Chapter 10

“Welcome, freshmen!” The speaker was a tall man with glasses, black hair, and a charcoal-colored suit. He cut an impressive figure even from behind his podium, looking around the room emanating confidence and ease, as though he had made this speech dozens of times before. Which, coincidentally, he had.

“It is my pleasure as Dean of the Hero Certification Program to be the first to congratulate you on making the cut and being enrolled in our very elite little academy,” the dean continued. “My full name is Blaine Jeffries, however, I want you all to just call me Dean Blaine. It is my hope that each and every one of you grow stronger in the years ahead, and that the best of you graduate from here with full certifications and go on to become acclaimed Heroes. I want to watch all of you find the lessons you need to succeed!”

“Of course he does,” Nick muttered to Vince quietly from his seat in the middle of the auditorium. “The more prestige a Hero has, the better it looks on the school that trained them.”

“I didn’t think the five universities that ran this program were in competition,” Vince said curiously.

“Where there is money, there is competition, and these bad boys are government-funded,” Nick replied.

“Now, I know all of you are a little nervous,” Dean Blaine said in an understanding voice. “After all, most of you are from schools, if not towns, where you were the only Super present. Having peers around you who can understand and relate to what you’re going through is a new experience, and I’m here to tell you that it will be a wonderful one. You’re going to have friendships, support, and respect all built on the mutual understanding that only fellow Supers can share.”

“Is being a Super hard?” Vince whispered to Nick. “I knew a few of them, and by comparison to... everyone else, it seemed like they had it pretty easy.” Vince chastised himself internally. He had just referenced himself as something other than a Super, a taboo Mr. Transport had advised them against committing before he brought them down that morning. It wasn’t just that the program that had created them was classified, which it was, the problem was that if the other students knew what Vince and his group had once been Powereds they were almost sure to face harassment and discrimination. Of course, in a school where there were telepaths, any secret was inevitably going to come out. The goal was merely to avoid that day for as long as possible.

“It isn’t really hard, per se,” Nick responded, breezing over Vince’s near screw-up. “It’s just different. I know you were on your own most of the time, but for those of us around people it was an odd experience, always knowing you were the one who was different.” Nick was careful to try and cover for Vince, not out of friendship but out of necessity. Nick wanted every advantage he could get his hands on, and being targeted as a freak among freaks would rob him of too many opportunities for him to permit it.

“You’re going to need that support network, too,” Dean Blaine continued. “As all of you should know, becoming a Hero is a grueling task. You’ll be taking combat classes, training your tactical skills, learning to think around corners, and - possibly most importantly of all - you’ll be learning about the ethics behind having and using abilities. And, of course, you’ll be doing all of that while maintaining your secret identity up top.”

The sound of groans permeated the audience, which was about fifty people strong. Dean Blaine only gave this talk to freshmen, and despite what many conspiracy theorists believed, the portion of the population that were Supers was still remarkably small. Of course, the percentage jumped considerably if one were to include Powereds as well, but no one did.

“Now, now, none of that,” said Dean Blaine without breaking his smile. “I know many of you have lived out in the open about your abilities for years, but this is how we do things at Lander. Learning to protect a secret identity helps you hone a lot of the skills a Hero will need. Ingenuity, thinking on your feet, and planning are all major elements of keeping your secret safe. Those of you who fail at keeping your secret... well, let’s just say that fail was the operative word there.”

There was no laughter at Dean Blaine’s joke, not that he had expected any. That was a joke just for him.

“Of course, there are always extenuating circumstances, but let’s just say you should do your best to keep the fact that you’re a Super close to the vest. If you need to show off, work out, or just get the powers pumping, then you are always welcome down here, where you can be the Super we all know you are,” Dean Blaine reassured them.

“Lovely,” Alice said to no one in particular. She had opted to sit alone near the top of the tiered auditorium. She loved that sort of spot because it allowed her a vantage point above all the others, observing and noting their behavior. She had also chosen it because Mary, and for some reason Hershel, had both sat near the bottom. Alice was not about to give that girl any more time staring into her mind than she had to.

“With that settled, let’s go over today’s activities, shall we?” Dean Blaine asked rhetorically. “Since above ground classes don’t start until tomorrow, we’ll be using today to do our combat ranking. For those of you who don’t know, we do rankings among the classes at the beginning of this and end of every other year. This is so we can get a sense of where you’re starting from based on the previous test, and how much you’ve grown by the end. We won’t just be taking into account who wins each fight; we’ll be looking at how they use their abilities, bodies, and brains to make the most of every situation. Today’s will be a single elimination tournament, so the more you win, the more you fight, the better a chance you have to showcase what you can do.”

Vince felt his heart sink. All he had for energy was the half a book of matches he had absorbed yesterday while showing off for Nick. Unless he fought someone with electrical or fire abilities, he was going to be working at a big disadvantage. It was really his own fault; Mr. Numbers had warned them there would be combat. He’d even had a passing thought of trying to find a place to absorb energy, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. There was still a nagging voice in the back of his brain telling him that he would lose control and drain the whole school. Or town. Or state.

“I’d like all of you to come down now and meet the professors who will be overseeing the first battle of your college careers, the freshmen combat coaches: Coach George and Coach Persephone!” Dean Blaine announced, gesturing to the side of the stage where a pair of people, both wearing sweats, walked on and joined up with the dean in the center.

The man was dark-haired, tall and muscular. The woman, on the other hand, was blonde, lean, curvy, and just plain sexy. She looked like she wouldn’t be able to take on a sack of potatoes, let alone watch over Supers in combat. Not that that really mattered to the men in the audience, who were staring unabashedly, with only a few exceptions.

Nick was certainly not one of those exceptions. “Look at the tits on her,” he said as he and Vince rose from their seats and began making their way to the stage with the rest of their class.

“You better hope she doesn’t have enhanced hearing,” Vince warned as they descended.

“What? Like she doesn’t know she had amazing tits? I mean, we can see them through a sweatshirt, I seriously doubt me saying this would result in a groundbreaking realization for her,” Nick defended.

“No, but it could be a skull-breaking one for you. The woman teaches Supers how to fight, I can’t imagine she’s as frail as her form looks,” Vince said.

“You have a point,” Nick agreed. “On the other hand, though... Yowza.”

Fortunately for Vince, at that point they reached the stage and even Nick wasn’t dumb enough to keep chatting about their coach’s breasts with her in human earshot. At least, Vince hoped Nick wasn’t that dumb. Once all the students were together, Coach George stepped forward and addressed them.

“Good morning, new meat,” he said with a grin that was far more believable than the one the dean still had shellacked onto his face. “To the upper classman I’m a professor, but you haven’t earned that right yet, so to you my name is Coach George, and by the end of the year you are going to curse me, my mother for birthing me, and God for allowing me to exist. I am going to work every last one of you down to the bone. I am going to break you apart until you have no concept of what you can or can’t do, because I want each of you to end this year doing things you never thought possible. You will all hate me for the rest of your life, but if you are very skilled and very lucky, you will live long enough to come back here and thank me one day. You will thank me for making you strong enough to survive.”

Coach George stepped back, and Coach Persephone stepped forward. “First off, yes, eyes up at my face, gentlemen. Secondly, I’m going to be training you as well, though while my brutish counterpart will be teaching your bodies how to endure combat, I will be educating your minds. You will use your powers in new ways you never would have imagined before, and you will do it because the only options I am going to hand you are to find a way or suffer bodily harm. You should know that Coach George and I are the harshest instructors in this academy, because we have to be. This is where you are torn down and built up correctly with the building blocks that will enable you to survive the years to follow. If we do not think you can survive, we will fail you. So work hard and learn fast, or you’ll wash out and be no better than a Powered.”

The students winced visibly at that, the idea of being compared to a Powered kicking them into gear and setting their determination not to wash out firmly into place. Which, of course, was exactly what Coach Persephone had been aiming for.

“All right,” said Dean Blaine. “So, before we pair off for the first round of combat, does anyone have any questions so far?” No hands came up, so Dean Blaine continued. “Fantastic; then I want the girls to go to Coach Persephone and the boys to go to Coach George so they can pair you up.”

“Isn’t that sexist?” The question came from a girl near the front of the crowd with dirty blonde hair. Vince looked at her, and realized with pleasant surprise that the girl with pink-streaked short hair from the dining hall yesterday was standing next to the question asker.

“And what is your name, miss?” Dean Blaine asked in response.

“Julia,” the girl replied.

“Let me guess, Julia; you’re a women’s studies major, right?” Dean Blaine asked.

“Um... yes,” Julia replied.

“There’s always one,” Dean Blaine said with a sigh. “We go over this every year, so I’ll tell you the same thing, Julia. The point of this test is to get an idea of how you fight against an opponent when you are at relatively equal footing. Both you and your opponent will have an ability, so the only other difference is your physique, and sadly, boys are usually stronger than girls. This means that getting an accurate assessment requires us to pair you with people who have similar body types. If it makes you feel better, though, this is only the case for freshman year. Once you become sophomores and have been trained by George here, we’ll be setting you against anyone, regardless of sex.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Julia conceded.

“Great,” Dean Blaine said. “Okay, everyone, now report to your respective coach and get ready for a good old-fashioned tussle.”