Chapter 6

"Welcome freshmen!"

The Dean looked over the assembled freshmen, nodding in satisfaction at what she saw. She stood at a podium overlooking a sea of serious, nervous faces in the auditorium, the largest room at West Private HCP and the only one that could comfortably house the whole student body. Clad in black, the freshman class stood out front and center before the stage. Sophomores occupied the seats to stage right, juniors to stage left, both groups wearing the telltale grey of mid-years. The half-score white uniforms in the back were reserved for the seniors who made it this far.

Other programs segregated the classes for a myriad of reasons, mostly owing to stressing in-class camaraderie or isolating each student to force them to become self-reliant. Dean Goddard found those two chief reasons something of a paradox and best set aside. Heroes worked in teams. Besides, a strongly integrated community minimized the risk of treason. West Private boasted the lowest turncoat rating in the nation for good reason.

The Dean lowered her arms from her initial greeting, confident in her black business coat over a white blouse and charcoal slacks.

"I am Dean Diane Goddard and I oversee the Hero Certification Program. We congratulate you on your acceptance to our program!"

She applauded, as did all of the upperclassmen. The freshmen looked a bit surprised before smiles broke out on their faces. It was a warmer welcome than most of them expected, no doubt, if high school was anything to judge by.

"We congratulate you because you are the future. We're blessed in America by the service of so many distinguished men and women who have given their lives in defense of its people. As all of you should know, the life of a Hero is not an easy one. Take a look at the senior class behind you, in the white uniforms." As the auditorium filled with the sounds of shuffling, the Dean pointed their way and said, "In the time since they stood where you do now, forty seven Heroes lost their lives. There are five Hero Certification Programs in this country and we're lucky if we can turn out fifty Heroes a year between us to make up for those killed, incapacitated or retired."

Grim silence descended on the student body. The Dean was pleased at how quickly they'd sobered again. This was the first time many of them had really thought about how dangerous their career choice was.

"This program, these faculty," she gestured to the row of professors behind her, "and your peers around you are all here to make those ten the very finest men and women to put on a Hero's uniform. Statistically, many of you have never met another Super before. You've had to rely solely on yourself. At West Private, you are part of a community committed to training the best Heroes in the nation. From now on, you are no longer alone. The friendships you'll make and experiences you'll share will hopefully stay with you for the duration of your lives."

"The HCP consists of a series of classes. For first year students, we chiefly emphasize Combat Training and Alternate Training, two programs designed to lay the foundation of physical and mental fitness you'll need to grow in the program. Should you continue with us into your second year, you'll have access to specialized classes in Close Combat, Ranged Combat, Weapons, Focus, Control and Subtlety." She pointed out each professor responsible for a class as she spoke.

"Last, all of you will participate in a class that focuses on Super issues such as the legal framework that Heroes must work in and the consequences of using our abilities. Although it's perhaps the least popular class, I will be personally teaching Ethics to ensure all of you know how to protect yourselves and your loved ones from the choices you make once you put on that uniform."

As her eyes drifted over the freshman class, the Dean's scrutiny settled on four. Unsurprisingly, they all stood together. Just as expected, none of them reacted to the speech quite the way their peers did.

Finn Barnaby seemed amused and he looked around as if he were merely an observer here rather than a participant. She'd have to talk to him about that. Jia Sun, on the other hand, looked down the entire time. The shame of last year's failure bore heavily on those slim shoulders. Nate Insley looked like he might faint at any moment. After years of being treated like a Villain, it was no wonder he found this overwhelming. And as for Alexandria Amherst...Alley just watched her like a hawk, the look on her face an open challenge. Given the young woman's ability, as well as her history, managing that student might prove most difficult of all.

"Part of that protection begins today," the Dean said, resuming her speech. "You will be required to keep your abilities and your participation in this program a secret from everyone on or off campus. Although it's widely known that West Private University features a Hero Certification Program, what happens here must remain confidential. One of the first things many Villain groups do against new Heroes is to try determining their real identities so they can get to you through your families. A levitating Hero who can be matched to a levitating student four years ago is a Hero who must be retired to avoid the risk of their compromise."

A hand shot up in the audience. Finn Barnaby. The Dean's eyes narrowed and she sighed. Of course. She shifted her gaze to her left, towards Ava Stevens. The professor in charge of Control concentrated on Finn before sending the thought onwards. One of her most useful abilities was the knack for not only scanning the thoughts of telepathically shielded targets but sending them to other minds as a kind of relay.

"In case some of you were less discreet in high school," the Dean said, making a point to ignore Finn's hand. "There's very little risk now. Please take me at my word when I say what you were able to do in high school compared to what you will be capable of as a graduate of this program will be as different as night and day. Just avoid bringing attention to yourself while enrolled here and you should be fine."

Finn's hand went down and the Dean nodded towards him, satisfied she'd answered the question without interrupting her speech.

"Now, others of you are no doubt wondering when we begin training. The answer is: Now. This is Professor Paul Matthias." The big man in his wonderfully tailored suit rose at her introduction. "He is responsible for Combat Training and all gym activities for this year. All of you will be going with him shortly to change for this afternoon's first workout. You will learn to fight, defend yourself and endure all the rigors a Hero is expected to handle at his hands. He'll be assisted by a woman who needs no introduction."

Indeed, all eyes turned to Glee. The Hero rose from her seat, clad in the distinctive black costume with silver striping that'd followed her all of her career. Although the students had seen Glee with the other professors, none of them had really dared believe it was actually her until this moment.

"Professor Glee is responsible for all Alternative Training for first year students. She'll be handling the basic development of your abilities, teaching you how to think tactically and creatively. Bear in mind; just as it's inappropriate to ask the professors for their Hero names, it's equally inappropriate to ask Glee for her personal name.

"Believe it or not, this is for your protection," Glee said from where she stood. "There are at least seven active Villains who would-"

"Let's not scare the class before they see the first workout," the Dean said gently, to the murmured laughter of the upper classmen. "Now, freshmen, follow your professors to the gym. This time next week, we'll be conducting combat trials to determine your ranking for your first year in the program. Make the most of the time you have until then. You are dismissed."

The Dean stepped back from the podium as her professors left the stage behind her. She watched the freshmen mingling about Professor Matthias and Glee. The upper classmen went with the other three Professors to begin planning for their more focused programs. She slowly walked off the stage, descending the stairs on the side until she reached the auditorium floor as the last of the students left.

Only one lingered. Just as expected.

"Mr. Insley?" she said, making his name a question all on its own.

"Dean Goddard..."

"Why don't you call me Diane." He blinked and lost his train of thought, so surprised was he. Dean Goddard smiled. "No, I don't encourage familiarity with the average student. But then, you're not the average student. What's trouble you, Mr. Insley?"

"Okay. Diane." Nate took a deep breath. "You know that I'm here because of the Major. But I don't really understand why I'm here. Everyone else came to learn to use their abilities. It's actually a crime to use mine. Come Monday, what am I supposed to do? How can I be in combat trials if I don't dare use my ability?"

The Dean nodded solemnly. "A good question. Let me ask you one in return: Can you imagine a situation where a gun can be used without risking lethal injury?"

"Uh, sure. If it's a BB gun or something."

"Interesting." The Dean smiled slightly. "Can you think of an application then?"

Nate visibly thought about the problem, his young brow furrowed in concentration. "Are you saying it's not just an all or nothing thing?"

"Let's try an experiment." The Dean fished around in the inside pocket of her suit jacket and produced a pen. "I want you to take this pen from me with your ability."

"Diane, I-"

"I'm well aware of the risks, young man," she said, smiling with sympathy. "Now, take this pen from me with your ability."

The struggle behind his eyes yielded to her demand. Nate held up his hand underneath hers. And then she dropped it into his palm.

"Very good, Mr. Insley."

"How-" He just gawked at the pen lying in his open palm. "You're okay?"

"Perfectly. If you'd had even a modicum of training you'd have known-" The Dean stopped herself and controlled a despairing sigh. So much time and potential wasted. "Never mind. I'll inform Professor Glee how to instruct you. In the meantime, you have my express permission to use your ability but only here at the HCP and only to accomplish specific, objective-based tasks. I'll pass along that consent to Professor Stevens' telepaths. Now, run along to your class. You have a great deal of catching up to do, Mr. Insley."

"Thank you, ma'am!"

She smiled as she watched him go. Such potential. It would be difficult to work through all of the legal permutations of a Hero like Nate Insley but well worth the trouble, in her estimation.

Nodding in satisfaction, she said, "You can come out now, Ms. Amherst."

Alley walked into view from outside the double doors leading into the auditorium. She wore the black uniform of a freshman like it was armor made for her skin, with none of the self-consciousness or awkwardness of a genuinely new student. But then, this wasn't the young woman's first HCP.

"I figured I'd get it over with," Alley said.

"I can appreciate that," the Dean replied. "Very well. You'll sit today's gym class out."

"What?" Alley was clearly surprised by the news. "Why? I thought you were going to punish me."

"Aren't I?" Dean Goddard smirked. "This may be our first conversation, Ms. Amherst but I believe I understand you. I know the fire that drives you. You think you've surpassed the HCP with your time spent with Shadow Dance but you were looking forward to the workout today and benefiting from being trained by a Super the way only a Super can."

"How do you know about the Shadow Dance Directive?" Alley asked, all humor evaporating from those blue eyes of hers.

"That's above your pay grade, Corporal. I'm certain you'll ask your commanding officer anyway so I see no point in wasting time for both of us. You can join the gym class tomorrow. Today, you'll watch."

Alley tensed, her hands forming fists without thought. Then she visibly forced herself to relax. "Is that going to be the standing punishment for breaking someone's nose?"

"Only when it happens in public." At Alley's surprise, the Dean's smirk widened. "I stay informed on what happens around campus. I know what Mr. Cavil said that prompted your reaction. It was inappropriate and not becoming of a student of his standing. I chose to let the consequence serve as its own punishment for him. It was mended easily enough. Your only offense today was doing it where other students can see. I've covered the matter up, of course, but please keep violations of the student code of conduct to private areas. Thank you."

Alley whistled and shook her head. "You're a real piece of work, Diane."

"It's Dean Goddard...Alexandria."

The young woman grinned fiercely. "Message received, Dean. I think we understand each other just fine."

Dean Diane Goddard watched the young woman go. Then she folded her hands together and headed towards her office. One thing was certain.

Alley would be her biggest headache this school year.