came sprinting past.
Erik grabbed the gun before it was completely out of the holster and jerked, spinning the cop away and giving him the impetus to make the corner and run down the adjacent street without spilling out. The cop wasn’t so lucky, and wound up bouncing a couple times along as the frenetic lunatic ran away with his gun.
Adrenaline pounding in his head, Erik was rapidly feeling the early stages of panic, and he automatically started looking for tactical advantages. He couldn’t win fair against this guy, so it was a matter of cheating his ass off and changing the rules. He heard the falling, heavy steps behind him. The son of a bitch was close, as he started guessing the rate he was being gained on by the rate they got louder. His own breath was burning in his lungs.
“You can’t run forever you son of a...” His pursuer cut off as Erik dove forward into a roll, slamming his feet down at the terminus and he aimed, lying on his back, gun pointed up at his target.
The gun went off six times, too close for even turbo-charged exemplar reflexes to take over, and the man rocked, jerked, then tripped over his prone quarry, falling forward as Erik unloaded three more shots into the closing, then tumbling form. He didn’t even bother to see if the bastard was down. He knew he’d only bought himself a little time. The son of a bitch was damned close to bulletproof. Shooting him nine times was the equivalent of hitting a body builder with a baseball bat a few times. It’d hurt like hell, but when the guy recovered he was fucked.
People screamed and ran like a herd of panicked cattle as Erik bolted towards a man getting into his car, grabbed the guy, and threw him one-handed away. Poor bastard hadn’t even had time to get the key out of the lock. Four seconds later and the little tin-can Ford Fiesta peeled out of the parking lot.
Erik looked into the mirror and saw the guy impossibly get up and start chasing the car on foot. He looked pissed, but he wasn’t going to catch his quarry. Erik poured on the gas and drove north, away from the downtown Boston area, determined to get some distance between him and the mutant maniac after him.
He saw it in the rearview mirror, but he didn’t fully believe it. He never really could even though he’d seen things like it a thousand times in people far more powerful than he was. A motorcyclist drove too close to the exemplar mutant and found his bike grabbed and swung around by a handlebar and the back of the seat. The rider flew like a rag doll and the mutant simply dropped the motorcycle to its wheels and hopped on in a motion so smooth no human could have mimicked it.
“Fuck me.” Erik slammed the pedal to the floor and began running suicide maneuvers through traffic, ignoring stop signs, traffic lights, and even being in the wrong lane as needed. As he saw the motorcycle doing the same, he reflected that he should have stolen a corvette, or a damned Cobra Gunship. While he was wishing, he wished he had more time. His was rapidly running out.
He found a clear spot, and shrugged. Well, as long as he was screwed, he might as well go out with a bang. He put on his seat belt at sixty-five miles an hour as he pulled onto the interstate heading north. The radio actually worked in this piece of shit, and he cranked the volume up, listening to Nickelback howling out a song that made him grin as he blew past a police cruiser. The lights began flashing and the siren blared out as he rolled his window down.
Uncle Sam taught him to shoot,
Maybe a little too well,
Finger on the trigger loaded bullet.
He hit the stage so full of rage
And let the whole world know it.
Six feet away they heard him say
Oh God don’t let him pull it!
He gripped the pistol from the seat as he cut off an SUV and raced past a city bus. The motorcycle was right behind the police cruiser, gaining fast. Erik looked back to the road as the motorcycle pulled even with the cruiser and the mutant pulled past the cops. Well, shit, can’t outrun him, might as well fuck with him.
Please God don’t let him pull it,
How could you put us through it?
His brother watched you do it.
Erik grinned and relaxed in the seat as the motorcycle carrying his pursuer pulled up right between his back bumper and the squad car. The odds of him pulling this little stunt off and living through it were pretty thin, but a snowball’s chance was better than no chance. “Joe Diamondback, this one’s for you,” he muttered to himself before slamming on the brake, singing along to the Nickelback song as the car slammed into the motorcycle, knocking it over and spinning his assailant under the police car.
How could you take his life away?
(What made you think you had the right?)
How could you be so full of hate?
(Six feet away somebody’s life.)
And when I heard you let him die
And made the whole world wonder why
I sat at home and on my own I cried alone and scratched your name on the side of a bull...
“Fuck me!” Erik howled as his stolen car lurched and the back half began dragging, spinning the car slowly from side to side as the vehicle started slowing and sending up sparks. The rear axle of the Fiesta flew through the police car’s windshield, and the cop spun out wildly, flipping repeatedly, and smashing into a Jeep that had pulled over to allow the police to pass. Both vehicles shattered into pieces, Erik noted dully as the Fiesta slowed and began a terminal fishtail that ended with the small vehicle impacting against the center divider. The radio went dead as the tortured engine threw a rod out through the hood of the vehicle.
A quick check revealed he still had all of his body parts intact, and he still had the gun in hand even though it hadn’t discharged. The mutant was standing up along the road where he’d latched onto the back bumper and torn the axle out of the car. Traffic was stopped, as motorists slowed to gawk. Erik threw himself at the doors, finding them sealed tight by the warping of the Fiesta’s frame. He swore and hopped into the passenger seat crouched low on the cushion like a coiled spring and waited.
He didn’t wait long. The seemingly normal-appearing, dark-haired man with the fine-chiseled features and bright green eyes simply reached over and tore the roof of the car off like tinfoil covering a baking turkey. The sound of tortured metal and shattering glass accompanied the motion in a cacophony that would make fingernails against a chalkboard feel like orgasmic bliss by comparison. The man’s eyes widened as he saw the gun and it barked once, locking open as the last round was expended.
Erik saw the mutant’s head snap back as he was thrown to the ground. He tossed the weapon away and bolted out of the wrecked Fiesta, charging back towards the wreckage of the police cruiser, which lay on its back. Traffic was coming to a stop as Erik ducked down and wriggled into the shattered vehicle through the windshield. He pulled the dead officer’s sidearm and keys then unlocked the shotgun from the console and carefully checked the weapon for damage. It was loaded, with six more shells in the weapon’s sling. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
The mutant was getting back up, slowly, shaking his head in a daze. Erik very slowly, very carefully lifted himself and cramped himself above the hanging dashboard, bracing himself painfully with the door, the dash, and the cop’s corpse. He noted idly that the man’s upper torso had been crushed, the Fiesta’s wheel pinning his body to the seat, the rest of the axle trailing out of the windshield like an obscene spear concocted by a demented child’s imagination. He allowed his head to drop just slightly, giving him a clear view of his enemy.
The man stood unsteadily after his abrupt visit to unconsciousness, stumbling for a few moments before taking his surrounding with clear-eyed precision. A trickle of blood ran down his face from where Erik had shot him. When he recovered, the man looked around and howled, grabbing the Fiesta and flipping it end-over end. The crash and crunch sounds rang out as traffic in the oncoming lane abruptly sped up, as people lost interest in rubbernecking.
“Where are you?” The mutant was angry. “Come on out where I can see you, coward!”
“Not fucking likely,” Erik muttered to himself as he carefully turned the volume down on the police radio in the cruiser. Joy of joys it was still working. “Dispatch, this is civilian at accident scene on Interstate Ninety-Three.” His voice was low as he spoke into the mic, careful to not allow the angry mutant to hear him. “Officer down, repeat, officer down. Mutant rager on scene, requesting the fucking National Guard.”
“This is dispatch, what is your name, and exact location?” The woman’s voice came through, barely audible, but he was able to pick it out over the screaming, and the engines.
“My name is Erik Mahren, I’m just past the mile five marker. We have a mutant rager, classification, Exemplar Six that just stopped traffic out here.”
“Mister Mahren, what is the status of the downed officer?”
“Dead on Arrival Dispatch. I’m hiding in the car next to him.” He watched as the mutant started stalking off the road, back towards the line of buildings. “Homeboy’s bugging out, heading south off the road.”
“Can you give CPR to the officer on-scene?”
“Only if you can figure out how to get the axle of an ’02 Ford Fiesta out of his chest.”
Erik relaxed a bit. All he had to do was chill for a few minutes, wait until the mutant was good and gone, then help the cops clean up the mess. Once again, he would live to fight another day. He was getting ready to ease his way back down and out of the squad car when the world lurched.
The cruiser flipped with him in it, slamming his face on the dash as it came to rest on the wheels. The passenger door tore open and Erik dove out through the destroyed windshield onto the hood of the car, only to feel something grab his ankle and crush it like it was made of Play-Doh. He went back in through the windshield, and lost his grip on the shotgun before being thrown bodily from the cruiser into a concrete lane divider. He heard his ribs snapping, and he began coughing up blood.
He tried to get up, tried to run, tried to fight…and failed miserably at all three. He was seeing double as the angry face of his assailant rushed forward, faster than any normal human, and the man struck him once.
Erik Mahren never felt the fist pass completely through his skull as he died.
Several students looked ill as they saw the man thrown from the car with no more effort than one would idly toss a rag doll into a toybox. Not a few of the students’ stomachs heaved when the fist delivered the coup de grace. All in all it was impressive, gruesome, and downright terrifying.
Mister Anderson, the Survival class instructor looked at the class, clustered about the viewing screen in the Arena 99 observation room. “Now class, a good part of escape and evasion lies in knowing how to size up an opponent and get a feel for what they are going to do, or are capable of. In the first part of this demonstration you were told that the aggressor in this exercise is an Exemplar Six with combat experience. You were not told what his prey was, in response. Part of this exercise is to evaluate our runner, and determine what he could have done better, what he did correctly, and whether this was a winnable scenario.”
He turned as the two combatants in the scenario entered the room. Erik Mahren was as healthy as ever, having just come out of the simulator pod alongside his partner in crime, Ryan Wilson. The two range maniacs stepped into the classroom with patently evil grins that made the kids wonder if their assessment that Anderson was, in fact, the Devil Incarnate wasn’t somewhat misplaced.
Erik felt a dozen pairs of eyes lock onto him at once and smirked as he could almost see the wheels turning in the kids’ heads as they considered the possibilities. No one ever got this one right. He looked at the small class with a bemused expression as the kids guessed what kind of mutant he might be.
“Yes Mister Coleman.” Anderson pointed to the unassuming Devisor boy in the back of the class. Erik grinned, as Buddy “Flywire” Coleman had been trying to figure out the answer to that question since the semester began a little over a week before when he found himself having to test his heavy weapons on Mahren’s gun range.
“Well Sir, I didn’t know Corporal Mahren could move like that, so I have to change my initial assessment to Energizer two, one of the daredevil types who stores energy and uses it for endurance and power at need.”
Erik grinned at the boy and slowly shook his head in response. Anderson looked at the boy and simply said. “You get a B+ for your guess, while your logic is flawed, it was an interesting assessment that might fit the parameters.”
Erik pointed at a girl who looked at a girl who seemed almost dinosaurian who was timidly raising a hand. “Sound off young lady, I’d like to know who’s speaking.” Anderson pointedly ignored Mahren’s cheek in picking the next student, knowing from experience that the bull-headed marine didn’t care one way or another what anyone thought of him.
“I’m Kaiju.” Figured that a dinosaurian girl with definite monster island type mutations would get saddled with a name like that. “I’d have to guess Exemplar Three with minor Esper traits.”
Erik simply held out his hand and Wilson grumbled, dropping a twenty into his partner in crime’s palm. “Always go for the obvious answers first.”
The next three guesses were equally entertaining with PK, Package-Deal-Psychic and Devisor with hidden toys topping the list as the kids wracked their brains for answers to the question at hand. None of the kids got higher than a B on their assessment, as the answers were totally obvious, yet wildly incorrect.
“Probability Warper?” The boy, who went by Firelight asked curiously, only to have his dreams of an A crushed when Wilson started snickering.
“Damn, Mahren if you were a mangler , it wouldn’t have been a chase.” He considered, “You aren’t secretly a mangler are you?”
“Just be glad I didn’t have any of my toys with me this run, you stinkin’ yahoo.” Erik grinned evilly without answering Wilson’s question.
“I don’t stink, Jarhead.”
“Take a shower man; I was able to smell you coming. It’s why I got so much lead time on you.”
Several students snickered as the two range combat instructors bantered back and forth. The laughter was pretty thick when a voice spoke quietly but firmly. “You’re a baseline.” The girl the two range nuts looked at was a pretty slip of a thing with red-highlighted blonde hair and a thoughtful expression.
Erik’s grin became eager, and evil though the girl didn’t shrink she did flinch a bit. “What’s your name?”
“Maggie, err... Lifeline.”
“Well, Lifeline, wow me with your logic here.”
“Well, nothing you did really required any kind of mutant powers. They would have helped, sure, but the jumps, the wall runs, bounding between fire escapes, none of it was any more than any of us have seen someone like Jackie Chan do. Then there was the point where you actually fought back. You used a gun, even though you knew it would be ineffective except as a distraction to buy time. In fact, for mutant powers, you didn’t really do anything more than run for a long time, what, fifteen minutes, while doing some insane things that most people in their right minds would never consider. Everything you did screams training rather than power, and it’s the kind of example that Mister Anderson would leap on from what I’ve seen.”
Erik’s evil grin had changed into a stunned one and he practically beamed at the unintentional compliment he’d received from the girl, as well as pleasant surprise that a mutant student actually thought of a baseline being able to pull the kind of crap he’d done. “You get a cookie.”
All twelve of the kids looking on seemed stunned by that simple revelation, even Lifeline. It always happened but it was gratifying to see the kids beginning to come to such conclusions on their own.
“Mahren, now that you have shocked my students, do you have anything to say?”
“Yeah I do. Pay attention to this man, because he’s very damned good at what he does.” Erik pointed at the reedy Survival instructor very seriously. “He knows what he’s talking about and he knows how to survive situations in the sims that kill me every time. This little pursuit we showed you was stacked against me, but I managed to keep out of the hands of a mutant who most A-List Supervillains or heroes would think twice about tackling, with nothing but a prayer and a bit of training.”
“What was that running acrobatics thing you were doing to keep ahead of him?” Kaiju pointed at Wilson.
“It’s called Parkour, and if you are ever unlucky enough to pull detention with me you’ll become intimately familiar with it and the pain it brings learning it.” Erik and Wilson restrained grins as several students immediately began calculating how to get into detention to learn how to do it for themselves. Most of the ones who tried would never try again, as Parkour taught as a personal sport vastly differed from Parkour used as a disciplinary measure.
“Well, gentlemen,” Anderson looked at the two Combat Wombats in front of him, “I have to go over a few things with the class during our remaining minutes here. So if you please, let us complete our business?” He held out a hand, palm-up.
Erik and Wilson glared bullets at the man as each walked over and dropped a fifty into Anderson’s open palm. Neither one liked to lose money, though they did have a nasty habit of making wagers.
After the two Range instructors left, Lifeline looked at Mr. Anderson curiously. “If it’s not too pushy, what was that about?”
Anderson gave the girl a shark-like smile. “They bet me not one of you would be able to do a correct assessment of Corporal Mahren. By the way, Lifeline, you get an A on the assessment.”
Sometimes strange things make a person click with a job, or a new social group. I wish that the horrifying and stressful, or deeply enraging weren’t the kind of things that clicked with me and actually got me going full-bore with enthusiasm. Unfortunately it seems that my life tends to run in that direction.
Being a teacher at Whateley Academy is bar none the best thing that has ever happened to me, but it isn’t without its share of pitfalls and pains. Being a teacher wasn’t all books, knowledge and screwy mind games. Being a teacher means finding ways to help a child grow beyond their own perceptions of what is, and face life with both eyes open. Sometimes being a teacher also means helping a child cope with problems they can’t see a way out of, be it academic, social, or in more than one horrifying case a combination of physiological and psychological.
I found Pauline Maxwell, one of the Whitman girls, in the range locker she had broken into during my first semester at Whateley. The girl had been missing for three hours when I found her crying in the underground range setup that combined the firing areas ostensibly designated as ranges one and two, or the high-caliber and pistol ranges, respectively. I was prepared for many things, crying, a scared kid, hell even a theft in progress. What I wasn’t expecting was to find a very depressed girl with a .45 pistol muzzle pressed up under her chin while she tried to find the nerve to pull the trigger.
I didn’t even have time to think when I saw the sight of the GSD-afflicted girl with the gun pressed to her own jaw. I just reacted, and while no one else likely would have done what I did, they probably didn’t have nightmares of children dying under guns that never should have been turned on them that would haunt them until the day they died. I kicked the pistol away from her hard enough to set it off when it hit the far wall. Thankfully, in my moment of sheer, panicked stupidity neither of us got hurt, though the shock of a teacher seemingly attacking her and the report of the gun shocked her halfway to her senses. I say halfway because she came up shrieking, incoherent and angry at me.
Shrieking I could handle, incoherent was easy to deal with, angry at me was good because it meant she wasn’t thinking of killing herself. The downside to this was I suddenly found myself running, juking and dodging away from a girl who could rip me in half without much effort, or psychically burn off every neuron I had all at once. Fortunately she wasn’t able to pull her concentration together enough for that, so I was able to use the mad, eclectic setup of the gun range to duck, dodge and vault away from the girl as she vented her rage on steel and concrete. If she’d caught me I’d have died with no regrets. Better me than a child, even one scarred by her own mind and poor self-image.
Sure, I could have hit the range panic button and had every armored asshole on Whateley Academy there in less than three minutes. Sure, I probably could have hollered for Fubar and gotten an immediate response, but I didn’t. I don’t really know why to this day, but somehow I knew I had to get her to open up, or at least think enough to start talking. Besides, if the Security teams came armed for heavy, dollars to doughnuts she’d have rushed them, intent on getting herself shot. A lot.
I’d decided when I started at Whateley that it would be a cold day in hell that one of these kids would die on my watch without me doing every goddamned thing in my power to keep them alive. This wasn’t to say I was going to stand idly by while one tried to rip my guts out like Pauline was doing, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let her flatline herself either. Catch 22, I couldn’t fight back effectively because I didn’t want to hurt her, but by the same token I wasn’t particularly eager to feel the thrill of having my internal organs externalized. I wound up bouncing around the range like a Mexican jumping bean, praying she would run out of steam before I ran out of places to run.
Some days it just doesn’t pay to chew through the leather straps.
“All right you lot, let me get one goddamned thing clear. If I ever see you little nut-nuggets pointing one of my fucking firearms at another student or the staff ever again, I will personally introduce you to the joys of arthroscopic surgery when they extract the banger in question from your fucking colon! Mister Counterpoint did not get my message, so he is no longer with us.” Erik wasn’t yelling, even though he was pretty sure if Carson opened her window back at Schuster Hall she’d be able to clearly hear every word he was spitting at the wide-eyed and somewhat unnerved children on the receiving end of his tirade. The man could project, almost painfully so at times.
The twelve students standing more or less at attention didn’t dare move from their positions. Even the most cocky student at Whateley understood the basics. One does not give lip to a teacher, ever, no matter how much the temptation arose, especially when said teacher was as terrifying as Gunny Bardue and Sergeant-Major Smythe, or as ferociously and eternally mean as Corporal Erik Mahren.
Counterpoint had screwed up, threatening Mule with a .50 caliber rifle, grinning as he aimed in on the other boy. Everyone knew that the gun wouldn’t do more than irritate the Grunts’ brick, but that didn’t matter one whit to the range monster assigned to train them. They weren’t sure what exactly happened when Mahren bull-rushed Counterpoint, but the result was that the Range Four instructor was having a bit of a sore day from the bruise on his ribs, and Counterpoint went to the infirmary with a dislocated shoulder and elbow before Delarose got his hands on the Ultraviolent New Olympian.
Counterpoint would never be allowed to touch dirt on a Whateley range again until he convinced not only the range instructor he had angered that he was redeemable, but he convinced the Unholy Trinity of Smythe, Carson and Delarose that he had mended his ways. The rules on the ranges were rigid, immutable and ruthlessly enforced. Not one of the Range crew was prepared to have a child injured or killed on their watch, especially through negligence or inattentiveness on their parts.
Mahren scowled at the students standing before him, mentally calculating the likelihood of one of them deliberately pissing him off to see his reaction. When his calculations reached Zero, he pointed at the heavy bunker containing the weapons. “Mega-Death, Mule, you have cage detail! See to the weapon draws and do not screw up the range cards again or I will PT you both until you die! Blasters take the line, but do not fire. Once the weapons are issued we will begin today’s lesson. Everyone else form a line and get your draw cards out. Once you have your weapons from Mule, you will get your ammunition from Mega-Death. Now move!”
The kids were scrambling almost as soon as he finished talking, and rapidly an orderly line formed just inside the bunker while Mule and MD began unlocking the requisite materials. Mahren moved discretely to a point where he could watch the action in the cage as well as make sure the five blaster kids kept themselves in check while he “wasn’t looking.” After almost two weeks of dealing with his terroristic teaching style, none were feeling particularly froggy. Mahren gave a silent prayer of thanks and watched the cage.
Mega-Death popped open a drawer and drew out his medication, taking the pills as the first student reached him. He dutifully noted the taking of the pills in the log book for later and began pulling the power packs for the particle cannon the first student was wielding. Most of the Range Four kids tended towards weapons of choice, as many of them were devisors, which meant that the cage carried a rather wide mix of exotic ordinance.
“So MD, why do you always take your pills here, man?” The boy, Techno-Devil, as he called himself, had the demonic forelocks of his family’s fame. Unfortunately he had his father’s penchant for less-than-legal enterprise, so Erik always watched him like a hawk on the ranges.
“It’s part of my parole.” Mega-Death didn’t like admitting to being anything but a shining example of responsible devisor development, but his Diedrick’s Syndrome was well-known. “I pissed Mahren off and violated about three range regs last year, so he booted my ass. This was part of my penance, making sure that I’m always on top of my meds.”
“I thought they never let anyone come back to the ranges.”
“They don’t usually. I busted my ass to get re-instated, and believe me I don’t want to go through it again, but for now Mal move your ass. I got ammo to hand out, and you’re delaying the evil king of psychos’ class schedule.”
“What the hell is he gonna do about it? I’m not breaking any rules.”
“That’s not gonna stop me from skinning you alive and breaking you in detention tonight, loudmouth!” Mahren cut into the conversation since MD was kind enough to remember that he had work to do. “Get your draw and get on the line or I will personally shove that energy cannon up your ass!”
Malachai got a dark look, but he didn’t say anything else as he took his devisor cannon out to the firing line. Mahren watched and waited for any sign of defiance, but it didn’t come. His ‘unholy terror teacher’ act served a purpose, and it wasn’t for his own twisted amusement. That was merely a happy side-effect.
Mule and MD passed the weapons out rapidly, and the kids all got online and ready, although no one loaded or aimed a weapon. They were learning, and the older students who had spent a year on the range did their level best to educate the froshes or newcomers in general so that they would not have to deal with the teacher’s “one screws up, all pay for it” philosophy.
“Nice work.” Mahren nodded to the kids. “Take a knee.”
All of the students walked up then took a knee in a semicircle around him as he dropped the asshole act and began actually teaching. Each student braced their weapon if they had one, barrels pointed to the sky, save for Mega-Death, whose barrel was dug into the ground. The odd, electro-particle emitter he favored grounded out harmlessly into dirt for some reason, so it was the safest position to keep it in, even uncharged.
“Over the last two weeks, you’ve learned the basics, keeping to safety regs and basic marksmanship. Each of you has an aptitude or preference for heavy fire, but can any of you tell me what the primary useful function of heavy weapons or power blasters is in an actual combat situation?”
Malachai raised his hand and Mahren pointed at him. “The purpose is to take out hardened targets on the battlefield, Sir?”
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“Close.” Mahren shook his head. “But that’s not the correct answer per se. A heavy weapon or blaster is most effective in a group or unit providing support to lighter hitting groups, taking out or suppressing enemies that otherwise would break your offense, or overwhelm a retreat. Yes, these weapons and powers can be individually devastating, but they are always far more effective with support.”
Malachai nodded, as did the other students, they’d heard similar lectures before, most of them, but it helped to keep things in perspective. Mahren’s class was often boring, repetitive, and filled with lectures, but just as often it was fast-paced, frenetic, and quite often terrifying. The man knew how to illustrate a point, usually in the most brutally direct fashion he could concoct.
“My purpose here, is not to make you the hardened killers that will be worthy to join my military forces, or into hardened badasses, though I know some inevitably go that route. My purpose is to show you how to effectively survive a combat situation involving heavy fire, and how to fight back. This is not license to go throw down with the goddamned MCO Strike Units or the Knights of Purity. If you do that, you’re deeply screwed, and there’s not much I can do for you except pray.” Erik began walking back and forth, adjusting the round-brimmed D.I. cover he’d earned the right to wear as a Primary Marksmanship Instructor for the Marine Boot Camp during his last months in the corps.
“Part of this class will be learning when and where it is appropriate to use said weapons and powers, and where it is not. Believe it or not, kiddies, sometimes it’s better to surrender or withdraw than fight the bad guys. I know none of you is ready to pull the trigger with a bunch of hopeless and helpless civilians in your kill zone, or at least I hope you’re not, so you need to learn three things, the first being control. The second thing you will learn is threat assessment, and finally you will learn when it is time to throw in the towel and go elsewhere. I am here to teach you to survive against assholes like me who, first and foremost, will gleefully use any fuckup you make to end your career in whatever you choose to do, in brutal and spectacular fashion.”
The kids nodded as Erik continued. “Today, we learn about a tactic called ‘talking guns’ which is best used with two or more heavy weapons supporting one another in dealing with the same target area. It allows tactical flexibility, and makes it harder for an enemy to pick out a single target, or really tell where the fire is coming from. Hit the line, and myself and my range assists will demonstrate the proper method for carrying this out.”
With a nod, the kids moved to the firing line at a much safer pace than before. No one wanted to trip and fall with potentially loaded guns in play. Mutants may be more powerful than baseline humans, but bullets and plasma bolts were equal-opportunity killers. They didn’t give a rat’s ass about what anyone would consider mitigating factors, like being righteous, having made a promise, or being merely a child.
“Before we begin, Techno-Devil, gimmie fifty for calling me Sir. I work for a goddamned living.” Mahren grinned evilly as Malachai snarked and grumbled and got into the infamous forward-leaning-rest position with his cannon lying across the back of his hands. As he began, the other students carefully hid smug expressions denoting that they had not triggered Mahren’s mercurial and seemingly random temper. If their instructor saw the smiles, or heard snickering they would be joining their errant compatriot.
Erik wandered over to Mule, who handed him his personal weapon, an M240-G machinegun that had been heavily modified by Slapdash and a host of other Devisors who were all too eager to get extra credit by making Mahren’s personal weapon of choice more deadly than it already was to begin with. Mule’s weapon was almost identical, save that his didn’t have one of the notorious AEGIS loaders of Whateley fame strapped to the gun. He could never get the things to work.
“All right, you two, standard pattern, just like we practiced last night.” Mahren nodded to Mule and Mega-Death. “You ready for this Dom, Harvey?”
“Gonna make you look bad, Corporal.” Mule grinned evilly.
“Full power?” Mega-Death was smart enough to ask first.
“At your discretion, MD, Mark ‘em up and we’ll light the fires.”
The first eruption of blue-white lightning hit the target, a burned out AMTRAK vehicle and detonated outward, slagging the steel hull and melting down most of the machine. A second shot did not instantly follow, as three seconds later, Mule let rip with a long burst, firing into the molten slag, ripping the remains apart and sending globs of molten metal skyward. Three seconds later Mahren let fly with his baby, sending a screaming hail of lead that continued Mule’s fine work of turning the glowing wreck into swiss cheese, at a much faster rate of fire.
The cycle began again, with MD putting another shot into the wrecked vehicle, followed by the two machineguns in turn as the three rapidly reduced a target meant to last for hours against constant fire into unrecognizable slag. When the three cleared their weapons, Erik simply nodded and his two assistants went about their business, moving to coach the other kids in teams as the “Range Nazi” moved back to observe. Mule and MD were competent, and they knew their business. When they spoke, generally the students listened very carefully, for fear of Mahren’s wrath. MD and Mule, on their part, paid very close attention to what they told their fellow students.
Mahren’s wrath against an inattentive student was nothing compared to what he would unleash upon a Range Assist should they fuck up.
How many times must we deal with stupid high-school shit? The correct answer is “every goddamned day” when you work at Whateley Academy. The social pecking order is simple yet complex, though the actual politics of that particular distinction rank among the most arbitrary and stupid I have ever come across. Every time I see the bullshit I ask myself if that’s what it was like in High School. Sadly, by and large the answer is a resounding yes. Except for the mutant powers.
Ok, the OPEN use of mutant powers. I’ll tell you about Karyn Fuller sometime, and my pack of outcast buddies, refugees from the normal human genome. Yeah, I had some weird friends when I was a kid, and not all of them were exactly paragons of virtue, or safe to piss off. I haven’t seen ‘em in about a decade, and I still can’t decide if I shouldn’t try to mend the bridges I burned in my temper outbreak my last year in Fairbanks. If I wasn’t so good at sabotaging my own life I’d swear someone had it out for me.
So back to the stupid social politics of Whateley Academy. I discovered a new brand of social target in the GSD students on the campus. I should have known it would happen, but the thought hadn’t crossed my brain for a myriad of reasons, mostly the aforementioned Karyn Fuller. I should have seen it coming but I honestly was expecting the mutants in the school to have some sense of solidarity in a common background. Stupid me, I forgot that mutants were still human with all the prejudices, quirks and social foibles common to pretty much humanity at large during my time in the Corps.
So it was the beginning of the second semester, after Pauline Maxwell’s close encounter with a bullet that I started paying attention to things around campus, specifically with the GSD crowd. I knew then why everyone seemed so divided on the issue. By and large you didn’t see the GSD’s outside the classrooms and tunnels on anything but a green flag day. It was really visible in the Crystal hall, with the pretties, for the most part, congregating together, leaving the more plain kids sort of stuck together, and the GSD’s generally didn’t mix with either of the other groups. It wasn’t universal and there was obviously a peppering of exceptions, as some rare kids could give a shit about appearance, but by and large it was rather akin to watching White, Black and Asian kids segregate themselves into groups.
Nowadays when someone tortures the GSD kids you turn towards the Alphas with a cold eye. Back in my first year it was the Golden Kids who were the thundering pricks. They’re still pricks, but Freyja and Sebastiano screwed the Alphas out of a good thing. If you think I’m wrong, go ask Hartford about the good old days when noblesse oblige actually meant something to the influential kids at the school. Her scowl could darken the North Pole on the summer solstice. It’s one of my favorite pastimes.
Given that I’d been the butt of the kind of asshole behavior and raw disrespect the damn kids handed out to one another, I always have to bite my goddamned tongue and step back. Much as I wanted to help, the rules were “THE RULES.” No direct interference unless the students came to me or I saw something that couldn’t be allowed to slide. The theory, which Carson was working very dilligently to change, was that the kids needed to learn to fight their own battles without assistance or at least to learn to ask for help. That tack was bullshit because it simply made more victims, or worse it made more potential Columbine kids. With super powers.
I’d love to say that in Pauline’s case I made a difference, but she was too far gone by the time I realized there was a problem. For all my ability tactically, my social and empathy skills leave much to be desired. I have a very hard time relating to people except on a very immediate basis. I tried to help the girl, made her my project, and seemed to make some headway, but apparently it wasn’t enough.
At the end of the school year, Pauline Maxwell stole her father’s shotgun in their Wisconsin home and shot herself. She was declared dead on June 28th, 2001 at 8:22 AM by the doctors at a nearby hospital, all because she thought she was a freak, and the world pushed that view on her.
This was the thing I hated most and fought hardest against. Pauline wasn’t just another number among the mutants I have seen fight and die, she was a child, another human with hopes, wants and dreams. I’ve tried since that day to change the image I present to the kids, hard-ass but fair. I wanted to make a damned difference, to try and make an impression that might cause the Paulines of the world to see that not every shithead on this rock thought they were freakish, to treat them no better or worse than the most shining example of Exemplar good looks that ran across my desk.
On duty, overseeing the ranges, I was still a dick. I’m not changing that any time soon, but I did make it more abundantly clear to the kids that I would be there for them if they needed help for classes, if they needed someone to talk to, or even if they needed someone to scream at. Erik Mahren the Range Instructor was not the same person as when I shucked uniform in favor of leather jacket and jeans, combat boots for hiking boots, “smokey” cover for a sickening green bandanna.
I don’t know if anyone noticed in the staff during that year. I didn’t go out of my way to tell any of my coworkers that I wanted to help the kids overcome their problems. Hell, I was a pariah, openly known to be at the school on Carson’s sufferance. I’ve always held to the philosophy that words are just wasted breath when making promises. Do not fucking tell me you’re going to do something, show me that you’ve done it.
I took that lesson to heart as I kept to myself and began spending extra time with the kids, quietly tutoring kids who needed it for various subjects and learning more than I gave out in the process. I can’t compete with genius kids, so I had to do my damned homework and learn whole new areas of study just to begin helping. So while the Range crew save for Cat, who still thought I was a dick, were talking to me and treating me like a real teacher most of the school was watching me with a wary eye, wondering what I had done to earn Carson’s contempt.
Fortunately Carson didn’t see fit to share her reasons, or I’d have been dead within the first week.
Erik suppressed a grin as Cat was bringing her class to a close. The Manifestor kids all got worried looks as he waltzed into the classroom area and leaned against the wall, but breathed a sigh of relief when they realized that his “smokey” cover was missing from his normal teaching apparel. Lack of D.I. cover meant he was simply there to see Cat when she finished the class, not lay down the law on behalf of the school, as was often the case. He simply waited while the short, pixie-haired woman completed the class and dismissed the kids before walking over to her.
“Hey Erik, did you burn down the rest of the school?” Cat’s grin was infectious as the kids all filed out while pretending not to watch the two teachers who were blatantly in love with each other. Like fire and ice, the two of them seemed so very different. Cat was usually cheerful and full of energy, always about with her infectious smiles and approachable demeanor while her cold-blooded fiancée seemed more harsh and distant. Where she was forgiving, Erik seemed merciless, and where he was calm she was always burning with emotion.
None of those differences meant a thing when they hugged after the last of the students filed out.
“Nah, I didn’t burn down the campus, Hartford told me she’d lose my paycheck again if I did.” Erik couldn’t resist. He knew Cat and Amelia Hartford were good friends, but he and Hartford quietly and vehemently despised one another. Some people were just too alike in all the wrong ways to get along.
“You be nice.” Cat elbowed him in the ribs, and Erik gave an exaggerated wince as he pretended to be wounded.
“What means this ‘nice’ thing you speak of, human?” He caught Cat up and pulled her in, then gave her a quick kiss.
Cat McQuiston rolled her eyes, wondering for the thousandth time how he pulled of the big bad wolf act without letting his softer side show. “Nice, that thing you do when you are around me.”
“That’s nice?” Erik gave a wondering look. “You mean all I needed to get Hartford to calm down was to...” He stopped as Cat smacked him upside the head and gave him a mock-growl.
“You know, you’re adorable when you’re irritated.”
“So is your taste in men, but I’m not complaining.”
“You are such an ass.” Cat shook her head and broke away from Erik, chuckling. “So I answered your cell phone this morning, you left it at the apartment again.”
“I can’t escape the damn thing, even here!”
“True.” She handed him the offending piece of electronics. “Byron called, said something about him and the boys being in Boston for the Jam this weekend.”
“Wait... this weekend?” Erik racked his brains for a brief moment. “Oh shit! How the hell did I forget that?”
“You usually do, remember? How many times have I had to field the scheduling for your old Marine buddies?”
Erik looked like he’d swallowed something sour. “I scheduled the Hooligans for a Parkour run this weekend in Boston. They’ve been looking forward to their first run for the last couple days since I told ‘em about it.”
“And this is a problem, why? Seriously Erik, the kids aren’t going to be mentally damaged by doing one of your crazy Parkour runs with your buddies.”
Erik gave her an odd look. “You do remember Jerry, right?”
“You have a point.”
“Fucking hell. I really did myself good here. I can’t hook up with the guys for probably another six months, and I’m not going to back out of a promise to the kids.” Erik shook his head slowly. “Carson’s going to skin me alive for this one.”
“And this is new, how?”
Erik grinned at the fiery little woman he’d given an engagement ring to and shrugged. “Just another thing. Fortunately I don’t think the guys’ll give a shit one way or another that the kids are mutants.”
“They liked me.” Cat shrugged and looked at him smugly.
“Yeah but everyone likes you.”
“Englund doesn’t count. He doesn’t like anyone.”
Cat rolled her eyes. “You have an explanation for everything don’t you?”
Erik looked at her for a few moments, then grinned and nodded. “And I can make the bullshit sound real when I try hard enough.”
Cat just chuckled and pointed to the door. “Out! I have another class I need to teach on the range in a few minutes and you’re going to make me late. Vaminos, boyo, or I’ll be forced to take extreme measures on you!”
“Don’t threaten me with a good time!”
Erik ducked out into the hallway quickly, feigning indifference as the weak fireball poofed out on the wall opposite the door leading to Cat’s classroom. Several freshmen stared at him oddly, suddenly understanding the black marks on the wall. Erik eyeballed them and narrowed his eyes.
“What are you all looking at?” He barked sharply, “I believe you little rats have classes to attend!”
He chuckled inside as the kids scrambled to get to their respective classes. He was having a really good day.
Wilson ran up behind Erik, whacking him over the head with his black beret. “Hey loser, What’s up?”
“You’re about to be, you asshat. Up to the infirmary.”
“Aww, man you say such nice things to me but dude, for the fifth time, I’m not attracted to you like…” Wilson started laughing as the ex-marine backhanded him in the chest. “Does everything you do have to be violent?”
“Only when I don’t have to worry about a goddamned lawsuit.”
“Agggghhhh! My spleen! Workman’s comp! The baseline is beating me!” Wilson, of course, hammed it up.
Erik chuckled. “So, beer night in two weeks?”
“What happened to this weekend?”
“Dammit Ryan, I’m taking the kids to a Parkour Jam this weekend, remember?”
“What, do I look like your drinking buddy corporal? You think you can speak to me with such familiarity? Oh HELL no!” Wilson snickered. He loved needling his “little buddy” about being such a hardass. His amusement was renewed when Erik swatted him again. In the head. Hard.
Erik bowed. “Look Wilson, I’d love to continue punishing you for your love affair with the guy on the other side of the mirror, but I gotta go get my shit squared away for this weekend. I got me a fresh meat monkey to break in.”
“Who’s the newbie?”
“Aquerna. She’s been loitering with the Underdogs. I saw her running from Aries a few days back, and followed them. When she stopped I told Aries to bugger off, and put Aquerna through her paces.”
“Wait. Since when do you let the bully off the hook and punish the kid he’s chasing?”
Erik grinned. “Since I saw her move. She’s a Parkour Hooligan, mano. She just doesn’t know it yet. I’m inviting her to play tag-along for the Jam, and my old Ell-Tee was still struggling with the more advanced maneuvers last I saw him, so if she’s not a natural like I’m thinking I can put her with him since he’ll be in town this weekend.”
“Dude. She thinks you’re playing favorites with the Alphas, doesn’t she?”
Erik shrugged at Wilson. “Probably, but I wouldn’t invite an Alpha to a Parkour Jam if you threatened my dick with a food processor.”
“Speaking of which, Carson’s on the way here, she’s looking at you, and her expression is somewhat less than happy.”
“What the fuck else is new? I’ll see you for Warning Class this afternoon.”
Erik grinned and turned to walk straight towards Carson. On her face was a scowl that would have sent lesser, or saner, men running in fear. “I didn’t do it.”
Elizabeth Carson often wondered why she put up with Mahren. “I have this week’s laundry list of complaints. Do you want the full tirade now, or just the highlights?”
“Highlights please, boss. I already know about Nitro’s ongoing demand for an investigation into why I keep refusing to allow him entry onto the range grounds.”
Carson nodded. “Alright, and in your favor there, the mandatory requirement that any students entering the ranges complete Wilson’s safety course aren’t going to be waived.”
“Thank you Boss. I was getting tired of hearing about that.”
“Second, why is Counterpoint sporting two dislocated joints? I’m sorry but if I recall your job description does not have ‘beating my students into the hospital’ in it.” As Carson’s voice got dangerously quiet, Erik sighed inwardly. Same song, new dance.
“Carson, We’ve played this game before. Counterpoint, in his infinite lack of wisdom, decided to stick the barrel of a loaded Barrett in Dominic Sellars’ face while on Range Four.” Erik kept his breathing under control as he defended his position on something that already enraged him. The thought of Counterpoint’s smirking face aiming the Anti-Vehicle rifle at Mule while fingering the trigger brought spots of red to Erik’s vision. “I am aware that Mule is a PK-4 brick, and that he is, for all intents and purposes, bulletproof. I am also aware that none of the other students, and myself, are bulletproof. I was very clear with this, and every other class I have taught, and have told them that so much as deliberately pointing a weapon at another student, or myself, would be treated as though it were an attack. Counterpoint very loudly told Mule that I didn’t have the balls to stop him, and couldn’t were I so inclined.”
Erik looked Carson in the eye, fully realizing the dangerous ground he was treading with her. “Same story boss. I acted when he clicked off the safety. Then I snapped his mighty New Olympian ass for doing what he did.”
“How did you break through the PK field Counterpoint was mimicking, Erik? You shouldn’t have been able to stop him.”
“You know, Mrs. Dennon’s been asking me the same question for the last four years.”
Carson gave him a narrow-eyed glare. “Every year. Why is it that every year you have to make a point that involves injuring a student?”
“Because I’m not like you, Carson. I’m not a known factor in the world. The kids don’t see me, or Gunny B. or Smythe, as someone to take seriously until we slam down the hammer. Smythe’s our admin guy, and he and Gunny are both getting old. You know and I know that someone needs to be the bad guy, the Whateley catering to both sides of the law spectrum is something I keep in mind because as bad as anything I do… Doesn’t hold a damned candle to the assholes out in real life. If that means I have to beat down a brick, shoot a flyer with rock salt, or scare the shit out of some hapless berk to ensure these kids have the best fighting chance they can get I will do it.”
“I dislike that excuse.”
“Excuse my ass, as far as you are concerned until six years ago I was the bad guy. I was, in your eyes, the asshole with the gun waiting for your babies in the dark, regardless of what was really going on, Carson. You want to know why I want to be the bad guy? Because I’m damned good at it, and the kids learn.”
“What, do you want me to admit I was wrong?”
“No, I want you to not take the side of a kid who’s a card-carrying nut who was threatening the other students on my range with an anti-armor rifle.”
“Fine. I’ll let Delarose handle this. However, you will give him your full cooperation.”
“Carson, he’s already been in and out of my shop and taken statements from the kids on the range. He was the first person I got on the scene.”
“And his judgement?”
“Same as last year, and the year before, and so on, boss. In this case, regardless of whether or not Mule’s bulletproof, Counterpoint stepped over the line, and I was defending the lives of my other students.” He calmed down quite a bit. “Look, Carson, I don’t go looking for wankers to make examples of. I don’t deliberately piss in your pool, and not once in the last six years have I lied to you. I’d like to think I’ve earned some trust after that.”
“You have, Erik, but I do need to be sure that you’re sincere and in the right when I deal with the Board of Directors.”
“Wait, all that howling was to gauge whether or not I’m not screwing with you all?”
“I wasn’t howling, you were. And yes, it’s more or less the same thing you’re putting that poor Aquerna girl through. I’ve had no less than four Underdogs come to my office to complain that you’re punishing her for running from a bully.” She narrowed her eyes. “I am correct in trusting that is not the case, I hope?”
Erik nodded. “Kid’s got the knack, so I’m inviting her to the big Parkour Jam in Boston this weekend, with the understanding that I’d like her to join the Hooligans.”
“You could have asked her that up front, you know.”
“What, and ruin my reputation for being absolutely unreasonable?” He gave the Headmistress a wild-eyed, incredulous look.
Carson shook her head. It had taken her far longer to warm up to Erik Mahren than with any other member of the staff. She was honestly sorry she had waited so long, even if he was a complete ass. “So the last bit of business is from the desks of Lieutenant Trout and Sergeant Buxton.”
Erik got a disgusted look. “I don’t care, I don’t want to hear it, and if either of them thinks I’m letting any of their sticky-fingered buddy-fuckers anywhere near the ammunition delivery for the semester, they can get on their knees and lick my…”
“Erik!” Carson’s use of his name was like a whipcrack, and it got him to shut up. She’d have to remember to thank Cat for telling her about that trick. “Do you have any legitimate reasons for refusing access to the ammunition delivery to Third Platoon?”
“Nothing provable in court… except that since I put in the order for the hardware, I’m the only person they’ll sign it over to. Me and Smythe are the only two people with the permits and licenses to do this, and Smythe’s policy on Third Platoon stands on my watch as well.”
“Shooting our security officers is counterproductive.”
“But fun. I’m not risking a federal lockup because something vanishes between the supply point and the school vaults. If so much as a .22 bullet turns up missing between there and here it’s my ass. So no. If Trout and Buxton push me, I will hospitalize them and remove the issue from my desk. Third Platoon is off Ammo Delivery. Period.”
Carson cocked her head disinterestedly and shrugged. “Now that the official nonsense is done, I’m going to wish you and the hooligans fun at the Parkour Jam.” Without so much as another word, she walked with her air of quiet dignity back towards Schuster Hall.
“Just when I thought I’d figured her out…” Erik shook his head and started walking towards Melville. He had a squirrel-avatar to mess with.
Erik was whistling a warped little tune to himself, shaking his head and marching straight through the main area of the school, more or less ignoring the mixed bag of kids wandering about, and watching for his favorite class of victim… Recruiters. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for him, the lot of them rarely bothered the class at this time of day. He desperately wished they’d play, because he needed something to distract him from the inevitable final-period class he ran once a year, corralling every student working on one of the ranges for a rather grim evaluation of actual battlefield conditions, and the heroes did not always win.
My greatest joy at Whateley has, and always will be the Parkour Hooligans. What started out as a particularly ferocious punishment regimen for misbehavior grew into something more when a couple kids realized that not only were they good at it, but they enjoyed it. The actual parkour runs for fun didn’t begin until four years ago, and I’ve never had a large group. Anderson is the only teacher who sees it as more than a flashy waste of time. Wilson just knows I can run his ass into the ground when I chase that Exemplar Six bastard through a city, traffic or not.
It all started in Poe, the madhouse of Whateley. If you buy that I have a bridge to sell you. I’ve been crushed on by two many fucking blazing gay boys from that cottage not to have figured out what the fuck Carson’s play there was. I disagree wholeheartedly that it’s for the best, but it’s her call, not mine. I will go on record saying that isolating a group of kids who are different, completely from everyone else, is just begging for something foul to happen.
Case in point, I give you Zenith. She wasn’t always the confident and cool picture of your modern cottage fixer. I met her when she was still an awkward and uncertain teenager, and the girl needed help. Bad. She’d fallen in with Sahar, one of the local con-artists and knack-thieves. Apparently Sahar went a bit overboard and the end result was Zenith was having spaz-outs worthy of Fey’s hobgoblins on a rampage. What it all boils down to was Zenith thought Sahar loved her, but the little bint just used her. Of course I didn’t find this out for a while yet, as teenagers don’t spill their hearts out to the first teacher they see.
I met Zenith on my way to talk to Mrs. Horton about one of her sophomores who’d come into my class on range Four. I was trying to figure out how to broach the sensitive topic of my being uncomfortable with him making the moony-eyes at me when he thought no one was looking when a coffee pot whipped past my face, from the Poe Common Room, passing my nose by about an inch, shattering on the wall and spraying its contents on the wall, floor and me. I stopped, sort of half-turned and looked at the frazzled blonde girl who was looking at me like a deer into headlights as she realized what she had done.
I was already contemplating mayhem and misery as I spoke to her. “Why for do you throw coffee at my head, little girl?”
Mayhem took a back seat when she didn’t get angry, or defensive, or insanely apologetic. She started bawling, and couldn’t even look at me. Well fuck, being a dick is only fun when someone isn’t already hurting and it was just too easy to tell that this little outburst, for which she knew she was now in trouble, had absolutely nothing to do with me or any desire to be a bitch.
Horton was in the room as well and the sudden onslaught of me apparently was the last thing she’d hoped for. “How can I help you Mister Mahren?”
“I need to talk to you about Skylar Howes.” I looked over at the crying girl, and felt like I was about to chew on something sour. “And, apparently to discuss detention for a student who likes throwing things at my head.”
Zenith wailed and ran to her room.
Horton’s babies are to her, what a mother bear’s cubs are to the bear. She was mad, at me. “I’m sorry, Mahren, I think I’ll handle issues in my cottage myself, thank you.”
I stepped fully into the common room and looked back in the direction the girl had fled in. “What the hell happened Horton? I’m an asshole, but I’m not too daft to see the kid’s too stressed and wigged out to deal with life.”
“Is it really your business?”
“Depends. Likely not, but I haven’t seen a kid in that state since Pauline. What’s up?”
Horton drew back, and sighed. She knew I never, ever invoked Pauline’s name. I hated talking about the girl who died over a year before. “Zenith had a bad run-in with another student. She thought she was going to be in a relationship, but she wound up getting used, badly. I’m worried about her.”
“Well, it may not help, or it may. Have the kid come see me at the end of the day. I might be able to help her burn off some of the mad hurt.”
“What do you have in mind, Mahren?”
I shrugged. “A type of exercise I learned a few years ago. It’s a type of running that some of the kids might get a kick out of, and give her something else to work on besides feeling hurt.”
“I doubt running laps will make her feel better.”
“Who said anything about laps?” I then darted to the side, ran up the wall two steps, and kicked over to the corner, did a odd spin, and hit the ground. “I don’t do laps.”
Horton gave me an odd, surprised look. “All right, Mahren, I’ll send her your way. I’m telling you right now, if you do more damage…”
“I’ll hand you the knife myself, alright? I’d really rather not drive the girl to suicide honestly.”
Zenith and Breaker were neck and neck, bounding through the woods near the staff parking lot, haling ass as only Exemplars could. They startled two security officers as they dove into the lot, more or less ignoring obstacles by going over them, or under them. Mahren’s truck was their target, and the two of them went over it, Breaker by the expedient of jumping just above the canopy of the truck and using a hand to guide him over, while Zenith vaulted into the bed and kept going, jumping off.
As they passed Shuster Hall, both of them jumped up and ran along the wall for a short distance before dropping back to the ground and angling for the Crystal Hall. The great, geodesic dome was their finish line as the pair poured it on, ignoring the terrain, and dodging suddenly confused students as they tore across the Quad. Chairs, trees, picnic tables, nothing even slowed them as the two utilized any excuse to try and hit that point in their minds that Mahren told them about, when you just flowed and the world became your trail, your playground.
None of the other kids on the Quad really understood the Parkour Hooligans, and then cussing and howls of outrage began as Thrasher and Slapdash erupted from another direction, doing the same thing as the other pair heading towards the Crystal Hall. Zenith and Breaker grinned at each other as they poured on the speed. Zenith and Breaker were a lot more skilled, but what the other two lacked in skill, the Bad Seed boy and the younger Grunt made up for in sheer, furious determination.
Breaker skidded to a halt a few seconds before Zenith, followed by Thrasher, then Slapdash. Zenith grinned at the other three as they all took a moment to catch their breath. Slappy was always the slowest, but then he’d also spent most of his time power-lifting with Mule until about the mid-point of his freshman year. Breaker was, hands down, the strongest and fastest of the four, but that was more because he was one of the mighty Exemplar 5’s that roamed the school. Thrasher was the newbie, having gleefully practiced all summer after Mahren introduced him to the sport late the year prior. And as fitting for a person who could pick up knacks and skills, and her status as the Hooligans’ longest running member, Zenith knew all the dirty tricks and maneuvers that made up for the points where Breaker had her in raw, physical power.
“Good run, Zee.” Breaker gave her a high-five and looked about the area. Check out the weird looks.”
True to form the four of them were getting a mix of odd and dirty looks from the local students trying to move about on their lunch breaks. No one else shared their joy for running like madmen and ignoring everyone - and everything - in their path.
“Yo folks, I dunno about you, but all that running’s got me hungry. So if it’s all the same… Peace!” Thrasher grinned as he stepped inside the Crystal Hall. Three seconds later he popped right back out. “Yo, Mahren’s at the table, with some chickadee who’s looking like she just got detention for life.”
“And History repeats itself, yet again.” Zenith shrugged. “Let’s get food and go say hi to the fresh meat, shall we?”
“Right behind ‘ya Zee.” Slapdash followed her in, and the four Hooligans began loading their trays with eats in preparation to descend upon the unfortunate newbie.
The four students unceremoniously set their trays down at the table they occasionally used as a group, and looked at Aquerna. The young girl looked like a deer in headlights with the Evil Range Bastard standing above her. She wasn’t looking, so she couldn’t see the absolutely happy grin pasted on his face. All in all, Mahren was safer when he was mean. When he was happy he tended to be creative.
Poor Aquerna looked at the four unhappily, and Thrasher shook his head as Zenith glared at the teacher for his usual asshole antics.
“So what you in for?” The Bad Seed asked her, mildly.
Aquerna mumbled something.
“Sorry, didn’t hear ya,” Breaker put in mildly.
The squirrel-Avatar girl sighed. “Apparently it is illegal to run from bullies anymore.”
Erik raised an eyebrow, and Slapdash gave Erik a look. “Dude, with all due respect, you’re a dick.”
Zenith rolled her eyes, entirely too used to dealing with the range psycho. “All right honey,” she spoke to Aquerna soothingly, “believe it or not, you aren’t in trouble. Mister Mahren here likes to screw with people as a matter of habit.”
“No, you’re not.” Erik chuckled. “I’ve been running you after school to see what you can do. You’ve impressed me so far, so are you interested in trying some real running at the Boston Parkour Jam this weekend?”
“Parkour…Jam?” Now the poor girl was merely confused rather than despondent.
Breaker rolled his eyes. “Tell you what, we’ll fill you in.” He gave Mahren a dirty look. “All right since this was a gratuitous asshole moment and not a Teaching issue, BEGONE OLD ONE! I banish thee back to the pits of Hell from whence ye came!”
Erik didn’t react the way any of the intently-listening eavesdroppers at nearby tables were expecting. He began cackling maniacally and walked straight into the teachers’ lounge annex, stopping only to write “HELL” in sharpie on the sign by the door.
Erik wandered into the Weapon Bunker on Range Four to collect his materials for the final class of the day, and stopped cold. He had simply wandered in. The Bunker door was open, and the lights were off. The cage entrance was open, and he could hear muffled swearing. It was coming from the Back Cage.
He walked in quietly, and looked back at the Cage entrance, to see Colin Kiehl trying to bypass the complex Devisor system keeping the Cage locked out. Third Platoon in Whateley Security wasn’t high on Erik’s list of favorites, and it seemed like once a month he had to confiscate a piece of dangerous or Inventory-Controlled equipment from their possession, usually violently. In the case of the back cage, however, there were some things back there that he was under explicit orders to kill anyone who saw what was there, unauthorized.
Tempting as it was, he didn’t risk the nearly infinitesimal probability that Kiehl would succeed. He simply rushed forward and slammed an open palm into the back of the Security officer’s head by way of greeting, smashing his face into the Cage door. A kick to the kidney and another to the gut and Officer Kiehl wasn’t in a position to do much more than moan piteously as Erik blithely opened the Cage, and wandered in. When he wandered out he stomped on Kiehl’s helmeted head and jarred the man quite a bit.
Erik checked the class materials he’d liberated from the cage, and looked down at the moaning security officer. “Oh you’re still here? Bad idea.”
Twenty minutes later, Chief Delarose received a knock on his door. “Come in.”
The door opened and Erik peeked in, the unconscious form of a security officer slung over his shoulder. “Hey Chief, I was wondering if you’d seen Buxton and Lieutenant Trout running about today.”
Delarose sighed and simply pointed towards the briefing rooms. “Make sure he gets into the infirmary, would you Erik?”
The crazy marine just grinned and hustled off, Kiehl in tow, whistling to himself.
Erik opened the door without knocking, to see Buxton and Trout going over some reports, as he stalked in and dropped Kiehl on the desk. “I hope I’m interrupting something.” He gave a big ol’ grin at Sergeant Buxton. “Hey Butthole, I thought we had an understanding.”
Trout came around the desk, stalking right at Erik, when he felt the marine’s boot slam into his groin. He fell over like a wet sack as Erik looked down at him, contemptuously. “Sit down, Junior, adults are talking.” Trout let out a high, pained whine in response.
Buxton, a man pushing his fifties with gray in his hair, looked at Erik. “What’s your problem asshole? None of my boys were authorized to do anything in your areas, so why are you here?”
“Because I found your meat sack here trying to access the Cage.” Erik put his fists on the desk and leaned in to talk to the real leader of the Whateley illegal activities division. “I don’t care what your fucking reasons are, Buxton, get this straight. None of your platoon are, or ever will be, authorized to enter my weapon cages. You have the armory here at Kane Hall. You will continue to draw your gear from there.”
“Who the fuck do you think you are Mahren? We are the duty security platoon and as such have full access to…” he stopped as the snout of a .45 caliber handgun appeared in his face.
“See, I don’t think you quite comprehend my position Buxton. The Whateley ranges are a federally controlled NatSec matter. As a result of this, there are two people with the clearances to access any portion of the ranges at any time without interference. I am one, Delarose is the other. You, and your Lieutenant,” Erik gave Trout another swift boot, “may not override me when I say I do not interfere with your activities off the ranges, but rest assured, if I continue catching you fuckers dicking around in my armories and ammo bunkers I will invoke that Security protocol and execute you or your boys on-site. Do I make myself clear?”
“You know Mahren, this is a dangerous place and accidents happe…” Buxton cut off again as Mahren clicked off the safety.
“Buxton if an ‘accident’ or something I even dream might lead to an accident happens, please bear in mind, I’m from Alaska, and we know all the tricks for hiding the bodies. Nevermind you may be an old hat, but you’ve never faced anyone like me before. Keep your fucking paws OFF MY RANGES!”
Erik kicked Trout once more and stalked out, leaving Buxton to shoot him more foul looks.
Erik watched the four kids bouncing around the Quad, much to the consternation and rage of the surrounding students who were swearing profusely. It brought a smile to his face to see them having simple fun driving everyone bugshit crazy. Aquerna watched, trying to take in everything at once, watching each kid in turn as they did their crazy stunts. The girl’s expression was somewhere between bemused and gleeful.
Erik walked up to Aquerna and looked down at the abruptly very nervous frosh. “You interested in what you see?”
The girl nodded slightly.
“You think you can learn to keep up, and not quit on me?”
She nodded again, a bit more confidently. “This is… awesome!”
“Well then, if you want to join the Parkour Jam this weekend in Boston, I’d suggest playing follow-the-leader with Slapdash there. If you can keep up with him, then try Breaker or Zenith. If you’re really slick, sometime you can try to keep up with me.”
Aquerna gave him a bemused look. “Seriously?”
“Why are you still here?”
The Underdog girl cocked her head oddly, grinned and darted off after Slapdash as though her ass was on fire.
“All right Ladies and Chumps, sit down and shut up. This is your reality check class, and I do not intend to repeat myself. You in the back! Dammit I swear to god Missfire, if you and your sister don’t settle down, I’m gonna thump the both of you!” Erik gave an annoyed look back towards the junior class section.
“Tangent!” Betsy Farnsworth could not ever pass up the opportunity to correct anyone on the codename her sister had saddled her with from the real one.
“Ashton, move your wheelchair-rolling ass up front where you can see.”
He waited a few minutes for the classes to settle, and when they didn’t he got irritated. Gunny Bardue and Wilson were both giving him amused looks, daring him to get the kids under control. “Have it your way.”
Erik uncorked the two flashbang grenades he’d prepped and tossed them into the milling throng. He shielded his eyes and ears and waited for the panicked outrage from the students settled down. “If you little snots have finished, I said sit down and shut it!”
Ninety teenage asses plopped down and went silent when they realized he’d collected two stingball grenades from the table behind him. “Oh, I see we can in fact be taught. Ladies and gents you have to sit through this class once a year. Deal with it. If you can’t I have tear gas, too.”
“You can’t do that!”
Bardue leaned forward, “Shut it, Poindexter, you’re on our ranges now. Whateley Student manual doesn’t apply here. Got a problem? Feel free to leave and not come back.”
“If you’re quite through arguing with my boss there…” Erik walked over to a computer and set up the presentation, “we can begin.” He took the remote and stepped forward.
“For those of you fortunate enough not to know me yet, I am Corporal Erik Mahren, formerly with the Marines.”
“Which Marines? The real ones, or the American ones?” The smarmy Brit voice belonged to Myron Westchester, a boy long on mouth and short on common sense.
“Push.” Erik simply pointed to the ground in front of him. “Anyone else have any questions about my qualifications?” As Westchester began his push-ups, Erik helpfully stood on his shoulders, to give the Exemplar-3 boy a challenge.
“Good, now that you are all settled, let me warn you now. I am not Bardue, nor am I Wilson or Smythe. My tolerance for bullshit while I am teaching is miniscule to nonexistent so I would seriously recommend you pay attention. And, as a few of you have already found out, running to Officer McQuiston on Range 2 will only make your suffering worse.” Several kids stifled giggles watching the Range instructor bob up and down with each push-up.
“I am not here because I give a shit about teaching you all to follow the side of light and right. I am here to teach you to defend yourselves if you are caught in a firefight, since most of you do not have enough common sense to run from someone pointing a gun at you.” Erik turned to the display, which was showing a young man, no older than fifteen or sixteen standing in the center of a city street. “This is my object lesson in why you need to take classes seriously. I do not care if you like me. I don’t want your friendship. I want you to survive for as long as possible in a world where over ninety-nine percent of the population will panic and react badly to you when you use your powers. Above all, I will not tolerate any safety violations on my ranges whatsoever. You will not kill yourselves or your peers because of an avoidable fuckup on my watch.”
Erik scowled at the class, most of whom were still shaking off the effects of the flashbangs or scowling bloody murder in his direction. “This is your one chance to escape the ranges and my wrath. The moment you placed this class on your schedule, your parents were made to sign safety waivers absolving the range crews of any psychological trauma we choose to inflict upon you. If you violate the range safety rules and are injured, Whateley Academy is absolved of all liability for your injury. The students you have heard bitching about being disallowed from these ranges are the children of parents who declined to sign said waivers.”
“If any of you have a problem with the fact that not a damn one of us will play nice with you, leave now. If you have a problem following my safety rules on any range, leave now. This is not a democracy and the rules will at no point be negotiated. So if your precious feelings will be hurt when I tell you to pull your head out of your ass, then leave now.”
Erik waited for the allotted time, then looked at the kids with a cold eye. He didn’t like being a complete dick to a bunch of kids, but unfortunately experience had proven that it was the only way to get the kids to take him in particular seriously. He didn’t have Gunny’s bearing that demanded respect, or Wilson’s easy charm. He couldn’t really empathize with them like Cat could, or give the odd comment that could make even Carson stand up and pay attention like Smythe could. He envied them.
He stepped off the grunting student. “Get your sad-sack ass back to your seat before I kick it there.” The boy in question glared at him for a moment before moving back to his appointed spot.
“Now, for those of you who are curious, I served with M-SOC Marine Pacific. This is the Unit organization specifically composed primarily of mutant combatant personnel in the Marine Corps and their support staff. I have a unique understanding of Mutant potential in combat arms operations and in lethal situations. I have served with, and under, some of the finest men and women who have ever carried a Mutant Military I.D. card and can tell you, with utter certainty, that you are not invulnerable.”
Erik noted grimly that some of the students openly scoffed at his last pronouncement, but the open statement of his credentials got the attention of every single new face in the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am not here to teach you military application, nor am I a recruiter. I am your reality check. Our subject matter I am showing you today I only show once every four years so pay attention. You are about to see the footage released by various media approximately eight years ago in Darwin, Australia. It’s a little known incident that did not receive the media attention that it otherwise might have.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, you are going to watch the birth of the Bogeyman. This is where the stories of the so-called Dragonslayers of urban and terroristic legend were first concocted, the footage that started the conspiracy theory.” Erik looked at the kids and willed his bearing not to break at all. He despised that this was part of the Whateley curriculum at all, even if he was aware of the necessity. “The footage quality is shitty, but this is very likely to be the most graphic thing many of you have ever seen. If at any point during the presentation you feel the need to leave the room, make sure that one of us sees you do so, it will not affect your grade, but hopefully it will make you understand that if you choose a combative path you are playing with fire.”
Erik’s voice had carried to the back of the room, but didn’t have its usual, hard-edged psychotic tone. “Ladies and gentlemen, please be silent until the film has ended. And if you feel the need to make smartass comments keep it to yourself and show a little respect for the dead.”
As the lights dimmed and the projector began rolling, showing a panicked Australian News Anchor delivering a frantic special update, Erik walked to the back of the lecture hall silently but rapidly and did not stop until he was outside the building. He went along the wall to the back exit of the building, rarely used by anyone, when the shakes started.
He didn’t need to see the footage, didn’t want to. Just thinking about it brought the whole sordid mess to his mind. He knew the score, a mutant kid had finally cracked. No one was sure what the hell had started it. The stories conflicted horrifically. Erik personally believed that it had been a couple kids picking on the boy that blew the rager trigger. There was no official power classification known, but Erik put the kid at Exemplar 3, with a regen 3. Put him at a Class 3 rager, and the boy’s capabilities had spiked somewhere towards Exemplar 5, maybe six, with a proportional increase in his healing.
The boy’s mother had been the fourth person to die, body shattered nearly in half by a backhand that could have sent a compact car onto its back. Eight police and sixty bystanders had already been killed or crippled when the City officials hit the panic button. Darwin hadn’t had a local hero team, or even any notable hero types to divert or stop the kid. Their military forces were on the weekend, many at home, celebrating Christmas with their families. The only combat-ready force nearby besides the city’s SWAT team was the Marine Expeditionary Unit in the process of disembarking and enjoying a much-needed liberty call in the Australian port.
Erik got tapped, and when the offer to help was made to the Australians, the mixed squad of Recon and Weapons designated “Equalizer” was tapped to respond to the problem and do everything to halt the rager or divert him from populated areas. Equalizer’s successes catching a couple Terrorist-linked mutants in the open and killing them put them in the hotseat.
It took fifteen minutes, the locals weren’t wanting to allow US action on their soil, which wasn’t something the US commanders were willing to argue with an ally. When the Australian Government figured out what the response time would be for their few units or Super-Powered teams, they gave the Colonel commanding the battalion on-site the green light.
He remembered the panicked ride in the five-ton truck between two Hummers, desperately trying to link belts of ammunition together and helping Heckel and Jeckel situate their gear as well. Worm and his recon boys were silent, white as sheets, and knowing that if the shit went south they would be the first casualties. Blackjack and Coppertop checked and re-checked their M-16’s and made sure their grenades were ready, sweating bullets and shaking already. PFC Colton was the only man on the team without a radio call sign, having been tapped from the battalion to replace Wicked, who was recovering from extreme burns he’d gotten in their last oh-shit maneuver. He hadn’t lived long enough for his buddies to get back to Camp Pendleton and run to Bethesda Naval Hospital to visit him.
Colton was the only one who wasn’t praying to God that the nightmare would be over before they arrived, that some local cop would get a lucky shot and put the kid down. No one had told them they were going in to stop a child.
Worm looked up and pushed on his ear, trying to hear what was coming through the short-range comms more clearly. He looked up, and held up two fingers. Two minutes to the combat zone. It didn’t feel right, and it was damn sure risky. If they fucked up they would do more harm to the local civilians than help. Too much was riding on this, and none of the marines riding in black fatigues without unit markings or name tapes felt up to the task.
“First drop point, target in thirty seconds!” Worm was hollering as the truck slowed down. “Hijacker GO! Heckel GO! Jeckel GO!”
Erik and his gun team hit the ground and rolled at ten miles an hour as the panicked Lance Corporal behind the wheel sped up to deliver his payload and get the hell out of dodge. The two Hummers screamed in and began opening fire with swivel-mounted 240-Golf machineguns, putting rounds in the direction of the target. Erik ran forward and put the training Worm had imparted to the test as he scrambled up the back of a city bus and took post there, dropping the four-foot long machinegun onto its bipod and began loading the belt.
Heckel and Jeckel did the same as the truck vomited Worm’s three teammates and they dove for cover along the long roadway. The Rager was barely visible, about a click away, chasing fleeing pedestrians who screamed, ran and died as the impossibly fast young man ran them down and ripped them apart, sometimes tearing open vehicles like sardine cans to get at them. The road was a killing ground, and bodies littered the road, sidewalks, and storefronts.
The Humvees tried to turn and escape, having thoroughly gotten the rager’s attention. One escaped, however the second was not so lucky. The rager leapt from thirty feet away, taking bullets, and landed on the hood, scrambling up and tearing the gun from its mount. The marine at the turret port didn’t even have time to scream as the weapon went barrel-first through his chest like his body armor didn’t exist. It took about three seconds for the other two marines inside, panicked and shooting with everything they had, to die.
Worm was out of the truck, and the driver killed the engine, stopped it and hunkered down. Erik had briefed him. Don’t move, don’t make a sound, try not to breathe any more than you had to. Ragers were attracted to motion. He was to let Worm live up to his name and play bait on the hook. Erik gave a silent prayer of thanks that the kid behind the wheel had followed instructions.
“Incoming!” Worm had turned and was running like his life was about to end almost before the grenade left his hand. His voice carried over on the comm as he began doing things that Erik would have deemed impossible for a non-mutant to pull had he not seen it before. Worm ignored the obstacles between him and the waiting marines, vaulting them, stepping over them, rolling under them as though he’d practiced the run a thousand times.
He didn’t look back, never looked back as he ran. Sergeant Byron White, AKA Worm, formerly of the Battalion Reconnaissance Platoon was the fastest man in the regiment by dint of his extensive training in something he’d told his team was called parkour. Never before had Erik thought that a normal human being could move so fast, much less the skinny little black man who seemed to act as though life itself was something to sleep through when he could get away with it.
Even recovering from the grenade blast the target was less than fifty meters behind Worm when Blackjack and Coppertop darted from cover a few seconds apart. Normal military firing discipline was out the window as the two marines erupted from their hiding places. Staying still and presenting a static target, even one behind cover, meant death. Coppertop ran behind the target, firing one-handed to his side as he ran wildly. Worm ducked behind cover.
Blackjack did the same as the rager turned like greased lightning to react to the new threat. The .223 caliber shells bounced off the boy’s skin like he was wearing tank armor. Blackjack’s rounds impacted along the target’s back, distracting him from Coppertop, confusing and further spurring the target to psychotic rage. It also kept him from reacting to any one threat in a fashion that would allow him to act.
PFC Colton waited too long, and when he moved, he followed Blackjack’s path of attack, when he should have struck from the side. He died brutally, torn in half by a superpowered mutant who was so far beyond human in speed and strength that his life was over before he even comprehended that he’d screwed up, or that the target had even moved.
Worm was all over the blood-soaked monster that had come to kill them, that they had foolishly tried to kill. He fired full into the rager’s face, trying, but not hoping, that he might get an eye shot that would take him down. He was gone and Coppertop continued the cycle from behind as the Recon boys strove to keep the rager in place long enough for the heavies to draw a good bead.
Blackjack was unlucky, pure and simple. He took a glancing hit to the collarbone, and his ribcage shattered like glass. The mutant simply leapt forward and killed him. Worm and Coppertop made one more pass as Erik and the twin brothers he worked with set up the Last Resort charges and set the detonators attached to their LBV’s.
The Rager’s homicidal rage and confusion gave way to an instinctive need to GET AWAY, and when it happened, Heckel opened fire as the two remaining marines dove away. The tracers flew, and nothing was spared in their path. Puffs of red erupted as the heavier rounds drilled through flesh, while the remainder that missed shredded concrete, glass, cars and littered bodies apart.
The rager tried to dart in the opposite direction and Jeckel opened fire, driving the rager back to the center of the road. Even in a murderous fury, some part of the target’s brain registered pain as it sought to flee. When it bolted back the way it came, Erik let loose, tearing holes in his back, and shredding the pavement. The mutant fell, and Erik fought to control the bucking machinegun so he could unload the long belt into the prone form. He’d learned the hard way. Never stop until an enemy mutant was a greasy paste on the ground, or your gun melted down.
A car containing a couple going out for an outing crossed into the intersection in front of the mutant as Erik laid in. Heckel and Jeckel began firing at the same time. The two had probably not bothered to watch the news or listen to the emergency broadcast on the radio, as their CD player blared loud punk metal to the streets and beyond. Windows shattered, doors and fenders seemed to explode and red filled the vehicle as the two people died before they realized that anything was wrong.
For a second, the world went silent as all three guns stopped, far too late to save the lives of the people riding in the car. Six seconds as five pairs of Marine eyes watched in horror. The car jerked to the side and collided with the corner of a building in the intersection. It was riddled with bullet holes like some maniac had gone postal. Six seconds was long enough for the rager to recover and charge most of the distance between himself and the bus Erik was on.
Erik’s first warning that he was in trouble was when the tracers started tearing through the air in front of him, desperately trying to track on the fast-moving form charging right at him. More destruction reigned as the bullets missed their mark and shredded everything but the mutant intent on killing them. Erik began firing desperately, then realized just how screwed he was. He abandoned the gun, scrambled to all fours and jumped for a storefront, crashing through the glass onto the floor, slashing himself open pretty much everywhere that wasn’t protected by body armor. He rolled and scrambled behind the metal counter just as the rager reached the front of his bus.
Erik hit the remote detonator on his LBV, and was knocked deaf and stupid by the explosion of twenty pounds of C-4 on the top of a city bus. Fragments of glass and metal flew everywhere and the shockwave stunned him and his teammates. The top of the bus compressed, and the back end was blown twenty meters down the road, cartwheeling madly at the shock of military-grade explosives.
He didn’t know how long it took him to come to his senses, but when he did he tore his sidearm from its holster and came out of the storefront like a man with a purpose. The explosion had thrown the mutant fifty feet away and bounced him off a car, stunning him long enough for the unrelenting and unholy fury to abate. Heckel and Jeckel were picking themselves up, having been unprepared for the blast, and Worm and Coppertop were trying to navigate the path of destruction towards them.
The mutant was on his knees, upright, looking around with a shellshocked and horrified expression. He was saying something as Erik marched right up and leveled the gun at the rager’s head. He looked up, pleadingly, saying something Erik couldn’t hear, his eye level with the pistol.
Erik pulled the trigger at point-blank range. He couldn’t risk the violence starting again. Had he realized someone was recording the whole, horrific event on camera, he’d have still pulled the trigger. It was only after the fact, when the Equalizer squad began to take stock and they made ready to bug out, that Erik realized he had just executed a teenager.
Erik regained most of his composure and marched back into the lecture hall and paused the video, freezing the grainy image of the rager kid staring up at a black-suited, black-masked killer, looking down the barrel of a pistol. The lights came on and the image was frozen behind him, stark, and cold. He’d frozen it before the close-up of the boy’s death could be shown.
“Does anyone feel any particular need to see this kid’s head blown off at point-blank?” He couldn’t help it. His voice carried his rage and disgust, mostly at himself, through to the assembled students. He also noted that many seats had been vacated somewhere during the showing of the footage.
No voices were raised. A few cocky faces were muttering to each other, but most of the room was white as sheets, many looked sick. More than a few faces showed fear. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the reality that you all need to learn quick, fast and in a hurry. You are not invulnerable, and the moment you get it into your heads that you are, that you cannot be stopped, and you decide to throw your weight around a little too much, or bite off more than you can chew…”
Erik looked around slowly. “…This cold, uncaring, and less civilized than you think world will kill you.”
Erik looked back at the image on the screen, and shook his head. “Class dismissed.”
He marched straight down to the other instructors, looked Gunny in the eye as he had four years previously. “Have someone cover my classes. I’ll be back on Monday.”
Bardue simply nodded. Five marines had died on liberty during Rager’s Night in Darwin, and most of the marines had been partying when the shitstorm had started. He couldn’t blame Erik for not wanting to relive one of the darkest days for the Marines overseas, even if he’d had no idea that Erik had actually been the one pulling the trigger. He didn’t need to know.
Cat found Erik in the expected state of affairs she was used to Saturday morning, passed out cold, in his little craphole he called an apartment, sprawled out on the couch with the TV quietly running a morning sitcom. It was always the same, and she knew she’d never quite get the beer and pizza nutcase she loved so much to appreciate the wine and roses of life. If nothing else it meant that he saved a lot of money, but sometimes it drove her nuts to see how spartan his existence was.
To be fair, he rarely came back to this little place, usually opting to join her at her small house she owned in Dunwich, or crashing out in the teacher cottages rather than take the hour and a half drive to and from the school. Usually he came here when something rattled him, when he needed peace and quiet to collect his thoughts and stress out madly where he wouldn’t do any damage. The only good sign was the notable lack of open booze containers that usually accompanied one of his retreats from life. However, he still snored like he had a diesel engine shoved up his nose.
“Damn, Miss McQuiston, I always wondered how Mahren kept up the rabid bit.” Zenith looked around with a smirk. “Now I know.”
Cat would have said something mildly reproachful if Erik’s eyes hadn’t snapped open, the chainsaw snoring stopped, and he spoke.
“Who dares speak my name without fear in her voice? And why are there children inside my personal sanctuary?”
“You promised a parkour run today.” Zenith gave Mahren the most glorious, winning smile she could.
Erik craned his neck and looked at the digital clock. “Yeah, in six hours. This does not explain why you are invading my space.”
Zenith gave her most sickening, saccharine-sweet smile. “Payback’s a bitch, old man.”
Erik groaned and got up, looking Cat square in the eyes. “You’re evil. You could have at least waited until I’d gotten a shower.”
“Where’s the fun in tormenting you if I wait until you’re ready?” Cat could do deadpan well, but the happy spark in her eyes gave her away. “The Hooligans are clustered outside, waiting for their fearless leader to take them to breakfast and a bit of sightseeing before the big jam today.”
“Great, feeding a pack of mutants on my dime. I see you’re trying to bankrupt me so I have to default on my lease and move in with you early again.”
“Damn right!” Cat grinned. “Go, you smell. Cleanse yourself, and when you’re done today, you’re mine.”
“Deal.” Erik moved into the bedroom, which thankfully held the bathroom inside, and locked the door.
“I’m surprised he didn’t drag you in there.” Zenith smirked.
“Not with you lot here he won’t. And I’ll thank you to not speculate on things like that.”
Zenith shrugged. “So how long is he going to take?”
“Less than fifteen minutes. Be ready to roll shortly.”
“Okay, I’ll let the others know.” She looked around. “Damn, for all the act he puts on at school I would have expected something more... palatial.”
“Erik’s never been one for fancy. Go. And tell Breaker the seating rules for newbies apply, whether he likes it or not.”
Zenith chuckled as she walked out. She knew Breaker wouldn’t like it, but Mahren was weird about certain things.
“Breaker get your skinny ass into the back seat where you belong.” Erik plopped into the driver’s seat of the school car without warning or ceremony. “Aquerna, up front. I’ll explain what’s up while we drive, after your first run you get to fight Breaker over who’s stuck in the cheap seats.”
“No he doesn’t,” Zenith offered from the back seat, cheerfully.
“Quiet, heathen junior.” Breaker gave Zenith a mock-glare while Thrasher and Slapdash snickered at him.
“Whipped.” Slappy always loved needling his buddy.
“By girls he’s not dating no less,” Thrasher intoned helpfully.
“Silence from the peanut gallery.”
“Silence? There is no silence, only Zuul!”
“Slapdash, when we get back to Whateley...”
“Come on Breaker, relax man. It’s all easy from here.”
“Easy for you to say, Thrasher, you’re not jammed up in the back seat here.”
“Not my fault you decided to get white-boy big with an Asian body.”
Erik rolled his eyes as Breaker flicked the back of Thrasher’s head, eliciting many chuckles from the Bad Seed Skater punk.
Thrasher turned his attention from the senior in back to the teacher in front. “Dude, it always mystifies me that you can actually figure out normal clothes. I thought you’d eventually meld with the camouflage.”
“And I always thought you’d become one with a concrete wall by now on that skateboard of yours, boy.” Erik chuckled. The day of the Demon-Teacher was over, and Erik surprised Aquerna mightily by showing absolutely no sign of the eternal bad humor she’d come to associate with him in the limited amount of time she’d known him. He was even wearing jeans! Combined with the leather jacket, a Wiley Coyote t-shirt - of said character standing about two feet off the edge of a cliff holding a sign up reading “HELP!” - completed the odd image.
“Yo teach, I think we should fill in the newbie on how this works, she’s looking a bit shellshocked.”
“Yeah, yeah, Slapdash, I was getting to that.” Erik pulled out onto the main road and gunned the engine, hitting the speed limit and coasting toward the Highway. “There’s also a new angle here, one I wasn’t intending to inflict on you all, but I double-booked without realizing it.”
Erik looked around, and clicked on the radar detector under the dashboard. That little piece of illegal hardware was well-concealed, and he revved the car up to its top speed of seventy as he spoke. “Anna, right?”
The wide-eyed girl nodded, watching the road and the instructor, almost simultaneously.
“Here’s what you just got into. Whenever you’re running Parkour with us, you’re a Parkour Hooligan. There are no Grunts, no crazy Poesies, no Bad Seeds, and no Underdogs when we run. Parkour is something I expect you to learn at your pace, at your own comfort level. This isn’t training for school, this is time to cut loose and have fun.” Anna nodded slowly, digesting that information. “If anyone screws with you while you are running parkour, their ass belongs to me. I don’t put up with people screwing with my runners any more than I put up with people being morons at school. I don’t care if it’s some jackass off the street giving you shit, an H1 brat pack, or another student on a Boston pass. This is your time to shine for yourself, and anyone who interferes will be drop-kicked without mercy.”
“The man is serious,” Thrasher cut in, “the local Parkour crew we’re going to run with know us and they know Teach here. Believe it or not they think it’s awesome that he drags students out to play the runner game, even if they know why none of us try to compete, even one-on-one.”
Erik nodded. “Most of the Parkour runners in Boston are well aware that any kids I run with aren’t baseline, and they run the gamut from Laborers, Martial arts instructors, to a couple city cops. However, that being said, I do recommend discretion. They don’t need to know about Whateley, nor do they need to know your real names. Your codenames won’t stand out because everyone runs with a nickname anyway. You don’t need to talk about anything to anyone that you do not feel comfortable with. If anyone harasses you, including a cop, or an MCO chump with too much time on his hands, you make sure you get my attention.”
Anna nodded, starting to relax. “So are we going to run with the crowd then?”
“Only for a bit.” Erik swerved and gently guided the car around a slow-moving truck. “After an hour or two, we’ll peel off and go do our own thing. Not a damn person I know can match your stamina, and I guarantee you bunch can run harder, faster and longer than even the master traceurs who make it look easy.”
“I’m not that...”
“Stop. No self-deprecation.” Zenith gently poked her in the back of the head. “Just because you’re an Underdog doesn’t mean you can’t hang with the big kids. Mahren there is a baseline, and the only one who can come even close to keeping up with him on a Parkour run all out is Breaker. On flat ground every single one of us can outrun him, but this isn’t the junior high gym class.”
“Nope,” Thrasher cut in himself, “this is full body. Coordination, reaction, and the ability to see a good run path is the thing here. Breaker and Zee there can outpower any of us, and leave us in the dust on a normal dig, but you start getting into different types of terrain then each of us has our preferred ground. Me, I’m like Teach, here. I like rooftop and alley runs, Zee there is sort of a ‘wherever, whenever’ runner, and Breaker and Slappy here like crowded streets.”
Anna blinked. “Okay...”
Erik cut back in. “Alright, back to my double-booking issues. A bunch of my buddies like to get together for a run about every six months, and I screwed up and got ‘em in Boston on the same day as you. They’re good guys, for a bunch of unruly assholes who served in the marines.”
“Why do I feel a ‘but’ coming on here?” Anna was actually curious.
“But,” Erik continued, “one of my old buddies has all of the moral fiber of a pile of dogshit. His name is Jerry, and his nickname is Prison Bitch for a reason. I give you permission now to break his arms if he makes unwanted or inappropriate comments or advances in your direction. Once you’re done, tell me and I’ll explain to him, in depth, how I expect him to treat you all.”
Anna did not ask Erik to elaborate. She got the impression that whatever he’d do to his buddy might not be something she wanted to know.
The rest of the trip continued, with the kids joking around, with Erik occasionally joining in. He only had to slow down to the legal limit twice for cops.
“Goddamn, look at all the Parkour chicks!” Jerry Mendez, AKA Prison Bitch, eyed the crowd. The Hispanic name didn’t really fit his terminally Caucasian face, nor did the scowls his buddies gave him seem to register.
“And none of them want you.” Worm looked at the old team’s problem child warily. “And aren’t you supposed to be on house arrest right now?”
“Hey, those ankle bracelets are easy. They’ll never know I was gone.”
“You really are a retard, you know that?” Martin Rockham, or God’s Messenger to his buddies, was furiously texting on a cellphone.
Lieutenant Dom, unfortunately named in honor of a famous Gump-ism, ignored the peanut gallery while he tried to beat the mercilessly cheating Heckel and Jeckel. He knew full well that the two of them could see through each others’ eyes. That still didn’t stop him from trying to beat them at poker.
“Hey Worm, when’s butthead supposed to get here?” Jeckel didn’t even look up from his cards.
“How the fuck should I know? You know how Erik operates better than I do.”
“Deal me in.” Prison Bitch sat down at the small table, only to receive a three-man chorus of “fuck off” and “no fucking way you cheating fuck.”
“Bitch, can you stop trying to be annoying for ten fucking minutes?”
“Hell no Worm, I’d shrivel and die if I did that!”
“Promise?” Lieutenant Cameron Dominguez, and actual Hispanic man, gazed at the frequent offender hopefully.
Worm watched the small crowd warily. He’d already spotted two likely cops in the crowd, and they were both carrying. Some of the others he dismissed as normal berks with some talent. The kid he was watching hardest was a tall Asian kid with too much good looks, who seemed to move like suppressed, greased lightning. He was scanning the crowd like he had a purpose. “Possible trouble over there. Heckel, that guy look like an Exemplar to you?”
The blonde twin nodded. “We’re already tracking two more moving south. Skater kid and a girl who are looking for something.”
“Trouble?” Messenger looked up.
“Doubt it.” Jeckel glanced over. “They aren’t acting like they’re looking for trouble. Check out the girl with the blonde shag. Twenty bucks says we’re looking at a couple Whateley kids.”
“How can you tell?”
“The redheaded space cadet staring wistfully at the electronics store has a Grunts pin on his shirt.”
Worm looked over. “Grunts pin?”
Heckel grinned. “Whateley JROTC kid. They’re called Grunts because the lot of them have a military mad-on.”
“Poor deluded suckers.”
“Yup, they’re Whateley kids.” Jeckel nodded to himself as he laid down yet another full house, eliciting curses from Lieutenant Dom while his brother grinned evilly.
“How can you tell?” Prison Bitch’s eyes were locked onto Zenith, tracking her.
“Because the Asian kid took one look at you and waved Hijacker over.”
All six of the men scattered about their little area looked over to see the only buzzcut any of them still sported walking toward them with a purpose, the kids converging around him, except for the boy who was still looking at the electronics in the store window.
Heckel chuckled and pointed. “Devisor.”
Worm shouted at Mahren with a big grin, “I thought I smelled something nasty coming my way!”
“I told you not to stand so close to Prison Bitch,” came the return shout.
Erik came in close to his buddies from the corps, exchanged greetings, shook hands and pounded fists as the seven lunatics came together.
“I see you still haven’t learned better than to play cards with the twins.” Erik grinned as he and Lieutenant Dom clasped hands.
“And you still haven’t done anything to improve your looks.”
“You’re just jealous that I’m sexier than you.”
“Maybe to a blind woman.”
Worm looked over to the four kids lurking nearby, and the one who had belatedly realized that they’d wandered off and was now running towards them. The kid was fast. “So who are the kids?”
Erik looked back at his students and gave a proud grin. “These are my Parkour Hooligans. Bitch, get your eyes off before I gouge them out.” His cheery demeanor disappeared and reappeared as he scowled at the team’s criminally-minded sniper.
Prison Bitch caught the hint in stereo and jerked his eyes off of Zenith rapidly. Buddy or not, if he made a move in the direction of anyone Erik identified as a kid, his life expectancy would be measured in nanoseconds. Erik had already beaten him within an inch of his life once for making Cat uncomfortable, for which he was thankful when he realized that the cute blonde could have incinerated him where he stood in less time than it would take for a bug to fart.
Zenith, on her part, gave the weaselly-looking man a scowl that could have melted concrete, if he’d been paying attention to it. Anna was watching him warily, and put on her fingerless gloves, displaying her rock-hard fingernails that doubled as claws when she needed them to. Erik nodded to the girls once, confirming that this was the guy they had been warned about.
Heckel and Jeckel stood up and gave nods to the kids. Worm just smirked, and began sizing the children up. “You all going to be running with us today?”
“That’s the plan.” Slapdash looked somewhat distracted trying to figure out what model of cell phone Messenger was poking at.
Erik tapped his wayward Grunt on the shoulder. “Parkour now, nerd-out later.”
Erik looked between the two groups. “Alright, Parkour Hooligans, this is the batch of nutbars I worked with in the Corps before I came to Whateley.”
He pointed to the short, skinny black man who was wearing a pair of jeans and yet another Wiley Coyote shirt with said coyote pressed under a falling anvil. “This is Worm, the guy leading this merry band of refugees from the insane asylum.”
Worm grinned at the kids and smirked. “Good to meet you. I’ll try to restrain myself from giving you all too much blackmail materiel on Mahren here.”
“And me without my notepad…” Zenith smiled winningly as Erik mock-scowled.
“That guy with the cell phone is God’s Messenger, so named because he was the guy calling artillery on our heads whenever we were in the field.”
“Hey I only called danger-stupid once.” Messenger looked at the kids. “Don’t believe anything he tells you. We’re all saner and better looking than he is.”
Aquerna started snickering as Erik continued the introductions. “Lieutenant Dom,” he used his best Forrest Gump voice do to the introduction while the former officer in question gave him the finger, “was an officer, but don’t let that fool you, he’s good people.”
“Bite me, Hijacker.”
Erik looked hurt. “You wound me Sir, I thought I was worthy of more creativity than that!”
“Why? It’s not like you’re smart enough to carry on a conversation involving more than single-syllable words.”
Erik chuckled and pointed at the only man he’d ever met who looked more like a walking weasel than Steve Buscemi or Jobe Wilkins. “Prison Bitch is our sniper type. Don’t give him money, and feel free to kill him if he annoys you.”
“Hey Hijacker, has that giant lump of coal shoved up your ass turned into a diamond yet?”
“So that’s where that Hope diamond wannabe in the Homer Gallery came from.” Breaker grinned as Mahren gave him the gimlet eye.
“Can it you, or you’re gonna be as strong as Stormwolf when I’m done grinding you into the dirt.”
“Much love, teach.”
Erik rolled his eyes and pointed at the last two reprobates. “The twins are Heckel and Jeckel. Don’t bother trying to figure out which is which until you get used to the stink coming off each one.”
“Look who’s talking, oh three-showers-a-day stankbomb.”
“Heckel, when you learn to change your underwear more than once a month you can comment.”
“I’m Jeckel, he’s Heckel.”
“Bullshit, I can smell that cheap-ass cologne you used to sucker Audrey into thinking you were classy from here.”
The twins gave each other an odd look and nodded once. “So which of this lot are Underdogs? I know one of you has to be.”
Anna gave a bit of a start. “You know about the Underdogs?”
“Hell ya,” Heckel grinned, “for four years me and Jeckel were the prank kings of Twain hall.”
Jeckel nodded. “And we were in the JROTC course back when Carson was still the English department head.”
Erik looked at Breaker and Slapdash apologetically. “Fortunately the quality of the Grunts went up after these two left the school. Underdogs too.”
Slapdash grinned. “I would hope so. You all look like poster children for the terminally weird.”
Amid the protests, Mahren finally got everyone’s attention. “All right, gents, the smartass is Slapdash, and he lives up to his name.”
“Hey, my stuff works,” he thought, then amended with “usually.”
“Shaggy back there goes by Zenith.”
“Shaggy?” Zenith’s voice got a dangerous edge. “Shaggy?”
“Beware, for she’s the one most likely to kill me and bury me in a cuisinart on this run.”
“Oh no, old man, there are FAR worse things than death.”
“The tall guy who’s trying not to bust up laughing there is Breaker.” Erik stage-whispered, “he’s not that smart.”
“Smart enough to know I can take you in a wrestling match!”
“Gotta catch me first, beanpole.”
Erik looked at Thrasher. “That’s Thrasher. What can I say? Dresses like a punk, hair like a hippie.”
Thrasher grinned at Erik and immediately affected the glazed, stoned hippie look.
“And this brings me to my last student, who only joined against her will a couple days ago, Aquerna.” Erik smirked at the abruptly shy girl.
“Yup, she’s one of my Underdogs.” Heckel gave Aquerna a nod.
Jeckel reached into his pocket and pulled a key off a chain, tossing it to Anna. “Whitman Hall or Twain, use that on the Elevator and you’ll find the Underdog Sanctuary.”
“I’d forgotten you told me about that what, back in ’98?” Mahren mused.
“How about Boot Camp you tundra-stalking escapee from Santa’s sweat-shop.”
“Kilo Mike Alfa, Jackass.”
“Watch it or I’ll tell them about the pictures of the girl who got away in High School.”
All five kids suddenly looked interested. Thrasher was disbelieving. “Woah, you mean to tell me this guy actually discovered the opposite sex before he became a raging…”
“Watch it boyo.”
“Come on, teach, how can we get a proper education if we don’t listen to all the juicy tales of the previous generation?”
Erik shrugged. “Not much to tell. I dated a mutant my junior and senior years.”
All five kids blinked. “How’d you figure out she was a mutant?” Thrasher looked curious.
Erik grinned. “Let’s just say that mid-range GSD bothers me very little.”
Zenith had to ask. “So where is she?”
“Not a clue. Probably for the best I don’t poke. Cat might kill me.” Erik simply didn’t say that he didn’t want to know. That memory still hurt, even after a decade to calm down. “Alright, enough reminiscing, let’s join the crowd, and kids?”
The five students looked at him innocently. In Anna’s case the look WAS innocent.
“Do not sign up for the competition challenges.”
“Damn, I was hoping he’d forget.” Zenith pretended to be disappointed.
“Not after the first time.”
“What happened the first time?” Worm was grinning.
“She ripped a fire escape off the wall she was climbing not paying attention.” Erik looked at the unapologetic girl, “In front of half the runners and a few cameras.”
“So Mahren, you let them talk shit to you when you’re teaching like they’re doing today?” Prison Bitch grinned, needling Erik and missing five pairs of eyes going wide, heads shaking.
“Yo, Mister Mahren’s cool and all,” Thrasher said carefully, “but if he’s on his teaching game and someone smarts off, the whole class tries to write their last will and testament in the three microseconds it takes him to go nuclear.”
Breaker nodded. “I won’t screw off in class if he’s teaching. One, it’s disrespectful, and me and Deadeye learned that lesson the hard way our frosh years. Two, people who piss him off get booted out of class quick. The lessons he and the other instructors teach have saved lives.”
Zenith nodded. “That, and this isn’t classwork. We all do this for fun.”
Erik smirked wryly. “It helps when I have a couple kids who are smart enough to learn when and where it’s appropriate.” He gave Aquerna a meaningful look. “All right, stretch out Hooligans, the runs begin sometime in the next half hour.”
Heckel sidled up to Erik quietly as the pack of exemplars and one avatar started loosening up. “Good batch of students you got there.”
Erik nodded slightly and spoke quietly. “Yeah. I just hope I can do right by them.”
“You’re doing fine.”
Blood thundered in Erik’s head as he bolted across the Boston roofscape. This wasn’t a competition, but that didn’t stop him from going balls-out to maintain that sliver of an edge he was holding on Worm. He hadn’t needed to worry about Aquerna keeping up. The little lady was fast, and was able to use a few types of body movement that one could never mimic without being the host of an animal spirit that ran on all fours.
The sound of the wind howling and feet thundering on concrete surrounded him, as the two marines led the pack on a wildman chase through the cityscape, eyes searching for safe paths and the markers that indicated where the next leg of the run would take them. He’d already heard epithets from everyone, including the kids, as the pair set a breakneck pace through the concrete jungle, ignoring, or using, any obstacle that came into their path.
Erik didn’t even think as he hit the ledge of the roof he was on and leapt for the sky, coming down hard on concrete and gravel of the roof adjacent and two stories down. Worm rolled beside him as the two came up sprinting. Several crashes were heard as the leaders of the pack of regular baseline runners, as well as all five of his kids hit the deck shortly thereafter. He slid under a pipe while Worm vaulted it before diving off the roof and hooking the fire escape in a cat-catch. He jumped back and spun, catching the fire escape on the opposite side, bounding down to the ground and hauling ass full-tilt towards the wall-mural of Wiley Coyote, the local Parkour mascot face-planted into the wall.
Two crashes sounded out as Zenith and Breaker took the expedient of simply dropping the eight stories and coming up running. For a brief moment they caught, then outpaced the two baseline lunatics, hitting straight running speeds that normally required horses or slow-moving traffic to reach. Thrasher was right behind them, Erik could recognize the boy’s rhythmic breathing pattern from a ways off. Slapdash’s hard footfalls could be heard clearly, as he was the only person doing the run wearing heavy combat boots.
Aquerna vaulted a dumpster just behind them and sailed a good thirty feet before landing palms-first and using her hands to get her feet under her, all at a dead sprint. The girl was breathing hard, trying to keep going but not used to the exertion of even ten minutes of hard running. Erik did a light backhanded swat at Worm and pointed at Thrasher. The skinny man nodded and dropped back to pace the Bad Seed and keep an eye as Erik sprinted forward to pace Aquerna.
A light tap got her attention, and Erik slowed down to a jog. “Take it down a notch kid.” He forced his breathing down a notch, to keep from hyperventilating himself as the girl nodded gratefully. Worm and Thrasher blew past the two of them, rapidly followed by Slapdash and the fastest of the normal runners.
One of the other runners, a man in his early thirties, slowed down to pace them as well. “Everything okay?”
Erik nodded, “Yeah Niks, just working with a new student. She needs to learn to pace herself.”
“Alright, holler if you need help.” The man turned to Aquerna. “Good running little lady, just don’t try to overdo it, alright?”
Aquerna nodded, still trying to gulp down air.
“All right kid, walk, quick pace, put your hands on your head, and try to take deep breaths.” Erik put action to words as the newest Hooligan slowed to match him.
“How do you all go for so long?” The question came raggedly once she stopped trying to kill herself trying to breathe.
Erik smirked. “It’s a trick. You have to find a good run speed, and pace yourself. You’re trying to do everything at once. I know you’re excited, but you do need to start with the basics and stick to them. Build yourself up so that when you do the crazy stunts it doesn’t take the wind out of you.”
Anna nodded, “I wish I could go like Breaker or Zenith. They make it look so easy!”
“Oh no, you’re actually in a better position. You don’t feel invulnerable. Zenith and Breaker learned the hard way when the teacher says stop, they need to stop. Even Exemplar 5’s cramp up hard, and wind themselves. It’s harder, but it happens.”
Aquerna nodded. “How long?”
Erik thought back. “Breaker lasted fifteen minutes the first time.” He chuckled as Anna’s eyes went wide. “Exemplar 5 strong doesn’t mean you know how to use that strength properly. It’s why there’s two different measuring sticks for Exemplars, one before puberty, and one after.”
Erik chuckled and led her over a ways and explained. “Look, when you’re an Exemplar at fourteen or fifteen you may be able to outpower, out-tough and out-speed any normal adult, but you still don’t have the whole development thing done. Bones are still softer, you’re still growing, and you really only know the bare-bones basics of how to use what strength you have.”
“I’m an Avatar, not an Exemplar though.”
“Doesn’t matter, same principle applies.” Erik pointed at Slapdash in the distance. “Slappy there is rated Exemplar 3, and he can deadlift about eight hundred pounds. That’s whole-body lifting. Once his bones fully harden he’ll actually hit that point where EX-3’s are at superhuman levels. The docs won’t be measuring his deadlift, he’ll be bench-pressing those eight-hundred pounds. Zenith and Breaker can both send a car into cartwheels, but they both started only being able to flip ‘em over on their side.
“So to be considered an Exemplar 5 as a kid you have to be able to lift a ton, but you gotta be able to bench-press the same as an adult?”
“Yep, it’s a bit more involved, but that’s the quick and dirty.” Erik looked over. “You, from what I’m seeing are very likely to be a daredevil type around your junior year, once you’ve hit past sixteen.”
“My powers aren’t that impressive.”
“Fuck that, it’s not how high a rating on your powers that decides what you can do, it’s what you can do with what you have that determines how powerful you are.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Look at it this way, I’m a baseline, and I have thumped the snot out of every single little turd who has come on my ranges throwing his weight around. I don’t have delusions of indestructibility to cloud my thinking. My buddies Heckel and Jeckel out there? Exemplar 1’s, both of them, and I have seen them drop-kick PK-bricks and blasters as a duo during training when we were in the Marines together.”
Anna looked thoughtful. “So how do I learn to do stuff like that?”
“You don’t need to. It comes with experience, but I can show you a few rotten tricks, and so can Ito and Anderson.” Erik grinned. “Besides, you Underdogs haven’t figured out the true meaning of your greatest advantage. Nine times out of ten you outnumber the bullies fucking with you five-to-one.”
“Fat lot of good when that bully can blow up a truck.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I think I’m good now.”
“All right, let’s start running again, I’ll set the pace, you keep up. Let’s find a good comfort zone for you to learn in.”
Anna nodded as the Range bastard began to slowly pick up the speed, concentrating on pacing herself.
Thrasher caught his breath on the rooftop that Zenith and Breaker had stopped on. His heart was pounding, he was trying to keep his breathing under control, but he felt good. He knew he needed a rest, but wanted to keep going. The two mighty Exemplar 5’s were watching the main pack deviate towards the industrial area, just relaxing. He grinned as he realized it was time to break away from the main group and have that blessed time when Teach took the lot of them to a place where they could all go no-shit balls-out with powers.
He turned to see Slapdash scramble up the ledge, followed by the five faces who hadn’t been pacing him. Worm was standing nearby, grinning and looking around.
“Damn, this has got to be one of the best runs ever.” The leader of Mahren’s pack of loose-nut buddies shook his head. “You kids got no idea just how good it is to get out and cut loose.”
Zenith looked back at him. “You haven’t seen anything yet. Once Teach gets here we’re going to get lunch and then it’s off to find a spot where we can really open up.”
“You’re shitting me.”
Thrasher grinned at the man. “You know Mahren, so you know about Whateley, we get to play full-throttle, powers and all.”
“This I gotta see.”
Jeckel looked out as he caught his breath. “Dude, Pearson’s little bitch boys got nothing on Whateley kids when they want to open up.”
Lieutenant Dom chuckled. “We’ll wait here with you till Hijacker shows up.”
“How’d Teach wind up being called Hijacker?” Slapdash looked at the Hispanic man intently.
Prison Bitch cut in. “Because I’ve yet to see a piece of equipment that man could not steal and turn to his own use. Motherfucker stole a ZSU once and...”
“Bitch, SHUT IT!” Worm barked at his erstwhile compatriot. “They do not need to hear that story!”
“No shit, fucktard, zip it.” God’s Messenger backhanded Prison Bitch upside the head.
The five pairs of eyes were watching the little byplay with deep, abiding interest, and Worm sighed. “Look, don’t mean to get you kids worked up, but there’s some stories we can’t tell. I will say that yes, Hijacker can pretty much figure anything out if he gets his claws hooked into it. When we’re feeling rotten we occasionally call him the mechanical idiot-savant, emphasis on idiot, of course.”
Thrasher chuckled. “Look man, it’s all cool. We all know Teach has some things he don’t like talking about. Hell, it’s not like we all don’t have things we’d rather not have dragged into the open.”
Heckel looked at Thrasher, carefully. “You look familiar. Your dad go to Whateley?”
Thrasher smirked wryly. “Yeah, Dad’s kinda got a rep.”
“Mach-5,” Jeckel guessed.
“How did you know?” Thrasher asked very carefully, as all six pairs of adult eyes locked onto him abruptly, like they were sizing him up.
“You look like him, except you’re a bit more skater punk than he is.”
“I don’t know what’s creepier, that you all know dad, or the fact that none of you are getting weird about it.”
Messenger snorted. “Why would we get to comment on your dad when we hang out with Fucktard McLarceny here?” He jerked a thumb at Bitch.
“Watch it Radar.”
“Damn, you guys sound like some of the groups at Whateley,” Breaker smirked at the cranky batch of weirdos they seemed to have picked up.
Zenith changed the subject. “So do you all have stories you can share about how you got your codenames?”
Worm chuckled. “Heckel and Jeckel over there got their nicks from Mahren. He basically decided they were like the two cartoon crows, only more obnoxious. Neither one of ‘em can spell it correctly though.”
“Who asked you?” Heckel grinned as he lived up to the name. “You’re easy, you just run around in circles till something interesting bites you, Worm.”
“Too bad the cute chickas never bit huh?” Jeckel put in.
Worm smiled and gave the twins the finger. “God’s Messenger got his when he called in an arty strike on our position once, and told us God said no.” He made a fist and popped it open. “Boom.”
“Yeah, asshole I couldn’t hear shit for a week after that shit!”
“Wait, live artillery?” Breaker looked incredulous.
“How did that one go?” Worm did an impression of his buddy, panicked. “M-SOC, Echo-Three-Romeo, call for fire. Fire mission Danger-Stupid! Lock my coordinates and fire for effect!”
“I did not sound like that!”
Jeckel leaned over to Thrasher and stage-whispered, “Yes he did. He shit his pants too, it was fucking motivating.”
Thrasher busted out laughing while Messenger glared. “Oh man, you guys are priceless.”
“We aim to please.” Worm pointed at the lone officer. “Lew-teynant Dahm, there, well his story’s simple.”
“Bastards decided to play Forrest Gump on me.” He pretended to glare, “Do I look like some inbred hick with a lukewarm IQ?”
Heckel opened his mouth and Dom pointed. “Silence from the peanut gallery!”
Zenith gave Bitch the Evil Eye. “Lemme guess, you found him at the pound with the other dogs and made the mistake of showing mercy?”
Worm looked at the teenage girl. “Yup. Bitch, you’re fired, we just replaced you. Congratulations, young lady, welcome to the Holy Order of the Bladed Tongue.”
“Fuck you, Worm!”
Zenith just laughed. “Does this mean I can throw him off the roof now?”
“Sure, but he’ll just bounce back up here. Hijacker tried that already.”
Slapdash and Breaker simply watched, amused at the banter, which was so much like the shit that flew at the unofficially-named Range 6. The Grunts’ hang-out bunker was a frequent location for cussing and testing out their latest character assassination tactics.
A loud clank and some scrambling noises announced the arrival of Aquerna and Mahren as they hauled themselves onto the roof and ran to within three feet of the crowd before stopping dead. Erik was sweating, and the girl was breathing hard. Erik stopped her from doing the instinctive bend-forward to try and breathe, and had the girl put her hands on her head again.
“Erik, you’re slow!” Worm grinned as Mahren just smirked.
“Worm, the party has just started.”
He wasn’t lying.
The kids flowed for the most part. Anna stayed close to Erik, watching mystified as Zenith and Thrasher played a high-speed version of tag in an abandoned portion of the Boston industrial center slated for demolition and renovation. She rarely saw the Exemplar kids really cut loose, but the raw leaps the Exemplar 5 girl performed rivaled her own jumps for sheer distance and power, while Thrasher used frictionless force planes to ramp up his own speed to near-suicidal levels.
Breaker and Slapdash were playing a much less seemingly friendly game, and Mahren’s buddies orbited the two like demented moons, trying to get a better view as the two boys actually went toe-to-toe hand-to-hand whenever they got close. It wasn’t safe to get close either, as the Devisor boy with the flaming red hair erupted in a corona of electrical energy periodically whenever Breaker’s running threatened to overwhelm him. Breaker in turn abused his own point-blank shockwave power to send the younger Grunt into a flying spin on occasion. Glass shattered, steel twisted, and concrete exploded in the boys’ wake.
“Won’t we get in trouble when the cops show up?” Anna was worried about close encounters of the MCO kind.
“Nope.” Erik watched the hijinx like a wolf watching the pups play, from a building high above the chaos. “This area’s actually been leased out to Whateley for Winter Term demolition. We’ll have classes coming out to learn how to drop buildings commercially and navigate dangerous areas, here after Christmas.”
“Cool!” Anna grinned.
“Anna get to it, go play with Zenith and Thrash. I can see you’re getting antsy.” Erik had been watching her like a hawk, teaching her the basics of setting up a good pace that wouldn’t leave her gasping for air.
The girl darted off, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, making a beeline for the others, leaving Erik to watch the chaos. Breaker and Slapdash’s antics were shattering a warehouse office, and sure enough as his old marine buddies dove for cover, the concrete wall nearby sloughed off like dead skin, crashing to the street below. He could see Prison Bitch trying to pace Breaker, bolting along ledges, and running along the wall for short spurts to keep the havoc in sight.
Zenith and Thrasher were both in freefall when Erik looked over, the shaggy blonde simply falling gracefully ten stories, absorbing the shock with her legs to pop up and meet Anna as Thrasher did an odd, side-spinning fall, grasping something invisible like he was doing a stunt on a skateboard the whole way down. The poor squirrel-avatar was practically vibrating with excitement as she popped Thrasher on the shoulder, howling “TAG! YOU’RE IT!”
The chaos continued and one by one, Erik’s buddies, worn out from running, hauled themselves up to his vantage point to watch. Jeckel shook his head. “Damn the kids are getting stronger and stronger each year.”
Erik nodded. “The current crop we have at Whateley, just in six years we’ve tripled the number of Five-Class mutants in all of the categories. It’s getting to the point rapidly where the twos and threes will be the underdogs in the future.”
Heckel nodded. “Well, not that fast, but yeah I can see where you’re going. But really, is it triple the number of high-range kids, or triple the number of kids?”
Erik stopped and thought for a moment. “Fuck all, you’re right. My first year we only had two hundred.”
Worm shook his head, watching the Hooligans group up and start a odd running, sparring, taunting race to God only knew where. “These kids man, scary shit. I dunno how you managed to find responsible ones, but damn, you got some good kids.”
Erik grinned. “Believe it or not, this lot doesn’t have the hero/villain obsession. Maybe Aquerna, but she’s just a frosh. I’ve noticed we’ve been getting more and more who just don’t give a shit about Spider-man morality and just want to get on with normal lives.”
“Great power and great responsibility my ass.” Lieutenant Dom looked at the runners. “Too much shit to stick onto a kid anyway.”
Erik nodded. “Honestly, I like hearing about the kids who succeed on their own, living real lives, who never see a shot fired in anger. No heroes, no villains, just jobs, lives, husbands and wives.”
“Does Cat know she’s marrying a disgustingly sentimental chump?” Bitch grinned as Erik’s fist missed his face by millimeters.
“Bitch, I swear to Christ I will…” Erik stopped as a flash of golden fire erupted from a figure barely seen against the darkening sky. The Minuteman costume and the bulls-eye lantern were distinct, as were the screams of panic from the kids as the light exploded under Aquerna. Breaker caught the girl mid-fall, and the roar of outrage from the other three could be heard clearly.
“Holy fuck! The kids are under attack!” Worm’s shock was evident on his face as he looked around for Erik. He saw that the teacher and the two Whateley Alumni were already at the edge of the roof at a dead run, diving for ways to get to the opening battle.
He was the Lamplighter, the champion-patriot who had defended the city since angry colonists had decided that tea offended them, and had done something about it. Boston was his home ground, and he guarded it like it was his last, gasping breath in this world. He protected its citizenry from those who would oppress and terrorize them. Criminals of all stripe were called to task by his hand, and he savored each time he made the city safer, even if lesser men decried his methods as too violent. Times had changed, but the Lamplighter had not.
The sound of explosive concussions had brought him to the industrial areas, seeking the source of the sound. The area was slated for demolition, and it was entirely possible that the work had begun, but he felt the need to check. If it wasn’t a demolition crew, he was surely not going to allow some idiot to tear holes in his city.
His patrol was what he did at night, ensuring that the city slept soundly, even as he maintained his shop during the day, selling memorabilia of a time when it was understood that freedom came at a high price. Tonight, he had a rare one. Kids, all mutants, playing with powers and little comprehending the dangers involved. The play he could ignore, were it not for the destruction in their wake, punctuated by electrical scorch marks, shattered stone, and handholds dug by too-strong fingers.
The five kids were running around throwing their abilities at each other like it was a merry game at someone’s birthday party. As he tracked the lead one, he mused that they would wind up thinking twice before tearing up the landscape in his city. A few bruises, a knockout, and maybe a busted arm were the Lamplighter’s hallmark on criminals or destructive elements in the city. He was the hero. He wouldn’t bring himself to severely harming even a murderer, unless it couldn’t be avoided. But the destructive play had to stop.
Thrasher was right behind Aquerna, when the energy blast went off just under her as she landed her latest jump. The girl was thrown bodily outward, over the edge and began plummeting towards the hard ground below, limply. He caught a flicker of motion as Breaker dove off the roof after the girl, catching her and twisting so it was his back impacting with the concrete while shielding her unconscious form.
“ZEE, AIRBALL!” Thrasher screamed as he leapt skyward, forming a plane of force under his feet and crouching.
Zenith bounded underneath him, crouched, and slammed her fist upward into the plane with enough energy to kick an engine out of a moving car. Thrasher leapt from the plane as he slowed, coming even with the surprised, so-called “hero”.
“Ground floor, ass whupping and payback department! GOING DOWN!” Thrasher punctuated the last, howling words by focusing his force PK constructs down, and released that focus just above the Lamplighter’s head. The resulting directed shockwave sent the surprised minuteman to the roof below so hard that he crashed through the top two floors.
The normally laid-back sk8r punk of the Bad Seeds didn’t hold with the stress of life. He couldn’t comprehend the driving need of people to compound their lives with more stupidity and mental anguish, so he played, he played hard, and he never looked back. Never had he entertained following his father into the super-criminal lifestyle, but that didn’t alter his sense of how things should be. So the boy whose hands were usually cited as mere threats to decorum, uncovered skin, and the power of virginity, sheathed his palms in invisible energy, less than paper thin and perfectly capable of shearing through titanium steel.
Zenith watched Thrasher drop straight into the hole Lampy had made, and immediately the sounds of combat erupted below. Thrasher was screaming “You don’t treat women like that!”
She dove in after, joined by the bulky Grunt devisor as the two charged straight through the corridors of the building, seeking to join their compatriot and smash that stupid spandex-wearing asshole into a pulp.
Prison Bitch caught the next kid to fall as Thrasher exploded through a window, backwards, arm dislocated and the wind knocked out of him. The larcenous marine simply reacted and caught the boy by the wrist through sheer stupid luck. He ignored the scream and Heckel and Jeckel began helping lower the injured Bad Seed to the ground.
“Motherfucker is hurting my kids!” Erik was about on the verge of going insane knowing his students were fighting someone who was completely out of their league.
Thrasher was set next to Aquerna, Breaker trying to make sure they wouldn’t be hurt more when Lamplighter followed Thrasher’s path, slamming into a brick wall. No one bothered to slow his fall or do anything, as Slapdash rode him to the ground screaming profanity and arcing with his electro-webs while the hero spasmed and shook. All the way to the street.
Lamplighter kicked Slapdash off after they hit, slamming the boy into a wall. The redheaded Grunt was in the throes of a full-out ‘drick parade, unable to stop but - rare among devisors - fully capable of functioning in a fight.
The two crashed together, Slappy having pulled some sort of baton from his clothing that shocked the so-called hero every time it struck, while blasting Lamplighter in the face. Lamplighter was feeling it, and his costume was slashed up in multiple places, with thin traces of blood where Thrasher’s PK blades had gone right through his defenses like a vibroblade.
Zenith and Breaker got ready to jump in if Slapdash calmed down, but he showed no signs of it.
Erik reached to his side and grabbed a fist full of Prison Bitch’s shirt, pulling the man in close. “Take the lamp, Bitch, got it? Your purpose in life is now theft.”
Bitch nodded as Worm and Mahren began marching forward, and the other marines fell in step behind them. The all-out brawl between children and hero stopped when Erik cut loose with his rangemaster roar.
“Whateley Academy, cease fire and STAND DOWN!”
The kids froze in place, even Slapdash, who was muttering threats and imprecation, still sparking not two feet from his enemy, still spitting mad. All three of the ones standing stared at Erik like he’d grown a second pair of nuts from his forehead and the Lamplighter looked at him like he was a piece of shit. Thrasher watched from the ground where he sat next to Aquerna. The teacher and six marines were shucking jackets, short-sleeve shirts exposing their upper arms just enough, moving forward with a purpose, and seven tattoos on right shoulders, all nearly identical, showed to the world.
Thrasher went involuntarily pale. He recognized those tattoos. One he could write off as coincidence, but not seven of them.
Erik marched with a purpose, locking eyes with Lamplighter and growling. “You touched my children, your ass is mine!” The clustered knot of men exploded in seven directions with Worm, Bitch, Messenger, and the lieutenant swarm-dogging Lamplighter, and the bulkier trio of Hijacker, Heckel and Jeckel bounding to high points and following the madness. The four conscious kids looked on with the same thought running through their heads. Those guys were either stupid, or insane.
Cameron Walken was doing his daily rounds as a security guard for the Exetus Corporation holding the district to be renovated. He was mostly the guy responsible for calling the cops if he spotted anything wildly illegal. Graffiti, a bit of property damage, he didn’t care. He was really only there to keep up the pretense that the properties were being properly monitored for their slated winter demolitions. He was happy to putz around in his little security cruiser, safe in the knowledge that nothing ever happened around…
The Lamplighter slammed into the sidewalk next to the cruiser, an odd, maniacal black man clutched to his back whooping insanely while wearing a Wiley Coyote T-Shirt. The absurdity of the scene wasn’t lost as the little black man rolled away and kept going as another two men shoulder-checked the staggering-to-his-feet superhero into a brick wall then bolted as well. The Lamplighter’s Minuteman costume was torn up, though the man himself looked none the worse were it not the anger writ plain as day on his face.
Cameron slowed the car and watched, half-horrified, half-bemused as a larger man, blonde, blocky, with a crewcut, darted to the side and ran along the wall a few feet before kicking off and knocking Lampy over again. Cameron was watching the impossible, a group of people getting the best of the city’s premier superhero! The morbid fascination was still with him as the Lamplighter abandoned the ground and took to the sky, and the knot of crazies harassing him disappeared up fire escapes, around corners and in one case, bounding back and forth upward between two close walls.
It was like the circus had come to town early, and the acrobats went collectively insane.
Cameron serenely considered getting out and helping Lamplighter, but decided against it. After all, superhero disruptions weren’t in his job description.
Worm was having a grand ol’ time. His blood pounded as he bolted away from Lamplighter, diving across an alley to swing around the corner of a building faster than the flyer could maneuver, abusing leverage like it was his job. He swung up and hooked into the grating of the fire-escape above, and hauled himself into an upside-down crouch, grinning. Lamplighter came around the corner and stopped, staring at the upside-down man incredulously when Worm, the bait man laughed and pointed to the sky, seemingly below him.
Lamplighter looked up only to have over a hundred and eighty pounds of Prison Bitch land on his face, driving him to the pavement, shouting “MEEP-MEEP!”
Prison Bitch rode the hero to the ground, stopping a couple stories away to do a cat-catch and scramble back to high ground as the lamplighter managed to recover his fall before crashing into the dumpster below. Dammit! So close!
He looked around and then spotted God’s Messenger and grinned, bolting upward and over to hit an adjacent roof. The speed came on, and through all the pounding in his skull he could SEE, as though the cityscape were mapped out before him, a tricky jigsaw of leaps, climbs twists and slides taking him wherever he wanted to go. A jump, a roll, running along a billboard then leaping to the next building gave him just enough time as Messenger prepared to declare the Will of God for the hero of Boston.
Just a bit further…
He bounced and rolled as the energy blast exploded near him, throwing him over the edge of the rooftop. It had been about six years since he’d even thought about doing this kind of idiot attack on a super-powered asshole, but old reflexes beaten into him by Worm, Heckel, and Jeckel kicked in as he somehow managed to roll with the blast and catch the ledge. He dropped and chose an alternate route, one so clustered up with obstacles and detritus that it would be nearly impossible to blast him again as he dropped on to the building’s roof a story below and ran.
He was having trouble keeping up the pace and as he saw his teammates cross into his view he poured on the speed. God’s Messenger had gotten ahead of him. Perfect. Unfortunately the Lamplighter was right behind him, charging up that stupid toy of his. Not so perfect. He ran like a bat out of hell to reach his teammate so he could catch a breather.
God’s Messenger grinned tightly, damn close to pissing his own pants. Of all the team, he was the most skilled in close fighting, but he’d only been on three missions like this back in the corps. While it was a respectable number given the opposition, he’d never done the fighting in close before. As his ass puckered with fear he counted the steps till Prison Bitch darted past, waited two seconds then swung the pipe clutched in his hands around the brickwork he was hiding behind.
Lamplighter did an odd, reverse somersault, crashed to the roof, and stopped rolling with his upper body hanging out over the street below. The energy blast he’d been targeting at Bitch flew wide and struck a warehouse, cracking the concrete with concussive force.
Lamplighter began to push himself up as Lieutenant Dom bolted in and prepared to deliver the Boston hero to the Kill Box. Dom slid under a series of pipes and came up running.
“If my spare should fail me too, I’ll hit the deck before you do!” The former officer sang as he jumped and put both feet onto Lamplighter’s head, driving them both over the edge. His head rang as the superhero flung him off into a wall on the way down. Lamplighter recovered and hovered a few inches off the ground. Lieutenant Dom hit concrete awkwardly and tried to roll, howling as he hit wrong and damn near broke his hip.
Erik fell right behind, catching the lower part of a fire escape and using it to swing like a pendulum, driving his feet into Lampy’s face and putting him into the closest wall. He dropped to the ground to check Dom while his two Exemplar 1 buddies hit the minuteman from both sides, each wielding a piece of rebar they’d come up with.
Heckel slammed his rebar into Lamplighter’s face, rocking the hero’s head back, but accomplishing little more. Jeckel attacked the arm carrying the ancient lantern and tried to get it away. Jeckel went flying as the lamp pulsed, flinging him in a nearly-uncontrolled roll out towards the center of the road. Lamplighter grabbed Heckel and tossed him away like a rag doll before facing Erik.
Erik just stood there, glaring as the costumed nutbar raised the lamp and focused angrily.
“Meep-Meep!” The cry came from two sides as God’s Messenger and Worm hit Lamplighter from the sides. The man was damn close to invulnerable but that didn’t make him any heavier. Worm hit his knees and Messenger delivered a textbook jump-kick to the hero’s head, sending him spinning out, briefly confused and shaking his head, as his opponents, the Bogeymen of the mutant world, refused to allow him to focus his power again. Erik kicked him in the chest before he hit the ground again, driving him back into the wall, and the Dragonslayers bolted, darting in and out of the alleys while their opponent tried to process the fact that even with all his power, he was only holding a stalemate.
“Erik we can’t keep up this pace man, we need a breather or a way out,” Prison Bitch howled from above.
“We can’t outrun him, Worm rally up. I’ll keep him occupied! Pull your heads out of your asses and get a plan!” Erik turned and doubled back, using a wall to alter his course drastically before ramming back up to full speed.
“Jesus Christ, man, how does he keep going? I’m having a hard time keeping running!” Messenger shook his head as the Dragonslayers, six years out of the game, stopped to catch their breath.
Jeckel shook his head. “If you knew what Whateley was like for the teachers you wouldn’t be asking that, mano. Erik has to be on his A-Game just to keep from getting eaten alive by the kids.”
“Fuck, how long can he keep going?” Prison Bitch was gasping.
“It’s Erik. Once he gets angry he’s gonna keep going till he gives himself a heart attack.” Worm shook his head, not quite breathing so heavily.
Erik’s feet pounded the ground, hard. He didn’t even think about what he was doing as he bull-rushed the Lamplighter, who had stepped around the corner and was raising his lamp towards the Whateley teacher. It was like time slowed down as the adrenaline kicked in hard. He ran to his side at fifteen feet, jumped, and ran along the wall, allowing momentum to carry him until he kicked off, driving his boot into the superhero’s face and tossing him over… again. Erik kept running.
Lamplighter may have been a powerful hero, but he suffered from a severe lack of actual training. He relied too much on the raw power the lamp infused him with, so he was far too direct. He stood in place, hovered, telegraphed punches, and did everything Erik ever taught his kids not to do. The Lamplighter was also angry. These little flybites wouldn’t stand still and fight. Rather like a big kid in the schoolyard, Lamplighter depended on simply being the biggest kid on the block.
He wasn’t used to the little kids being unafraid of him.
Erik powered off a wall and began leaping to a catwalk when the hero caught him, grappling him in midair. He felt himself being raised as he wriggled like a worm as the Lamplighter caught hold.
“You’re done, give it u…” Lamplighter stopped mid-warning as Erik snorted and spit a booger straight into the back of the hero’s throat. He did the instinctive thing and dropped the man, trying to fish the offending gunk out before he swallowed it, repulsed and gagging like he was going to barf.
Erik hit the ground running again. He wasn’t trying to fight, he wasn’t trying to win. This was being chased like a dog by Wilson, only harder. He knew it was on when Lamplighter’s shriek of absolute, disgusted rage rang out in the Boston sky. He could only hope the other Dragonslayers could get their shit together before the Hero of Boston could kill him.
“Dude, that is some crazy shit.” Bitch was horrified. “Remind me to never piss Erik off again.”
Worm snorted. “I’ve been telling you that for years.” He was tracking the man moving like a madman helter-skelter in a ferociously mad non-pattern that didn’t leave Lamplighter many chances to fire. The times Lamplighter got close enough to strike, Erik threw himself in the direction of the attack, rolling and bleeding off the killing force the hero could throw, but Worm would be very surprised if when all was said and done, Erik was still able to walk.
“All right boys, on my lead. Swarmstomp time. Jeckel, Heckel, and Messenger, you’re playing heavy. The rest of us Swarm.”
“Who’s the bait, mano?” Dom was limping even as he ran, gutting back the pain for his buddy, even if he knew he wasn’t going to be much use to anyone later.
The six men threw themselves forward, running hard to get in a position and praying Erik had the presence of mind to start doubling back. It had been two minutes, more than enough time to get killed. As they ran Worm picked the spot. “Here’s the new killbox. The lamp goes in that dumpster. Messenger you’re on reserve, soccerball special. Once we have the lamp away from him it’s on like Donkey Kong.”
“And if we don’t get the lamp?” Prison Bitch had to ask.
“Been okay knowing you, Bitch.”
“Eat me you sorry sack of… fuck incoming!”
Erik had leapt off a roof ahead, using the leading edge of Lamplighter’s concussion blast to carry him further. It took him too far as the biggest man on the team fell three stories, tumbled and knocked himself senseless. The battle began in earnest around him when he finally remembered where he was, and what he’d been doing.
Thrasher came stumbling around the corner a few feet behind Breaker and Zenith, trying to follow the whirlwind fight through Boston. His ribs hurt like hell, but he kept trucking, wanting to see the end result. He’d never seen any kind of hit and run fight like this save once in his entire life and it was morbidly fascinating, even if it brought back terrifying memories of black-clad, masked men carrying guns, and bouncing off the landscape like madmen.
Lamplighter crashed to the ground on the street, and the three men circled, darting about, not letting themselves be hit by the confused and angry hero. The cuts Thrasher had given him were gone, the signs of the kid tearing the hero up before had healed without a trace even if the costume was still slashed up. The two twins of the group came crashing through when Lampy’s attention was on the three walking, dancing, maddening distractions.
Heckle and Jeckel hit high and low, from in front and behind, slamming the Lamplighter to the ground. It was hard to believe the two weren’t really extensions of the same being as the hero kissed concrete again. Messenger erupted from seemingly nowhere and did a leaping stomp that finally crushed the ailing minuteman hat on Lamplighter’s head, ramming his face into the ground.
Prison Bitch took a moment of the confusion to dive. The weaselly man lived up to his larcenous reputation and used the confusion to twist the lamp out of the hero’s hand and toss it straight up. “Messenger you’re on!”
The Dragonslayer radioman jumped and did a flying kick before the lamp could defend itself, sending it caroming off the wall to crash into the dumpster. Heckle darted over and slammed the lid down.
Mahren was there roaring with fury, and he kicked out the knees of the hero, and punched him in the back three times before putting the man in a half-nelson, reaching into his pant leg above his shoes and brought the Ka-Bar knife up towards the minuteman’s throat. Lamplighter, powerless without his mystic lantern, was using both hands to keep the angry man from driving the blade at his throat, head twisted away awkwardly. The blade inched closer with agonizing certainty.
Thrasher forgot the pain, forgot that he was injured as he bull-rushed forward. The final piece of the puzzle clicked in his mind as he saw the intense, angry blue eyes, the set of the jaw slightly distended and locked to look like the man had an underbite. Mahren was going to kill the Lamplighter, and Thrasher could only see the face of the man who’d almost killed his father, recognizing him for the first time without the black mask that covered all but his eyes and mouth.
“Teach no!” Thrasher had to keep Mahren from killing that man.
“Daddy, no!” Erik tightened his grip, glancing up to see the eight-year-old, wide-eyed and terrified at the man who’d caught his speedster father after having run the man through a death maze of mines and booby traps. He’d finally caught Mach-5, the man who got faster as his opponents stepped up the pace, and now, he realized he was about to drive a knife into a man’s throat, in front of his son.
The boy was braver than anyone the angry, battle-fatigued marine had ever seen, rushing forward and trying to tug on his father’s arm and get him away from the bad man with the combat knife, twisting his father’s head so he couldn’t get any leverage save to keep the knife from going deeper. Erik’s arm locked, frozen, watching the child.
“Nathan run!” Mach-5 loosed a hand as he realized the blade wasn’t coming in so hard and tried to push the child away. “Get out, now, RUN!”
“No! I’m not leaving without you! Leave my daddy alone!”
Erik twitched. He couldn’t do it, not like this, not with the kid watching. Anywhere else and Mach-5 would be dead in a gutter, drowned in his own blood. Erik couldn’t do it with the man’s child watching. He couldn’t take the kid’s family while he stood witness.
Erik wrenched the man’s head back pressing blade to skin and began whispering.
“Your son just saved your life, fuckstick. You have ten seconds of life, and you will use them to take your boy and run. In ten seconds I WILL come after you so get your child to safety. And you will never, ever touch military assets again, or we will hunt you like a dog, and not even your boy will keep me from killing you.”
Mach-5 nodded, and as soon as the pressure slackened, darted forward and picked up his brave little boy and ran. He’d never run so hard, so fast or long in his life, the killer’s howled words chasing him.
“Take the boy and run you fucker! Run!”
Erik looked about, disgustedly. He’d blown the op, but his team was all alive with nothing but bruises. Mach-5 wasn’t a murderer, but he’d stepped over the line.
Even so, no child should ever have to watch someone die.
None of the Dragonslayers stopped Thrasher as he stopped in front of the grappling men and put a hand on Mahren’s knife hand. He looked the teacher in the eye. “No man, you don’t want to do this. I know you, you’re better than this. You don’t have to do this.”
Erik slowly focused back into reality, staring into the ice-blue eyes of his student and all he saw for a brief instant was the face of the boy who’d tried to save his father. He nodded once, slowly, then slid the knife back into its sheath and pulled the pained man into a full headlock, forcing him to look into Thrasher’s eyes.
“Look at him.” Erik snarled into Lamplighter’s ear as the now-powerless hero tried to wriggle free. “I said look at him!”
Erik roughly jerked Lamplighter’s face so he had to look at his unlikely savior. “Remember that face, asshole. That boy you attacked without provocation just saved your miserable, arrogant life.” Erik roughly shoved the Boston hero to the concrete, pressing his face to the ground. “You may think you’re some big hero, but you assaulted my children. I swear by all that is holy if you ever touch one of my students again I will end you. I won’t warn you, I won’t challenge you. I will kill you and run your precious lamp through a fucking hydraulic press. Do you understand me?”
The Dragonslayers watched dispassionately as the man nodded.
Thrasher breathed a silent prayer of thanks as Mahren did nothing more than make a dragon-eye fist and drove it into Lamplighter’s hip, causing the leg to knot up in a charlie horse that would keep him from moving too quickly. The other kids clustered around somberly, Aquerna awake and braced against Slapdash to keep from falling over.
Worm nodded once. “Alright Hijacker, he walks for now.” He looked Thrasher full on and nodded, for the first time with something deeply resembling respect. “You got some good kids here, man.”
Erik simply nodded. “Let’s get back to the school.”
“Shouldn’t we call an ambulance?” Zenith looked at Lamplighter like he was a frog being dissected.
Erik shook his head. “There are limits to my goodwill and charity. Besides, once he fishes his crackerjack prize out of the dumpster, he’ll heal. Let’s be gone before that happens. I’m not in the mood for round two.”
Thrasher put a hand on the Range Instructor’s shoulder. “Thanks, Teach… again.”
Erik nodded slowly as they all began walking towards the school car several blocks away. “Thrasher…” he shook his head, then settled for squeezing the Exemplar boy’s hand with his. “It’s gonna be a proud day when you graduate. You’re gonna be a better man than I am.”
“We’ll see Teach.” He looked back at the moaning form on the ground. “Let’s just go home.”
Elizabeth Carson hadn’t bothered with decorum or keeping up with appearances as she ended her flight at the Whateley Quad, slamming down on the ground with enough angry force to crack the pavement slightly. She’d gotten the call at home, while she was trying to relax, that Erik’s kids had gone into the infirmary. The Parkour Hooligans had been out at Boston, and she’d thought he was responsible enough to keep them safe.
She saw Erik on a bench, outside the infirmary with a bottle in hand, blithely ignoring the “no booze” policy on campus. Her tirade stopped mid-motion before it started as the ex-marine looked up at her. His face was covered in bruises, his left eye swollen nearly shut. The man’s hands were a ragged criss-cross of cuts and scrapes, and he looked very much like he was trying not to move.
“I didn’t do it.” He tried to be a smartass then started a wracking cough. The man was shaking uncontrollably.
“What happened, Erik?” Carson was instantly concerned. He wouldn’t have been this torn up under normal circumstances, and as he moved she heard creaking and popping that wasn’t normal for him.
“Lamplighter happened. Decided that the kids were misbehaving in his city.”
“And you fought him?”
Erik nodded. “Kicked his throwback ass too.” He took another swig off the beer he was holding. “Thrasher’s the one who kept me from cutting his throat when we got him down.”
“You led my children into combat with the Lamplighter?”
“Nope. I led my old team into combat with the Lamplighter, we were all at the Parkour Jam.”
Carson stopped, and blinked.
“Kind of ironic, the bogeymen protecting the mutant kids, ain’t it? I think Thrasher picked up on us, but he’s the only one.”
“What do you propose we do about that, Erik?”
The big man shook his head. “Nothing. Bound to happen sooner or later, Carson.”
“How did he figure it out?”
“Because he saved his dad the same way before I left the Corps.”
Carson chewed on that slowly. “And do you think Thrasher will talk?”
Erik shrugged. “Thrash is a good kid, he’ll do what he thinks is right. As to the rest, the Dragonslayers need to stay out of the game. The Bogeyman needs to die, one way or another.”
He got up. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some industrial-strength painkillers to go to.”
“You’ve been drinking.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time, Carson.”
Jacob Thurston slowly undid his tie. It had been a productive day working the stock markets. He’d decided it was safer to play with money long ago when his secret life as Mach-5 had put his family in danger. He wasn’t the best of men, but he’d tried to do right by his family and raise his children well. Jaqueline, his wife, was already waiting in the kitchen for him to come help cut the vegetables, while his youngest daughter Jasmine rolled around on the carpet in her walker, bouncing off of everything in sight as only a rambunctious toddler could.
He was on his way to meet his wife when the phone rang. The caller I.D. showed only W.M. It was the special ID code designating Whateley, Melville. Nathan was calling. He picked up the phone, smiling. “Hey, son, how’s school going?”
The teenaged voice was cracking, a legacy of puberty that followed every young man through his later years of school. “Heya dad, I just wanted to call and talk to you.”
He caught the inflection. “What’s wrong, Nate? Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine dad.” His son paused as Jacob listened, concerned. “Nothing you need to worry about. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Well I’m right here, son. I’ve got all the time you need.”
“Thanks Dad. It’s just really good to hear you, ya know?”
“Nathan you know you can talk to me right?”
“Yeah, I know. Just not about this, just this once dad, I just want to talk. Just let me ramble for a bit, okay?”
“Yeah, sure, anything.” His son’s voice sounded weary, worn out, shaken. Jacob was concerned, but he knew that if something was really wrong, Nathan would tell him.
“I just wanted to let you know that I love you dad, and I’m glad you’re still going to be there when I come home.”
“Yeah, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll always be here when you come home…”
Jacob settled down, and patiently listened to his son. Even when they didn’t tell him everything that was happening, Jacob Thurston always made time for his children.
And in the fury of this darkest hour
We will be the light
You've asked me for my sacrifice
And I am Winter born
Without denying, a faith in man
That I have never known
I hear the angels call my name
And I am Winter born
Within this moment now