Mr. Transport could smell honeysuckle through the rough cloth surrounding his face. He felt the sunshine beating down upon the black fabric, causing a light film of sweat to simmer on his skin. An insect landed lightly on his right hand, delicately straddling the steel cuff encircling his wrist. It was, by far, one of the nicest places he had been detained in the past month. From the tranquil way Mr. Numbers was breathing alongside him, it could be inferred the shorter man echoed the sentiment.

The black bag draped across Mr. Transport’s face was peeled back suddenly, blinding him as the sunlight thrust into his eyes. After some moments of blinking, Mr. Transport gained the ability to make out shapes, and soon recognized that he and Mr. Numbers were in a garden etched in his memory for its vastness and beauty. The man sitting across the stone table from them was recognizable as well, though not for such aesthetic reasons.

“Care for something to drink?” Mr. Adair offered as he sipped his own cocktail. Today he wore a blue cotton shirt with white pants, and no shoes. He was at home and relaxing, not dressing to impress. Given the day’s temperature, Mr. Transport wished he were similarly adorned, rather than entombed in his own standard wool suit.

A large man with tattoos on his face undid the cuffs shackling both him and Mr. Numbers. Mr. Transport exchanged a quick glance with his partner, but there wasn’t much to communicate beyond the obvious. They’d spent the last several weeks being grilled and interrogated on their perceived failing from last spring. This, whatever it might be, was a welcome change.

“Gin,” Mr. Transport said unabashedly. He certainly wasn’t on duty, and he had no idea when an offer like this might come again.

“Water for me,” Mr. Numbers piped up. Mr. Adair handed them glasses, pausing only to alter the liquid in Mr. Transport’s, and then sat back in his chair.

“You two,” Mr. Adair said calmly, “have done quite an impressive job of pissing everyone off.”

Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport merely sipped their drinks in response.

“Sincerely, it is quite amazing in its own right. Your immediate employers believe you incompetent at best, traitors at worst. Lander is also howling for your blood since you let three students slip away, but their protests are dulled by their own failings in the incident. You’ve angered nearly every person even remotely associated with you.”

“Nearly every person?” Mr. Transport asked.

Charles Adair looked away from them, redirecting his gaze to the impressive mansion that lay behind them. “As I have mentioned before, not only do I own a sizable portion of the corporation that employs you, but I also possess an arsenal of contacts with quite a bit of influence of their own. That is why you are here today, gentlemen. It took some doing, but I have wrangled myself the position of sole judge regarding your fates.”

Mr. Transport drank his gin a bit more enthusiastically, determined to see the bottom of the glass if it would be his last.

“On one hand, you two allowed my daughter, either through action or stupidity, to escape in a truly idiotic attempt to rescue her friend. The fact that she isn’t dead or being held somewhere could be taken as testament to a kind divine plan. On the other hand, Alice has returned from Lander with happiness in her eyes and a measure of pluck that is reminiscent of her mother. She has flourished there, and it is you two that I have to thank for putting her in the program.”

It seemed Mr. Adair was going to skirt over the fact that he had strong-armed them into that decision, a skirting neither of the captive men was inclined to bring to his attention.

“So, after considerable thought, I have reached a verdict regarding you two,” Mr. Adair said. “I am willing to overlook the lapse in judgment you showed and reinstate you in your post as guardians. However, I offer you this only on one condition.”

“Name it,” Mr. Numbers said.

“To quell Lander’s lack of confidence in you, a gesture of goodwill must be made. I happen to know they are seeking to replace the coaches who... let us say, creatively resigned. There is one man I know they are particularly hoping to take over George’s role, yet have had no luck in even locating, let alone convincing.”

     “With Mrs. Tracking, I’m sure we can lend a hand,” Mr. Transport offered.

Mr. Adair reached under the table and produced a manila folder. He slid it across the table where it stopped at Mr. Transport’s fingertips.

“Finding him has been handled. It’s the convincing I think you two can lend aid in. If you can talk him into taking the position, even if only for a year, you will be able to reclaim your former posts.”

Mr. Numbers took the folder and flipped it open, reviewing its contents. “And if we can’t?”

“Then you no longer have any additional help to offer,” Mr. Adair said.

“We understand,” Mr. Numbers said, snapping the folder shut. “We’ll do it.”

“Of course you will,” Mr. Adair confirmed. “Now finish your drinks and get to it, boys. The clock is ticking.”

*    *    *

The elves clustered together, their ravaged ranks quickly dividing into scouts, lookouts, and defenders as their leader wracked his head for a plan. Elster Highrange, known as Elmer in the world outside, pushed a hand past the pasted-on ear and through his disheveled hair. He couldn’t believe the way they’d swept through his troops, executing traps like they were five moves ahead and striking with such inhuman precision. When he’d taken over this role, Elmer had been told his predecessor had been a master of strategy, but he’d never really believed it. That was why he’d refused to yield his role as leader when the man had returned for the summer. That was why he’d been unfazed when the man took up the mantle as leader of the orcs. And that, in truth, was why he was losing so badly today. That... and the demon.

“Did you see it take out the battalion of five?” His troops were whispering and he didn’t blame them. Practicality aside, a monster like what they had seen certainly deserved to be spoken of in hushed tones.

“I saw it take down the Cloudrage brothers. Those two were unstoppable, and it had them soaked in paint before they could finish drawing.”

Elster tightened the grip on his own blade. His “blade” was in fact a foam bat that had been soaked in a slow-drying blue paint. The spongy exterior was ridged, as were all his soldiers’ weapons, so a blow struck was easily identified and impossible to deny. The orcs wielded a different pattern and red paint, the same color splattered the tucked limbs of some of his men. Of they that remained, two were missing arms and one was on his knees, both legs taken in a scuffle with the demon.

“What was he like, Zithriel?” They asked him this again and again, but Zithriel had always only the same answer.

“All I saw was a flash of silver and all I heard was the whistle of his swords. After that I was down.”

It was curious that the demon had left him alive. In his telling of the story, Zithriel had once remembered to include the fact that he dropped his own sword in surprise. Elster had wondered, ever so briefly, if perhaps this specter of death lacked the ruthlessness to attack an unarmed man. He’d curtailed those thoughts almost immediately. No one who cut such a swath of carnage could hold to high ideals.

“Men,” Elster said firmly, trying to regain the confidence and subservience of his troops. “How fare we on all points?”

“Clear from the north.”

“Clear from the east.”

“Clear from the south”

“Not clear from the west.”

Elster blinked. That hadn’t been Armthimarge’s voice. He glanced over to see his loyal lookout lying on the ground, red paint coating the fallen elf’s neck where his throat had been “slit”. The attacker must have been fast: Armthimarge hadn’t even called out a warning. As Elster’s eye took in the man who had slain Armthimarge, that fact made more sense. He stood short for an orc, and though the war paint obscured his face, he seemed to wear a curiously placid expression. He wielded a blade in each hand, dripping flecks of red slowly pooling on the ground at his feet. A shock of silver hair and a set of blue eyes that would have looked more at home on an elf decorated his head, and as he stepped forward Elster had no doubt who this warrior was.

“The demon,” Elster whispered. The next time he spoke, it was with fury, hope, and desperation all rolled together like a burrito of command. “Attack!”

His men rushed their target; they still held enough respect for their leader to obey orders. Besides, there were fifteen of them left and only one of him. No matter how good this beast was, not even he could take all of them.

The demon twirled his blades once, then stepped forward to meet the first attacker. Yllsigard struck furiously, coming in overhead with all his might to power through the demon’s guard and take at least a limb. He swung true, but the demon slid around him like spilled mercury, taking Yllsigard at the base of his neck before he could recover from his missed blow. Rartical and Phiong came at the demon together, flanking him to split his attention. Their gambit proved futile, however: the demon simply pushed to Phiong’s side and dispatched him, then turned his attention on the remaining warrior.

Elster began backing away. The sum force of his remaining men were currently being sliced through; he needed an escape plan in the unlikely event this madman managed to hack his way to the last.

A wet, squishy sound splashed in his ear as a blade took his right arm, the one currently gripped around his weapon.

“Your first mistake was underestimating me,” said a voice from behind Elster.

Another blow cleaved away his left arm, before it even had a chance to reach for his lost hilt.

“Your second mistake was backing away when your men charged. A true leader does just that. He leads.”

One final blow took Elster’s legs, and he kneeled as was mandatory with the loss of those limbs.

“And your biggest mistake was forgetting that while a team may possess a valuable asset, that warrior alone does not make up its entire force.”

The voice spoke louder now, declaring its orders to Elster’s men.

“Your leader has had all his limbs sundered. You are completely surrounded. Throw down your weapons now and surrender, or face the inevitable.”

The elves looked around nervously, realizing that orcs were materializing out of the forest and that they were now vastly outnumbered. They glanced over and saw Elster on his knees, paint dripping from all four appendages. They set their blue paint-soaked bats on the ground and put up their hands.

“Your compliance is appreciated, and will be met with mercy,” said the voice, its source strolling around Elster’s left and at last entering his field of vision. He was a hefty orc, yet he moved with a strange confidence on this uneven terrain. He surveyed the domain well, eyes alert, taking in every detail. Only after he was certain that each elf was both unarmed and guarded did his vision leave the battlefield to regard his opponent general.

Elster looked up into the eyes of the man who had beaten him soundly and indisputably. He swallowed his pride, thought of his men, and spoke with as much grace as his throat would physically allow.

“Well met and well played, Growlthberz. You are victorious.”

“I am indeed,” said the orc. “But the game is over now, Elmer. You can just call me Hershel.”

Elmer nodded and slowly climbed to his feet. One thing was certain: whatever his name might be, Elmer would certainly be yielding to this man’s leadership come next summer.

*    *    *

The man was dressed in an all white suit, with his light hair trimmed short and his nails perfectly manicured. His whole outfit, like everything he deigned to wear, had been custom made just for him. He saw no qualms with such excessive funds being channeled toward wardrobe. After all, he had the means now, and he’d lived the life of self-denial for plenty long enough.

He checked his gold watch briefly, gauging how long he should stay before making his exit. His client was clearly satisfied, there was no denying that. She’d stripped nude in front of the mirror as soon as the procedure was done, not even a fleeting thought given to modesty. Mrs. Hadingsworth was still examining herself even after several minutes, scouring every inch of her now-taut flesh for signs that something had been missed. She would find none. The man clothed in white was exceptional at his job. For what people paid, he had better be.

Eventually Mrs. Hadingsworth collected herself, threw on a nightgown that was now far too big for her lithe and youthful form, and joyously shook his hand in thanks. He accepted her gratitude, but only because he had already accepted her sizable sum of money, and made his departure. Mrs. Hadingsworth had a landing strip on her property, so the man had left his private plane there rather than deal with an airport. It was as he ventured across a well-maintained garden that a tall man wearing square spectacles stepped out from behind a rose bush. The man in the white suite was hardly surprised: the bespectacled man had been trying to reach him for some time now and he was not known for his tendency toward giving up.

“Zero,” he greeted.

“It’s just Blaine these days,” said the other man, adjusting his glasses. “Dean Blaine, if I’m at work.”


“What are you going by now?” Blaine asked.

“The same as before. I do have something of a reputation associated with that name after all.”

“So it’s still Hallow, then,” Blaine said.

“Indeed.” Hallow stepped to the side of Blaine and began walking toward his plane once more. He knew this wouldn’t deter Blaine, but it would force him to get to the point.

“No small talk?” Blaine asked, turning and briskly catching up.

“I have a schedule to keep. Please cut to the quick of it; you’ve been seeking me for weeks now. Don’t waste the opportunity.”

“Very well. I want to offer you a job.”

“I decline,” Hallow said immediately.

“Don’t you even want to hear the details?”

“No, I can safely assume it has something to do with two of your teachers going rogue back in spring. You want me to fill one of their positions, and I have no interest in doing so.”

“You have a lot to offer,” Blaine pointed out. “No healer has ever been capable of doing the things you can.”

“Which is why I make a tremendous amount of money doing it for the wealthy,” Hallow pointed out. “So much, in fact, that there is no possible way Lander could offer me comparable compensation. I doubt you could even afford what I’d normally charge for this meeting.”

“I suppose I should thank you for speaking with me pro bono then.”

“Of course. We’re old friends after all,” Hallow said, choosing to skim past the barb hidden in the comment. “Listen, Blaine, I understand your position, sincerely I do. You’ve had two people you trusted betray you, not to mention word has leaked out about you harboring Powereds in your program, so you need to fill those empty roles with people you know you can count on. Since I fit both that qualification and possess world renown, I would be an excellent candidate to take on the task. Unfortunately, I have no interest in teaching, or in taking a pay cut. I hope you can understand.”

“I can, though I’m disappointed.”

“Chin up, old friend. There are others from our Class of Legends who you can still try.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Blaine acknowledged. The truth was that of the few that remained active, most had turned Blaine down already. Ionics was happily married and raising her third child. Bullrush was a successful coach in the Super Athletics Association, his football team having won four championships in the last decade. “I’ll let you get to your flight, sorry for the delay.”

“Not at all,” Hallow assured him. “It’s always nice to chat with a classmate. One day when my life slows down a bit we should get together and catch up.”

“Of course,” Blaine agreed, knowing full well Hallow wouldn’t be slowing down anytime soon. Not with his particular talent so vastly in demand.

Blaine pressed his fingers to his temples as his comrade continued walking through the garden, never sparing a glance back at the man he called friend. Blaine had known it was a long shot going in, but that gave him little comfort. He’d exhausted nearly all other available options, leaving him with only one that he considered an even longer shot. Still, he had to try.

*    *    *

Nicholas tapped the felt gently, a subtle gesture that conveyed all he needed it to. While he was normally one who spent his time wiling and beguiling at the poker table, today Nicholas was taking it easy and just playing some blackjack. He wouldn’t keep his winnings, of course: money won from the house just came out of the family pot, which was another reason he preferred trouncing tourists. Still, there was something relaxing about letting go of the need for guile and subterfuge while taking in its place the pleasure of tracking a myriad of numbers.

He leaned back in his chair as a seven of hearts was laid onto his stack, placing his total at twenty. The dealer was showing eight, so Nicholas made the easy call and decided to stay. He wore grey slacks and a black button-down, and a gold tie hung loosely around his neck. Nicholas worked hard to convey an image of disheveled elegance.

Every now and then Nicholas felt the urge to adjust the sunglasses he was no longer wearing. He’d get a new pair soon; even if his dorm mates knew the reason he wore them, they still provided excellent camouflage from the rest of the students. Aside from which, they were a rather ingrained portion of the Nick character, and Nicholas was loathe to put him through major modification mid-performance. For Nicholas had indeed elected to continue his career at Lander for another year, even with his big secret leaked to the world. There was so much to learn, and so little of it from the classrooms. Besides, his dorm mates had proven loyal beyond the degree of rationality in the events of last spring. That meant he could count on them to help him get by, despite his comparative lack of ability.

Those four were trusting, dedicated, and strong. They would make excellent pawns, possibly ones so good he would be able to play his charade all the way to the end. He just had to go slow, and take things one move at a time.

The dealer flipped his face-down card to reveal a jack, leaving him unable to hit on the eighteen he now held. Nick and two other players at the table raked in their winnings. Nick methodically set out a two hundred dollar bet for the next hand. By his count, the deck was about to get very hot. One of the waitresses stopped by, dropping off a new gin on the rocks for him. Nicholas gave her an acknowledging glance then turned back to the game. She was new here; he’d remember to get to know her better later in the evening. After all of his pressing business was attended to, of course.

One move at a time indeed.

*    *    *

This man wore all white too, but his was not a designer suit custom tailored to his frame. It was a jumpsuit, one with a number stitched on the front and a series of tracking devices woven throughout it. The regular prisoners still wore orange to be easily spotted, but those like him were decked out in white. Some said it was in recognition of what they once were, or what they could have been. The official reason was that it was a safety measure to allow the guard to immediately distinguish between his kind and the regular inmates. Not that this man was given much time to socialize with the others.

The man had dark hair, cut short, and a small soul patch above his chin. He’d briefly considered growing the full goatee to match his incarcerated persona, however he’d decided that would be fringing on the terrain of melodrama.

His cell was composed of rocket-proof plastic walls that afforded no privacy. After some lobbying he’d been successful in gaining a curtain around his toilet area; however, even when sitting it only came up to his shoulders as far as coverage. The most impressive feats of engineered captivity in the cell couldn’t even be seen. The air ducts that ran overhead filtered through a series of pressurized chambers before they brought fresh oxygen to his cell, and another set of them drained off the old air. This allowed for the whole system to be shut down at a moment’s notice should its inhabitant opt to go gallivanting. A similar system was used for the toilet and for the one entrance to the cell.

On this particular day, a rare event occurred. The entrance swung open to reveal a tall man wearing spectacles, one the prisoner knew all-too well.

“Zero,” said the inmate. “This is a pleasant surprise.”

“Just Blaine these days. I left that name behind several years ago.”

“I know what you mean. These days I just go by 48935.”

Blaine clucked his tongue. “I’m afraid that’s no good. We’re far too good of friends for such a dismissive title. How about Sean?”

“No one has used that one for a long time. Okay, Zero, call me Sean.”

“I told you it was Blaine.”

“I told you it was 48935. Besides, for such a ‘good friend’ this is the first time you’ve visited me in here. You know, since you arrested me.”

Blaine walked slowly over to the bed and sat down on the atrociously thin mattress. “Can you blame me? Or any of us? You went from an honored Hero to a common thief.”

“To be fair, there is nothing common about me or what I stole.”

“A fair point. Nuclear secrets, famous works of art, closely guarded industrial patents. You had quite a run,” Blaine admitted.

“Until Zero caught up to me,” Sean pointed out.

“Until I caught up to you. You were a thief, Sean, and I was still a Hero. You had to know the way things were going to end.”

“A man can always hope. That is a right that not even prison can take away.”

“If you sincerely believe that then you should be thankful for where you ended up. I’ve seen prisons that most certainly do have the ability to take away a man’s hope,” Blaine told him.

Sean spread his hands. “So consider me thankful. Let’s celebrate the occasion by getting to the point.”

Blaine hesitated. This next part was delicate, not only in what he needed to say, but in how much he could safely let out while their conversation was being monitored.

“I know you think I wasn’t listening, that night when I dragged you in. I was, and I’ve had a lot of time to dig into it since then. I’m not saying I believe your reason for all the stealing, but let’s just say I’m not as skeptical as I once was,” Blaine said.

“Wonderful; that and a cigarette will get me a cup of coffee in here,” Sean spat back.

Blaine reached into his suit jacket and produced a few folded pieces of paper. He unfurled them and kept them in his hands for the moment.

“I know you haven’t been privy to the grapevine of our world in here, so I’m assuming you haven’t heard the news,” Blaine said. “Five of my students from last year were subjects of an experimental procedure. One that gave them enough control to be reclassified from Powereds to Supers.”

Sean’s whole body stiffened, but his voice remained calm.

“You don’t say.”

“I do say. Their secret came out at the end of the year, yet they have elected to return despite the less than welcoming sentiment echoed by their fellow students.”

“Sucks to be them.”

“Yes. It sucks even more because two of my employees, teachers no less, decided to kidnap a pair of them at last year’s end. Though the students were safely recovered, that leaves us in the position of having two spots to fill. One has been conditionally handled, however I’m still in the market for the services of an experienced Super who I can trust.”

Sean laughed at this, visibly and freely. “A job? You’re here to offer me a job? And how would that work exactly? Are you going to keep me by your side twenty-four hours a day so I can’t slip away? Or better yet, maybe you’ll build me my own cage out there so the students can learn from me while I’m pinned up like a side show.”

Blaine shook his head. “No cages, no monitoring. You’d have to live on campus, of course, but you’d be free to roam the town as you like for your off time. You have five years left of your sentence. You can spend them here, or in my employ.”

“You’ll never be able to sell that to the higher ups,” Sean protested.

“I already have. Despite what you may think, since our time apart I’ve garnered quite a few friends of station who trust my judgment. If I say you won’t run, they’ll believe me.”

“Let’s come back to that point then. Trust. You need someone you can trust. But you and I aren’t exactly close friends anymore. Even assuming I’m not still bitter enough to try and attack you, how do you know I won’t run at the first chance I get?”

Blaine reached over and grasped the inmate’s forearm. Their eyes met, Blaine’s burning with intensity like phosphorous.

“Because I trusted you enough to check out your reason for stealing. And, while I haven’t found proof, I also haven’t found anything to contradict your claim.”

Sean pulled back his arm and broke away.

“How does that stop me from running?”

“Because these five students are not some mystical batch using a resource that only existed once. They are a trial run, to test for long term side effects. In six more years, if they are still healthy and functioning, the procedure can be approved and used on other Powereds. Even then, the number of applicants they initially accept will likely be very small. Getting someone into that program will require a lot of influence. Now tell me, who do you think has a better chance of opening that door for someone: a recently released thief, or a rehabilitated and respected professor of the Hero Certification Program?”

“You spin a pretty story, Zero. One problem: that’s a lot of ifs. If it works. If they get clearance to accept more people. If I can earn favor with the right people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very tempting. You’re just trusting a lot to faith,” Sean said.

“I’m aware,” Blaine acknowledged. “However there is one part I left out. Whether the program expands or not, there is one very concrete opportunity for you to do good.” Blaine held out the papers he’d been clutching. Sean tentatively took them in his spindly fingers and began to read. It wasn’t until he flipped to page three that his body language softened visibly.

“Is this...?”

“It is,” Blaine confirmed.

“My god, have I been in here that long? Last time I saw her she didn’t even come up to my hip.”

“A lot can change in fourteen years,” Blaine said.

“I suppose you’re right,” Sean acknowledged. “So this was your ace in the hole.”

“No; I knew you would have eventually come for the other reason. No matter how slim the chances were, you would have taken them regardless. That’s the kind of man you are. This was just to help the decision along. I’m on something of a time crunch,” Blaine explained.

“Well played, Zero,” Sean said. “I suppose you’ve got yourself a new professor.”

“In that case, you will refer to me as Dean Blaine at work and Blaine in our off hours. This is a different world than our old one, and I don’t need to muddle the two.”

“Agreed, but on one condition,” Sean stipulated.

“That is?”

“You let me keep the picture,” Sean said, gently waving the papers where a file photo was inked onto the third page.

“Deal,” Dean Blaine agreed. “I suggest you prepare yourself. You’ll be leaving this place in the morning.”

“I’ll have the maid pack my things,” Professor Sean Pendleton replied.

Dean Blaine stepped out of the room, and Professor Pendleton plopped down on the still-awful mattress where 48935 had sat mere moments before. He gazed at the poorly-pixilated image and was carried off, out of his cell, to a glimpse of the happier life he’d once had. In his wondrous drifting, a single phrase escaped his mouth.

“I can’t believe how much you look like her.”

*    *    *

There was a whoosh of air and a jerk as they began moving forward.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Mary asked.

“You’ll be fine. Yeesh, when did you become such a chicken?” Alice replied.

“It isn’t a matter of reason; it’s a matter of fear. I’ve spent most of my life on the ground among nature.”

“You did fine on the mountain,” Alice pointed out.

“There was ample earth beneath me.”

“What about when I flew with you?”

“That’s different,” Mary said. “I trust you more than I trust a team of poorly-paid workers commanded to slapdash wooden planks together in the hot summer sun. Besides, I was a little preoccupied at the time.”

A loud, rhythmic series of clicks began echoing from underneath them.

“Come on, try to enjoy it. This place was your idea anyway,” Alice said.

“It was this or another day touring the shops. I chose the lesser of two evils. Plus, I like riding the teacups.”

“We’ll go on them again after this,” Alice offered. “I just can’t believe I never knew you had this phobia.”

“It isn’t a phobia.”

“Didn’t you just say it was a fear not rooted in reason?”

“Yes I... but it... shut up.”

Alice laughed as the wind began to pull at her hair, their crest nearing its apex.

“Sorry, I just never get to see you flustered. All this time and it turns out roller-coasters are your hidden weakness.”

“At least one of us is enjoying this,” Mary said, her grip tightening on the metal bar pressed against her lap.

“I have a feeling we both will be by the time it’s over,” Alice said. “And besides, I told you if you rode it with me I’d go a whole week without bringing you along shopping. So don’t act like all the sacrifice is on your end.”

“Fine, fine. How much longer are we going to climb up, anyway?”

As the words crossed her lips their car began tilting forward, revealing a lush landscape along with a winding road of wood and steel.

“Off-handedly, I’d say not long,” Alice quipped before they plunged forward, all communication lost in the chaos of joyous screams.

*    *    *

The man lounging on the beach’s white sands was wholly unremarkable. Yes, his broad shoulders and strong frame hinted he might have once been a man of some physical prowess, but the streaks of ivory salting his once dark hair assured any observer that this man was well past that stage and into the one that involved daytime television and ranting at today’s youth. He wore a garish Hawaiian t-shirt despite the fact that he was in Tahiti, a pair of shorts, and no shoes. He owned a pair of flip flops for when he ventured into town, but with his home only a few paces away from the water, he rarely found the need to don them. He sipped a homemade margarita and watched the waves roll in as he kept a lazy eye trained on the book he was reading. As lax as he seemed, he was not startled one iota when a pair of suited men appeared a few feet away from him.

“Boys,” he said by way of greeting.

“Hello,” Mr. Transport replied. “How are things Mr. V-”

“Carl. I’m retired now, so it’s just Carl.”

“Of course. Carl,” Mr. Numbers said. “This is a lovely estate.” Mr. Numbers surveyed the houses behind him, all of them at least three-story and perfectly maintained, as was their landscaping.

“Say what you will about our company, they do have an excellent retirement plan,” Carl noted. He stuck a small scrap of paper in his book and set it down. He suspected this might take a while and he didn’t want to lose his place.

“I look forward to it,” Mr. Transport said, gazing at the pristine waters delicately moistening the sugary sand beneath his feet.

“I did too. And I’m enjoying it now. Which begs the question, what brings you two around? I’d welcome you for a visit, but I somehow doubt the policy on vacation time has become so generous.”

“Sadly, no. You see, we are here to offer you an impressive opportunity, one that would only be fitting for one with your years of tactical and-”

“None of that, Numbers. Just spit it out,” Carl cut him off.

“Fine. You’ve been offered a teaching role in the Lander University Hero Certification Program,” Mr. Numbers said succinctly.

“Thanks but no thanks. I’m already retired and set. Why would I need to take another job?”

“You don’t,” Mr. Transport agreed. “But we sort of need you to.”

Carl gave a more scrutinizing glance to his guests. Despite their professional appearance, they looked haggard. Not just the gaunt look of ones overworked: it was that of ones who had been truly put through a wringer of shit and were scarcely holding it together. Carl had seen that look before. He’d almost worn it himself a time or two. The company had an excellent retirement package, but surviving long enough to get it was sometimes akin to walking a minefield whilst blind and drunk.

“You boys messed up.”

The duo nodded.

“How bad?”

“Not terrible,” Mr. Transport replied.

“But bad enough,” Mr. Numbers tacked on.

Carl sighed and took another sip of his margarita. He really did love it out here. The ocean would still be around when he came back. It looked like the same couldn’t necessarily be said for Numbers and Transport.

“What kind of time frame are we talking about here?”

“You can accept as little as a year to fulfill our purposes,” Mr. Numbers informed him. “Though once we give you a full briefing, you may opt to stay longer.”

“Why is that?”

“Let us simply say that things have gotten very unboring on the Lander campus these days,” Mr. Numbers replied.

“That a fact? All right then, boys; for you I’ll come spend a year.” Carl stood from his sand-coated chair and dusted himself off lightly. “That said, since school likely doesn’t start for a few weeks, how about you two come inside? We can have a couple of drinks, and you can tell me just what is so interesting out in California.”

“I’m not sure we’re permitted time to relax and drink,” Mr. Numbers said.

“Nonsense. I haven’t signed any paperwork yet, and I refuse to do a favor for mere co-workers. I will only do one for friends. So, if anyone asks, you can honestly tell them this was a necessary step in my recruitment,” Carl said.

“Touché,” Mr. Numbers said.

“Now then, Transport, let us get you behind the bar. I’ve never had a Mai Tai that can compare with yours.”

“It would be my pleasure, sir,” Mr. Transport replied.

Chapter 1

Vince’s back popped as he stretched after the car ride. It wasn’t a terribly long trip, but it was long enough to make the former nomad feel cooped up and trapped. Thankfully, he’d held it together and now he gazed at his reward: Lander campus, lush in the late summer as students scurried about its grounds. He didn’t recognize any of them, which was to be expected given Lander’s size, but he did recognize the looks in some of their eyes. Confused, excited, filled with wonder, and trying to piece together where the building they needed was, these were clearly freshmen. Vince would have offered them some assistance; however, he had other duties to first attend to.

Vince pulled his own backpack from the trunk of Ms. Daniels’ station wagon, then helped Hershel with his luggage. Hershel paused their unloading process when his mother approached.

“Be sure to take care of yourself,” Ms. Daniels said as she held her boy tight and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be careful,” Hershel assured her. Vince was next to receive one of Ms. Daniels’ powerful embraces, though mercifully he was spared the cheek kiss that accompanied Hershel’s.

“Thank you for everything, ma’am,” Vince said politely. “I really appreciate you letting me stay in your home this summer.”

“Such a proper young man. You watch out for yourself, too. I expect you both back safe and sound when the year ends.”

“I’ll do my best,” Vince said. Ms. Daniels accepted this for the honesty it was and stepped back into her car. With a quick crunch of tires and small cloud of dust, Vince and Hershel found themselves once more alone in the world of Lander.

Vince tossed his backpack on his shoulders and scooped up a few of Hershel’s bags. “It’s good to be back,” he commented as they began the brief walk to Melbrook.

“No joke," Hershel agreed. “You think we’re the first ones?”

“Since Alice actually lives in California and Mary was staying with her, I’m sure they beat us back,” Vince said, answering the question Hershel had clearly wanted to ask. Hershel turned a bit red in the ears with embarrassment, though why he felt the need he wasn’t sure. He and Mary were boyfriend and girlfriend. She’d even visited twice over the summer’s span. So while there was no rational reason for him to turn red at the accusation of missing her, the tips of his ears burned all the same.

They came upon Melbrook shortly, its familiar brick facade a strangely comforting sight. It had been freshly pressure-washed and all but shone in the afternoon sun, welcoming back those who called it home with warmth and comfort. The boys buzzed in through the front door, then walked through the hallway door and entered the common room to find they were the last arrivals.

Alice hopped off the couch and dashed over, giving Vince then Hershel powerful hugs that only a girl with her height and arm span could manage. Mary was subtler, giving Vince a quick half hug, then sidling up to Hershel and taking his hand in hers as she stood close. Mary was never one for gratuitous affection, but the understated action spoke volumes of how she’d missed her man.

The final body to shamble up from its sprawled position on the couch was a sandy-haired youth with a new pair of sunglasses, somewhat more fashionable than last year’s, seated on the bridge of his nose.

“I knew you’d come back,” Vince said, shaking his friend’s hand.

“Believe it or not, after living with you nut jobs, Vegas felt... boring.” Nick spat out that last word, wiping his tongue across his teeth to scrape away the bad taste that accompanied it.

“Whatever you say,” Vince agreed. Nick moved on to give a quick shake of the palms to Hershel as well, and just like that, all five of the Melbrook students were reassembled.

“So when did you guys get in?” Vince asked.

“Mary and I made it this morning, Nick only beat you two by about an hour,” Alice informed him.

“Cool, so have you gotten to talk to anyone?” Vince asked. “I spoke to Will and Thomas briefly over the summer. They weren’t exactly happy with us, but I think we’re okay with them.”

“Alex harbored no ill will at all,” Hershel added.

Alice shook her golden locks to the negative. “We weren’t as close with the others as you guys were, and we haven’t really been able to run them down and talk things out today.”

“Why not?” Hershel asked.

A well-built man in spectacles stepped into view from their kitchen.

“I’m afraid I’m to blame for that,” Dean Blaine said, striding across the room and taking a seat in one of the area’s many chairs.

“You didn’t let them leave?” Hershel asked.

“I prefer to say I strongly advised against it until the rest of you had arrived. You see, we have much to talk about, and I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t give you a comprehensive idea of what to expect in this new school year,” Dean Blaine explained.

“So what should we be expecting?” Vince asked.

“To put it bluntly: adversity,” Dean Blaine replied.

Chapter 2

“Things have calmed down a bit since your departure,” Dean Blaine elaborated. “Unfortunately, that has also given people time to truly grasp the implications of your existence. To say I received some complaints regarding your enrollment would be a significant understatement.”

“They don’t want us here?” Of them all, only Vince could be genuinely surprised by such a statement.

“At the very least, a vocal minority of them do not,” Dean Blaine said. “I, however, do. Regardless of what you started life as, you are currently Supers. You have also shown the kind of determination and talent needed to enroll in the sophomore year of the HCP. Any information beyond that is extraneous and irrelevant so far as your admittance goes. With that said, I feel you should all be braced for a far less welcoming atmosphere than you found last year at Lander.”

“We know some of our friends are sticking by us,” Hershel said.

Dean Blaine nodded. “And I’m sure more will in time. Right now you aren’t the people they knew, but rather a representation of one of the greatest unspoken fears in Super society. Eventually, some of them will begin seeing you for the individuals you are once more.”

“But not everyone,” Alice said somberly.

“No, Ms. Adair. Not everyone. In the meantime, I suggest you stay close, work together, and trust in the allies you still have. That mindset will be very important this year, but you’ll get the details on that tomorrow. Now, on to logistics. I’m sure you’re all wondering about Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport. I’m... well, not pleased, but not angered, to report that they will be returning to Melbrook as your guardians.”

There was a general expression of pleasure and relief for the five to learn that not only had the duo survived, they were also being reinstated in their post.

“The other professors and I will be keeping an eye on you as well, for extra security. I’m afraid I have to report that despite several interrogation sessions, George has yet to divulge any information about who he was delivering Mary to, or why. That means for the moment we have no idea if you all are still in danger, so we’ve chosen to assume you are,” Dean Blaine continued.

Nick raised an eyebrow. “So you’re going to be spying on us? Creepy.”

“Now, now, Mr. Campbell. There’s no such thing as privacy in the HCP facility anyway. We’ll just be more actively watching over you five.”

“We appreciate it,” Mary said politely.

“No trouble at all. I think that outlines most of what you needed to know immediately. People are angry, you’re still assumed to be in danger, same people living here as last year. Yes, I’d say that covers the high notes.” Dean Blaine rose from the chair and adjusted his glasses. “Oh yes, one more thing. Last year you were not able to use the lifts to enter the HCP facility and instead had to rely on Mr. Transport. I’m not sure what reason he gave you for this, but the truth is that it was because I wasn’t sure any of you should have that access. I didn’t quite know what to expect of you and I certainly didn’t trust you.”

“Yeesh, thanks, jerk,” Nick quipped.

“The point I was driving at was that this year you will find them quite functional for all of you. You are free to come and go at your own leisure. Welcome to the Hero Certification Program,” Dean Blaine concluded. He exited through the front door, letting the cold steel lock shut with an audible thud behind him.

“Well, that was a real upper,” Nick said in the ensuing silence.

“Forewarned is forearmed,” Vince replied, picking up his own bag once more and heading toward the boys’ side. “I need to unpack then maybe we can all grab dinner.”

“Oh yeah, me, too,” Hershel said, hurriedly gathering his own parcels. “Where should we go? I bet the dining halls are open.”

“Of course they’re open, tomorrow is the first day of class,” Nick pointed out. “We got here a day earlier last year for freshman orientation and they were already serving up what we’ll choose to refer to as food.”

“Then let’s do that,” Hershel said as the door sealed behind him.

Nick turned to the girls. “Should I point out to him that we’re currently pariahs to a small but very powerful portion of the population, and we have to keep our abilities here, along with our HCP enrollment, a secret? You know, the sort of situation that warrants avoiding densely-packed areas of students where we’re likely to encounter an antagonizing entity that could blow our cover to purposely get us booted?”

“They’d get themselves thrown out too,” Alice pointed out.

“Not if they were smart about it. Besides, even if they did, I’ll bet you money one of the other colleges would take them in. They’d be hailed as legends for keeping the name of Hero pure by knocking out people like us,” Nick said.

“Maybe so,” Mary agreed. “But I for one refuse to spend the rest of my time here shaking in fear of what some jerk may or may not do. I’m going to live my life, and if anyone decides to interfere with that... well, I suppose at the very least we can make them work for it.”

“Easy for you to say,” Alice noted. “You can actually follow through on that threat. Nick and I are somewhat less able to take a toll on any would-be attackers.”

“Speak for yourself. I plan to curse anyone who tries to drum me out with terrible luck at sex for the rest of their lives,” Nick said.

Both girls turned to look at their sandy-haired companion.

“Can you actually do that?” Alice asked.

Nick shrugged. “Sex comes from confidence, and if someone thinks they’re cursed, they’ll sabotage themselves. So sort of, I guess.”

“Seems a bit roundabout for you,” Mary said.

“I’ll think of something. I guess I’d better since it seems you folks are set on going about business as usual,” Nick said.

“That we are,” Mary agreed. “So let’s go help the boys and then get ourselves some sloppy joes.”

Alice groaned audibly as they headed out of the common room, her stomach already protesting its impending culinary assault.

Chapter 3

“Feels strange to be wearing grey,” Nick commented as the Melbrook students filtered into the large lecture hall alongside the rest of the non-freshman HCP students. The black-uniformed newbies had gone through their meeting the day before; this morning had consisted of their battles for initial ranking. Evidently watching those fights was quite the spectator sport for the sophomore and older students, but the quintet had decided that it was best to avoid such condensed crowds until they had a better grasp of where public opinion was leaning.

It hadn’t taken long to answer that question. Just in their journey from the surface to the locker rooms for changing into uniforms and now into the hall, they’d lost track of the number of dirty looks and furtive whispers buzzing about. There had been the occasional outright glare, as well as the all-too-rare supportive smile. It seemed the overall consensus was that no one knew quite what to make of them. For the moment they were being regarded with the same apprehension one showed the bearded woman at a carnival: curiosity, disgust, and superiority, but not outright malice. It was actually much better than it could have been.

All five sat near the top of the stadium-style seating arrangement, unsurprised to find the once occupied spots around them quickly emptying. They were near the end of the procession, so the abandoners had only moments to relocate before Dean Blaine stepped to the podium positioned in the center area and addressed his audience.

“I’ll keep this brief,” Dean Blaine began, adjusting his glasses without noticing. This was not a speech he looked forward to giving, but it had to be done. “Normally you are all only called together like this for emergency announcements. I want to put your mind at ease and assure you we are not under any imminent threats. This meeting is to discuss the replacement of two of our staff.”

A quick buzz whipped through the crowd; the majority of them had only heard garbled rumors about George and Persephone, even if most claimed that they were privy to knowing the “real deal.”

“I’m certain that all of you are at least partially aware of the situation, and I want to apologize that it is only now I can tell you something concrete. Due to the delicate nature of this scenario, a full investigation was warranted before any statements of certainty were issued. That investigation has been concluded, and it is now my duty to inform you that both George and Persephone attempted to kidnap one of the freshman female students last year.”

The buzz spiked in both tempo and volume. Many glances were tossed around, though it was only the sophomores who threw most of them at the five students sitting near the top.

“I won’t be going into the details, predominantly because so many of them are still yet to be fully verified, but you all deserve to know that piece of truth. They committed a crime, betrayed the trust placed in them as educators, and have been replaced. You will meet your new teachers in their respective classes; they’ve requested I allow them to make their own introductions rather than trot them out in front of you all. I realize that this is difficult news, as many of you have grown to trust and respect your teachers over the years. To that regard we are offering counselors on site for the next few months. Should any of you feel the need to talk, their services will be freely available upon request.”

The buzz had dulled to a simmer, the initial shock of finding out such outlandish rumors were true giving way to the reality of what was being said. Two of their coaches had gone rogue and had tried to steal a student away in the night. After the first wave of disbelief passed through them, many of the students were hit with the terror deep in the pits of their stomachs as a uniform thought echoed across the landscape of their minds: “It could have been me.”

“I want to assure you that we’ll share more information about this incident with you as we obtain it. For right now, that is all. The sophomores need to report to the gym for this year’s orientation. Juniors will have theirs in three hours, and of course seniors already know what to do with their day. If you have any questions about this, please take note of my office hours and know that my door is always open to each of you,” Dean Blaine concluded. “You are now dismissed.”

“That wasn’t so bad,” Vince said. “I wonder why they didn’t have the freshmen in here too.”

“Kind of a ‘duh’ on that one. The dean just had to admit two of his own staff went off the reservation big time. The last thing the new kids need to hear at their welcoming is that the staff they’re supposed to be trusting with their lives have a recent history of kidnapping and treachery,” Nick told him.

“They don’t, not the ones that are left. The only two who were guilty are gone,” Alice said.

“You’ll forgive me, but until I know for sure what the motivation behind that fiasco was, I’m going to just go ahead and assume everyone here has a motive for wanting us kidnapped or dead,” Nick replied.

“That seems like a cynical overreaction,” Hershel said.

“Not really,” Nick shrugged. “I pretty much assume that about everyone anyway.”

“Well, Nick’s advocacy of paranoia aside, he has a point,” Mary said. “First year is already scary, the last thing they need is someone tossing on yet another thing to be afraid of.”

“Yeah, between the masses of people being drummed out, the mystery of what the classes are like, and the challenges for rank, there is already plenty to keep a freshman on their toes,” Vince agreed.

Nick snickered. “You don’t see the humor here, do you? We’re in the exact same boat. We don’t have any idea of what this year’s syllabus of examinations will be like. We’re no better off than the freshmen.”

“No, there is one big difference,” Hershel corrected. “We know we can make it through a year. We know we’ve got what it takes to survive the cuts.”

“Pretty trivial difference,” Nick said.

Hershel smiled at him. “Everything is trivial, right up until you need it. Now let’s go see what fresh horrors this year has in store.”

Chapter 4

The grey-uniformed population of the gym had thinned slightly from its black-clad incarnation. Though Vince recognized all of his once-friends amidst the sophomores, there were definitely some faces missing. Faces of people whom he’d seen struggling and working and fighting right alongside the rest of them. Faces that wouldn’t be seen again in the HCP. It was a solemn reminder that there was a long road ahead, with plenty of opportunities to wash out. Vince shook his head and focused on the task at hand. There were six individuals clustered with Dean Blaine in the center of the room, all of them quite distinctive and unfamiliar.

“Today, we are going to talk about majors,” Dean Blaine announced once everyone had gathered within range of his voice. “Freshman year is used as a trial by fire. We drum out those who can’t cut it and get those who can into shape. From sophomore year onward, things will be working a bit differently. For starters, we’re going to be having only a single hour of gym together each day. The rest of your time will be spent in your respective classes. Here at Lander, as well as in all schools participating in the HCP, we offer six distinctive courses designed to evolve you into field-ready Heroes. I’ll let the professors introduce themselves and their courses in a moment; right now I just want to touch on the program as a whole.”

“This year you will each be enrolled in three of the six courses. These were chosen by determining the areas you can best grow, as well as your performances in last year’s final exam. Come your junior year, you will be allowed to continue in the two areas you show the most promise, and in your senior year you will devote all of your energy to a single area of focus. This final area is considered your specialty, or major, in the HCP. It will help determine what sort of Hero you’ll be and give you a good idea of where you should apply for internships.”

“Internships?” Vince whispered to Alice with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, don’t you know? Once you graduate you have to intern under an existing Hero for two years before you can work on your own. It gives real world experience,” Alice hurriedly whispered back.

“That is, of course, a long way down the road and will only concern a fraction of you,” Dean Blaine continued. “There is something else relevant to this year, however. Last year we focused on learning to fight one on one, which is a core concept for any Hero. However, one of the great advantages we have over criminals is our ability to work together in a trusted and cohesive unit. For that purpose, tomorrow you will be split up into teams. Aside from your performance in your classes, there will be several team-based challenges throughout the school year. Your performance in these will, of course, affect whether or not you join us for the junior year curriculum. The details for that will be covered at the commencement of tomorrow’s gym period along with the team selection, so for now I will defer to your professors so that they might introduce themselves.”

Dean Blaine stepped back, opening up the floor to whoever wanted to come forward. The first one to take the step was the most unassuming. She was an older woman, clearly in her sixties or seventies from the wispy grey hair and mild hunch in her spine. Already diminutive, the curve in her figure made her border on tiny. Her voice betrayed none of the frailty of her form, speaking loud and firm with the confidence only a wealth of experience could provide.

“It is a pleasure to meet you all. My name is Esme Stone, though it will be Professor Stone to you lot. I teach the subject of Focus, and those of you who enter my class will emerge with a new level of understanding regarding the inner workings of the self.”

She stepped back into line, allowing the next speaker to come forward. He was a tall man with a broad chest and jet black hair, only his temples showed his age with a few patches of white.

“My name is Professor Hill,” he barked in a loud, determined-to-be-commanding voice. “I teach the subject of Control. The privileged few who gain access to my class will be taught to command external forces on greater levels than they ever thought possible.”

The next figure to step forward was easily the most distinctive. It was covered with cloth strips on every possible exposed part of its skin, making it look like a mummy wearing clothes and a large cloak. A sizable sword hilt protruded from over its shoulder, and it walked like a snake just begging for a reason to strike. It shocked many of the students to hear a female voice emerge from the wrapped face unmuffled. It was high-pitched and delicate, but not delicate in the sense of fine china or hand-crafted porcelain. It was delicate like an unstable explosive.

“My name is Professor Cole. I teach the course on Weapons. Those of you unfortunate enough to get me will be beaten, cut, burned, sliced, skewered, and snapped. You will get strong, and those who make it to the end might even emerge as warriors.”

The next figure stepped forward quickly, a pretty woman in her mid-forties with hair somewhere between brown and red, as if it wasn’t quite able to make up its mind.

“My name is Professor Baker, and I’ll be teaching some of you Ranged Combat. I feel like my course’s name pretty much explains it all.”

She stepped immediately back in line, leaving only two figures remaining. They exchanged glances briefly, and the taller of the two took a bounding step forward.

“My name is Sean Pendleton,” said the man, his dark hair hanging forward, slightly dangling into his eyes. “Though I suppose from now on it is Professor Pendleton. I’ve been brought here to teach you in the art of Subtlety. Much like any other art, all I can really do is help develop what already exists. Some of you have the touch, while others don’t. I look forward to seeing what you can do.” Professor Pendleton gave a grand bow before retreating to the line, leaving only one figure remaining.

He took his step forward and gazed out at the students. He was an older man, probably only younger than Professor Stone. His powerful frame was largely concealed under his gaudy Hawaiian shirt, but he carried himself in a way that made it evident he was not a man to be taken lightly.

“My name is Professor Fletcher, and in addition to teaching Close Combat, I’ll also be running the gym sessions and overseeing the team events. For the slower of you that means that yes, I am new here and was brought in to replace George. Now, this leads me to the unfortunate disadvantage I suffer meeting you in your second year. Normally, I would have trained you all up and seen your fighting prowess on a finite level. That would let me gauge what to expect from many of you in the year to come, as well as earning your respect by demonstrating my skill as a fighter. Since I missed that opportunity, I’m afraid my most practical remaining option is simply to test you all with my own fists and get a sense of your strength from that.”

The rest of the professors and the dean began backing away from Professor Fletcher. He cracked his knuckles lightly and gave the class an oddly reassuring smile.

“Anyone who needs to shift, do so now. In ten seconds I intend to fight you all at once.”

Chapter 5

“You’re sure you want to start things off like this?” Professor Cole asked; Professor Fletcher still hadn’t pieced together how she spoke so clearly through all that cloth.

For his part, Carl Fletcher nodded his head and took a sip of his tea. The dean’s meeting would end soon and the students would be filing into the gym. Right now the professors were all dwelling in the break room, discussing plans for their first introduction.

“I’m sure,” he said. “I don’t agree with a lot of George’s old methods, but he and I do see eye to eye on a few points. Having faith and respect in the people trusting you is definitely one of them.”

“Perhaps, but given the atmosphere and recent events I’m not certain showing the class that not even all twenty-eight of them at once can beat you instills the sense of security you think it does,” Esme said, sipping her own mug filled with strong black coffee.

“It’s not ideal,” Carl conceded. “But if we’re talking ideal I wouldn’t be here and George wouldn’t be a turncoat. We can’t afford to treat them with kid gloves because of his and Persephone’s mistake. The students still have to learn, and to do that effectively they need to believe we have something to teach them.”

“Which begs the question, why are you the one squaring off with them?” Blake Hill asked, his tone respectful and his eyes suspicious.

“Three reasons,” Carl replied. “First, I’m the Close Combat class teacher, so it makes sense that I’m the one to fight them. Second, I’ve got a lot of experience in bringing down Supers without doing lasting damage. And finally, because I’m the new guy. If I can beat them all so easily, they’ll think you more experienced folks can kill them with a thought.”

“A great idea,” Professor Pendleton contributed, “with one caveat. We’re talking about twenty-eight kids with pretty exceptional skills. Are you sure you can beat them?”

Carl gave an easy smile and finished the rest of his tea.

*    *    *

If last year had taught the students nothing else, it was to take seriously a threat of violence from one of their teachers. Professor Fletcher had scarcely finished speaking before Stella had adopted a more chromeish veneer and Hershel had gulped down the contents of his pocket flask. Others in the class took fighting poses, or brought themselves up to full alertness before Professor Fletcher took his first step. Not that it helped much.

Most of the students only saw the man in the brightly colored shirt vanish before their eyes. A select few were still conscious to see him reappear on the other side of the crowd, or rather on the other side of the sea of collapsed bodies. They were also privy to the light show that streaked the air, wild currents of electricity hanging about like floating tinsel, searing the eyes for a moment then fading away into oblivion. Of the seven still standing, only Chad and Sasha had been able to see everything that happened.

“Not bad,” Professor Fletcher said. “I expected to get more of you with that.”

“E-Electricity,” Sasha panted. Most of the others had remained standing due to their natural resistances. She and Gilbert, on the other hand, had actually dodged his attacks, a task which had tasked her speed and reflexes to the limit. “You turned into electricity.”

“Quite,” Professor Fletcher confirmed. “You see, of the known Supers in the world, approximately seven percent fall into an elemental manipulation category, such as the ice user over there.”

Michael’s armor of ice was melting on the ground as he lay passed out on the cold cement floor. Frozen water was an excellent barrier from physical assaults, but it came up lacking as an electrical insulator.

“Most of these can only generate or shift a certain kind of element. Of that seven percent, about a quarter have total mastery of their element. The ability to sense it, create it, control it, and alter it in any fashion they see fit. Now, of that quarter, a mere ten percent are so powerful that they can give their physical bodies aspects of their element. Stony skin, boiling touch, and even a thing like lightning speed becomes possible.”

“Yeah, yeah, we get it, you’re the cream of the crop, you rise to the top,” Roy said, shaking off the last attack. It had been a strong charge, but he’d remained standing. He was somewhat pleased to note that of the men’s top five ranks, only he and Chad could boast that claim. “Big whoop, we’ve heard it before.”

“The point I was trying to make, good student, is that even that ten percent of a quarter of seven percent is still classified under me. Because I don’t just assume my element, I can actually turn into it,” Professor Fletcher concluded. “So let’s see, still standing we have two resistance- and strength-based fighters, one absorber, one super speeder, one density controller, one rubber man, and one short range teleporter. Decisions, decisions.”

Chapter 6

Gilbert readied himself to leap again the moment the Professor disappeared. He knew he couldn’t win this way, but if he kept mobile long enough he might run out the clock until one of the combat capable people took him down. Professor Fletcher lurched forward and Gilbert teleported through the world, arriving at the rear of the gym, hopefully a long way from both sight and mind. A jolt of energy surged through his body, scrambling his wits and sending him crashing to the floor.

“Teleportation is a useful tactic,” Professor Fletcher informed him. “But the limitation is that you still think and react at human speeds. Which means someone who moves fast enough can easily sneak up behind you. In the future, try to think in terms of multiple jumps so as to confuse your opponent.”

Sasha stood on the balls of her feet. She could see when he transformed and see how the mass of energy moved. She alone could outmaneuver him; she alone might stand a chance. This was how she would start her year: not as the freak’s ex-girlfriend, but as a warrior on par with the new fighting teacher.

The surge of light and power flashed toward her, quick, but not so quick that she wasn’t able to slide out of the way. He was very fast but as she twisted her body around she knew he wouldn’t overtake her. She kept knowing that, right until his large hand closed around her arm.

“You are extremely fast,” Professor Fletcher complimented. “But unlike me, you still have too many physical limitations. Ever with your sped up reaction times, your bones and muscles can’t match lightning. Which means you can’t match me with dodging alone; you should have used a little offense as well.” It took an impressive charge to drop the girl with pink tips in her dark hair, but she tumbled to the ground like the rest eventually.

Hector took advantage of the distraction to charge forward. He’d been waiting since he got to the HCP for a match up like this. For all the electricity this old man might be packing, there was nothing he could do against Hector once he turned his body to living rubber. Not only did it give him amazing protection from bludgeoning attacks, but it rendered him an insulator. This was his fight to win. He reached the professor just as Sasha fell, letting fly a mean left hook toward the wrinkled face. His fist connected only with air, as he found the teacher standing to his side.

“Quite bold, and I can see why. To the untrained, this match seems heavily weighted in your favor. Of course, that ignores the fact that your defenses are ill-suited against attacks that slice or pierce, but even more importantly, it overlooks a basic piece of engineering knowledge,” Professor Fletcher said. He wrapped the rubber boy in bear hug and held on tightly. “Namely, that there is no such thing as lightning proof, only resistant.” The gym practically glowed as Professor Fletcher coursed electricity through Hector’s body. He stopped well short of a point that would have seriously melted the rubber composition but made certain to leave the boy a limp pile upon the floor.

Roy didn’t bother with getting ready or running forward. The guy was too fast to see. His only hope was to wait until he slowed down enough to attack and then give him a good wallop. He braced his legs and tightened his right arm. He was still ready for the attack when the tremendous voltage stuck him in the chest, sizzling through him and sending him into the realm of dreams. This same line of attack brought down Violet as well, the two sprawling out in different locations but with similar styles.

“If I was a speeder, then they would have selected a viable strategy,” Professor Fletcher acknowledged as he came to a stop. “Those are made of flesh and bone, and as such have to slow themselves to attack with accuracy. As a being composed of energy, I’m able to deliver as much juice as I need while simply going through them. Which brings me to you two.”

Vince stood ready, his body open to the charge of power that would soon be delivered. Chad was more relaxed, his body centered and brain running at full tilt. He couldn’t maintain such a heightened state all the time, but by over-clocking his brain, he was able to think and react at the level of a super speeder.

“The top of the class and the leader of the group that brought down George. Do you know why you two are the only ones left?”

Neither boy took the bait, merely waiting for his next movement.

“Because I haven’t gotten to you yet.” Professor Fletcher was suddenly standing by Vince, who readied himself for the influx of energy. What he received instead was an influx of punches to his head and torso as the professor knocked him dizzy.

“You have a great defense against energy,” Professor Fletcher complimented as he delivered a right to Vince’s temple that sent the silver-haired boy toes up. “Sadly, that doesn’t help against a fighter with superior skill. In this case I did warn you that people at my level can take on aspects of our element, such as speed, without shifting into it. Remember, just because I have a preferred method of attack doesn’t mean it’s my only one.”

Professor Fletcher turned his attention to the last remaining student. The highest ranked student from the men’s category, unofficially recognized as the strongest fighter in his whole class. He rushed to Chad’s front, sending out a few punches to gauge his speed. Chad dodged about expertly, sending back a few jabs of his own.

“You’re impressive. You have the power and endurance of a classic strength fighter along with the perception and reactions of a super speeder. I bet there are even more techniques locked away in that head of yours. Unfortunately, I have a class coming in for gym soon, so I don’t have time to see just how far you can go. Some other time, perhaps.”

In a whirl of movement, Chad found himself encircled by electricity, a crackling fence that barred him from any escape. The circle drew tight, eventually ensnaring its prey completely.

By the time Chad’s unconscious body joined the others on the floor, Carl Fletcher was standing a few feet away, wiping the small beads of sweat that had dripped down from his salt and pepper hair onto his forehead.

“Whew. I am getting old. That almost left me winded,” he said.

Professor Pendleton, standing amidst the others who had acted as audience to the assault, struggled to keep the look of amazement off his face as he spoke to the now nearly empty room.

“Is this a good slow clap moment? Because it kind of feels like a good slow clap moment.”

Chapter 7

Vince rubbed his head as he and the others walked among the late summer foliage that decorated the Lander campus. He’d been healed, of course. They all had. But somehow he felt like something still smarted. Were Vince the introspective sort, he might have considered the possibility that it was his pride.

“Yeesh, I feel like I’m still walking funny,” Nick complained, his own gait easily on par with the others despite his protests. “Next time I’m pinning a note to my shirt: ‘Do not let Ed heal.’”

“Who is Ed?” Alice asked.

“One of the junior year healers. What’s wrong with Ed?” Roy answered and asked.

“His power just speeds up the body’s natural healing to light speed. I prefer the ones that make it like it never happened,” Nick explained.

“You want some cheese with that whine?” Mary said snidely.

“No, but I would like some original content in your insults,” Nick shot back. “I’m just saying, electricity can have long term effects. What if it had screwed with my nervous system, or worse, dulled my rapier wit?”

“We’d finally have proof of a just and loving God?” Alice ventured.

“Ha. Ha. Just for that I’m not listening to your votes on what to watch for our welcome back movie marathon,” Nick snapped.

“Oh no, please, please, please be joking,” Mary’s soft voice implored.

“Come on, how else do you want to celebrate our return to Lander than by engaging in our traditional form of revelry?”

“Literally, I mean literally, anything else,” Alice said.

“Fine then. Whipped cream orgy it is.”

“Is it sad that I’d almost prefer that to more slasher flicks?” Mary asked.

“At this point, no,” Vince agreed as he opened the Melbrook front door. The five students piled in and down the hallway, entering the common room to find a set of unexpected guests awaiting them.

“Good afternoon,” Mr. Transport said, flashing them a wide smile. Mr. Numbers was more subdued in his greeting, merely offering a curt nod to his charges as they meandered into view.

“You guys are back!” Vince cried happily. Despite the dean’s assurance, Vince had remained worried about what repercussion the Mr.’s would face for their role in Mary’s rescue.

“Of course,” Mr. Transport confirmed. “I’m sorry we’re a bit late, there were a few final loose ends to wrap up before we were able to return. I trust you had a good orientation?”

“Good? Why, it was downright... shocking.”

It’s hard to say who threw the first light punch into Nick’s shoulder for that awful pun, but it was easily observable that everyone joined in before he cried out for mercy.

“It was interesting,” Mary reported more factually. “Looks like second year is a lot different from the first.”

“In more ways than one,” Roy tacked on.

“So we’ve been briefed,” Mr. Numbers said. “It will be hard. Try to keep up.”

“What Mr. Numbers means to say is that we have faith you five will make us proud and all do well enough to make it to third year,” Mr. Transport hastily added.

“Sure,” Mr. Numbers said, in a tone that one could take as an agreement, were they feeling particularly generous.

“Well, glad as we all are to see you, we were already deep in a discussion about how to spend our evening,” Nick said, steering the conversation back toward his original goal.

“Uggggh.” The groan came from both the gathered students and, if one were listening quite carefully, was slightly augmented by a small contribution from the pursed lips of Mr. Numbers.

*    *    *

Carl sat in his new office, a formerly paper-cluttered mess that had been scrubbed clean of all documents in the course of the recent investigation. He drank a glass of water and eyed the small white pills in front of him. It was ludicrous to him that he could transform into living lighting, fight off an entire room of young bucks, and yet his doctor was still lecturing him on the importance of monitoring his cholesterol. It seemed like a horrible prank perpetrated on him by the cosmos. Still, Carl Fletcher was a pragmatic man, so he swallowed the pills along with a mouthful of water and grimaced at the bitter taste.

A light hand knocked on his door, then slid the wooden barrier open without waiting for a response. Carl glanced up to see a tall man with dark shaggy hair waltz in and plop down in a chair positioned directly before the desk.

“That,” Sean Pendleton said, “was truly stupendous. I mean, a masterful display of skill and power woven together in a tapestry of ass-kicking.”

“Thanks,” Carl replied, taking another draw from his water.

“A sight like that, it speaks to a lifetime of experience. Certainly years spent in active combat, not to mention extensive training beforehand.”

“They don’t exactly hire rookies to teach here,” Carl deflected.

“Oh no, certainly not. In fact, generally speaking, only Heroes with exceptional pedigrees and pristine records are even considered for these positions. I say generally because I believe you and I are exceptions to that rule. You see I, in case you weren’t aware, am a convicted thief on the grandest of scales. And you, well, you are a no one,” Sean said.

“Aren’t you just a charmer?”

“I don’t mean it as an insult, I meant it literally. See a talent like yours coupled with the skill you showed would hardly go unnoticed, even in the world of Heroes. But I’ve never seen or heard of any Hero with your particular talents, and I even went to the trouble of doing some digging after the spectacle. You aren’t a criminal either; I certainly would have heard of someone like you running in that circle. So that leaves you as a nobody. Which presents quite the conundrum.” Sean leaned forward at this point and lowered his voice. “Because, you see, I know why I was chosen to replace Persephone. And given the situation at hand, I can only conclude that Dean Blaine tapped you for precisely the same reason.”

“Trust,” Carl surmised, his own tone matching the low audibility of Sean’s.

“Right on the money,” Sean said. “Dean Blaine is in quite a precarious position, and as such seems bent on surrounding himself with personnel he can count on. Now, I know why I’m perceived as loyal. You, however, remain something of an enigma to me.”

“While everything you’ve said is true, I fail to see how it’s any of your business,” Carl replied.

“Simply put? You and I were both brought here from the outside after a fantastic snafu. Now, while he would never want to admit it, two top employees going so far off the reservation must have shaken Blaine’s faith in his staff. And rightly so: we still have no real idea what the point of their little after-hours field trip was. So a logical person would be forced to assume that there is more going on than what is presented on the surface.”

“You’ve just said a lot without getting to the point.”

“My point, you cretin, is that in a program where every human cog is a potential Judas, the only people we can safely trust are the dean and one another. So I’m proposing we get to know each other a bit better, given the shaky alliance we find ourselves thrust into.”

Carl sighed and finished off his cup of water. At this rate his doctor would have him on stress medication, too.

Chapter 8

Vince sat on one of the many benches that littered the Lander campus, looking up at the stars. The wooden slats were hard against his back and the night was still a touch too summery to be truly comfortable, but to the former wanderer these inconveniences weren’t even noticeable. He was too caught up in thought, too enraptured in the sentiment that was washing over him, one he had felt so rarely he didn’t even fully understand what it was. Vince was experiencing the warm glow of coming home after time away.

He hadn’t really believed it, hadn’t let himself believe it, for the whole summer. Every ring of the phone, every letter in the mail, each piece of contact that arrived would certainly inform him that he and his ilk were not welcome to return. That they were being booted to make room for the real Supers. That his wonderful but brief fever dream of becoming a Hero was coming to an end.

The call never came. Still, he didn’t trust it. He was sure Melbrook would be boarded up when they arrived. He was certain that the lifts would refuse them entry into the underground area. He was positive the other Supers would band together and drive them from the subterranean halls. Today was the first time that fear had finally vanished. Strangely enough, it was only after getting his head punched about by Professor Fletcher that Vince finally felt like a true HCP student again. He was reveling in that feeling.

The others had probably gone to sleep, but Vince had been unable. That was why he was out on the campus in the dead of night, body stretched out on a bench that was too small and looking up at a universe that was too big. Were he another student, he might have been concerned for his safety. Lander was a secure place; however, there is nowhere that is truly safe to be caught unaware in the middle of the night. Vince, however, had no such concerns, and nor should he have. After all, Vince Reynolds was not a regular person.

Vince Reynolds was a Super.

*    *    *

Alice Adair’s leg flew through the air and locked into position, matching the figure on her television nearly perfectly. She took a step down on the extended leg then snapped out the other one. She followed this up with a series of rhythmic punches then stepped back.

Clad in yoga pants and sports bra, Alice would have looked more appropriate in an upscale gym than her actual location, her bedroom. Playing on her TV screen was a well-built man in his early forties, taking her through a set of attacks and withdraws supposedly designed to emphasize precision over power: in other words, a fighting system built on the premise of women lacking upper body strength. This man made five separate tapes, each containing a workout that lasted about an hour. Alice was on the third one so far tonight. Over the summer she’d done all five every night. For a normal person it would have been ridiculously taxing. For someone who’d been physically conditioned by Coach George for nine months, it was well within the range of doable.

Alice’s arms, always slender, were now beginning to possess a shape more distinctive than simple cylinders of pale flesh. She was gaining tone and muscle across her frame, and it was shaping her into more than the pretty teen she had once been. Alice Adair was becoming beautiful. Not just for her fitness, but for the increasing grace with which she moved and the surety with which she carried herself. It was nice; however, it was nothing more than a side-effect.

Alice had always been pretty. Alice had always known how to carry her body to send certain signals. Alice had always been dainty. Frail. Weak.

She let loose another flurry of kicks in the solitude of her room, images of last year’s fiasco sending adrenaline through her veins. All she’d done, all Alice had ever been able to do, was run away. And she hated it.

Alice stepped forward and dealt out a series of deft jabs. She wanted to be stronger. She needed to be capable. Alice Adair didn’t want to run any more.

*    *    *

Roy lifted another set of weights, this time focusing on his biceps. At this time of night, the gym down in the HCP was nearly deserted, only an occasional upperclassman walking by to cast a curious glance at him. Let them look; Roy couldn’t give less of a shit if he tried.

Roy pulled the weight slowly upward, coming to a rest at the top of his chest and then beginning the downward descent once more. Roy sometimes felt like his right arm made the trek easier than his left. He wondered if it was him trying to compensate, to imagine his right arm was making amends for its uselessness in the fight against George. If so, it needn’t have bothered. Roy’s body had failed as a whole that day; no one part had to bear the blame on its own. Roy had fought a variety of opponents in his life, starting well before Lander. Here the quality had increased, though. He’d seen with Chad how lacking his skills were, how much refinement he needed to play on the same field as the big boys.

His strength, however, that had never been called into question. Even against the number one ranked student in the class, it was only that Roy couldn’t make contact with him, not that the fist making the contact lacked the power to hurt. So Roy had spent the year focused on developing that skill set, on learning how to fight and knowing he was already strong enough. Until the day he wasn’t.

George had shrugged off his best attacks. All that work, all that time learning to connect, and he found himself lacking in the damage department, the one area in which he’d always been unstoppable. There was no denying the truth. He had been, at best, an inconvenience to George. If not for Vince’s help, Roy didn’t even know if he would have been that. Vince, who at the beginning of the year had been nothing more than a twig who couldn't light a cigar. Nick had done the planning. Alice had been the speed. And Mary, Mary had saved them all, despite the fact that she’d originally been the one in peril. That only left Roy, who realized he was, ever so slowly, getting passed by.

Roy set down the free weights and headed for the bench. He had to have it all. He had to fight with his brain and hit with his body. He needed to be better. He needed to be faster. He would not falter again.

And next time Roy Daniels met with George, he was determined not to need anyone’s help to knock the metal head cleanly from his shoulders.

*    *    *

Mary was actually asleep. She’d had quite a long day and anticipated another tomorrow, so after a light dinner and a warm shower, she’d plopped down into bed and set sail for the shores of dreamland. If only the slumber she’d found had actually been peaceful, it would have been quite a pleasant night. Sadly, such was not the case.

*    *    *

Nick clicked on a new link, a story containing an eyewitness account of a man made of lightning wreaking havoc in Minnesota ten years ago. It was, in all likelihood, a complete waste of time, but Nick hadn’t gotten this far without being thorough. Still, he was a bit surprised. Nick would have thought that given the showy abilities of Professor Fletcher he would have been the easiest to find information on.

That title had actually gone to Professor Pendleton, it had taken Nick less than a whole minute to find the opening segments of his fascinating story. The convict aspect was somewhat interesting, especially given his previous renown, but it wasn’t particularly useful. Someone else would raise that point in class; it didn’t need to be Nick Campbell. Besides, Nick wasn’t interested in extortion material or dirty laundry. The six folders lying on his bed weren’t filled with the family secrets of their subjects. They were stuffed with the limited data he’d managed to procure so far.

Having last names wasn’t all that helpful since they would have used different handles during their Hero days. A few of them, Professor Cole especially, had distinctive appearances. Nick managed a touch of good luck with that alone. He’d know more soon; all that was required was patience. Once he saw their powers, tracking down information would be worlds easier. And Nick intended to do just that. He wanted to know every nuance of their abilities, every weakness they might possess, even when they’d first known they were Supers. Nick wasn’t strong, or fast, or particularly intimidating. He would never be the kind of person who struck fear into the hearts of his enemies just by stepping onto a battlefield.

Nick did know, that is to say he truly understood, the value of information, however. And that merely goes to show how misplaced the fears of others were, because that trait alone made Nick Campbell one of the most dangerous men in all of the school.

Chapter 9

“Teamwork,” Professor Fletcher said, his strong voice echoing through the gym and landing upon the receptive sophomore ears. “Teamwork is our greatest advantage. Teamwork is what gives us an edge over the Supers who break the law. Teamwork can only come from trust, which can only come from not suspecting constantly that your teammates are looking to screw you over. That’s a gift only the good guys get. Nearly all Heroes have been, or still are, part of a team. There’s a reason for that. It’s a system that works.”

The attention of the students was well captivated by Professor Fletcher. Aside from the trouncing he’d given them the day before, he had a natural charisma that people responded to. Some of the more experienced faculty at Lander immediately recognized it as the decisiveness and confidence that came from having commanded one of the very teams he was talking about. It was the aura of leadership, and his last few years spent lounging in the sand hadn’t dulled it one bit.

“For that reason, this year you will see an emphasis on teamwork. In fact, you will be assigned to a team today and that will be your group for several events throughout the year. While you’ll attend classes as individuals, you’ll also be expected to take those skills and integrate them into the cooperative effort you’ll be building. And just so you know off the bat, this year’s final to qualify for advancement to third year will be a team event.”

There was a soft murmur of excitement amongst the students. Usually they didn’t know this much about their tests going in.

“Now since I did mention trust, normally we allow everyone to pick their own teams. We name some of the top ranks as captain then have them choose their partners one by one. Yes, we realize this leads to people picking their friends and we’re fine with that. Some captains do well with a thought out, coordinated strike team. Others choose people they can trust and depend on no matter the circumstances. I’ve seen the records and I can tell you both strategies are viable under the right circumstances. That’s what we normally do. But this year’s class isn’t exactly normal, now is it?”

There was an uncomfortable squirming from some of the students and unmasked glares from others. It seemed the collective attitude was somewhere between awkward and angry, which was still far better than Professor Fletcher had initially expected.

“That’s what I thought,” Professor Fletcher said. “All right then, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Five of your classmates were Powereds before they came here. Some of you are fine with that. Some don’t care. Some are liberally pissed off. There are probably even some of you that don’t know how you feel yet, and that’s okay. I’m not here to make everyone feel warm and squishy inside about this new development. What I am here to do is make sure we have four teams with good composition so that the match-ups result in legitimate learning opportunities. I somehow doubt that the teamwork will really be popping if each team has a few members that generate controversy and conflict just by existing. To that effect, this year we’re making a modification to the process. The four Captains will be Mary Smith, Chad Taylor, Shane DeSoto, and Britney Ferguson.”

Britney looked surprised, though she was one of the few. Despite the humble personality of the girl and seemingly non-combative nature of her ability, she’d placed highly in both last year’s midterm and final. She was resourceful, quick-witted, and determined under pressure, the perfect candidate for leading a team of fellow Supers.

“Now then, rather than forcing anyone to be on a team they have opposition with, we’re making things simple,” Professor Fletcher continued. “Roy Daniels, Mary Smith, Nick Campbell, Alice Adair, and Vince Reynolds will all be clumped into a single team.”

“Didn’t see that coming,” Nick mumbled under his breath. He actually agreed with this strategy, even if he hadn’t been able to help himself from imagining all the possible team combinations he could build from this selection of Supers. He’d crafted a few doozies too, but he was confident this team could do pretty well. Depending on who else they got, of course.

“For those of you keeping count, you’ll remember that the teams will be composed of seven each. That leaves this one short two members. So, instead of forcing anyone to get picked via the standard process, we’re just going to give the spots to people who want them. Anyone who is willing to work with these students, pasts as Powereds now known, please come step out from the line,” Professor Fletcher instructed.

It was a harsh move, admittedly, forcing people in this compact of a social sphere to publicly take sides with the outcasts. Professor Fletcher deemed it necessary, not only because they’d end up labeled as that by being on the team anyway, but because it would create a shared sense of being hated. There were few things to bring a group closer than by making them feel that their members were the only ones they could count on.

The first one to step forward was a lanky boy whose brown hair had grown shaggier over the summer. Had Hershel been there, Alex would have flashed him a smile as he moved his body before the rest of the class, but since it was Roy in attendance, Alex instead focused on looking stoic. Few people were surprised; after all, the delusional telepath was barely better than a Powered himself. Of course he would side with them.

Stella, Violet, and Thomas followed suit. They’d discussed it the night before and they’d decided to support their friends whenever they could. In truth, however, Thomas was strongly hoping not to get chosen for their team. Not because of lingering resentment, but because he very much wanted to face Vince in battle again. Vince had beaten Thomas once, and Thomas wanted to test his progress against those who had bested him.

Will felt his foot drift forward, then pulled it back in line. He had no problems with the group, and he would have happily served alongside his friends. That wasn’t viable, unfortunately; he needed to be in the same group as Jill and she would never take that step forward. He felt bad, and he fully intended to explain later, but his mind was set. Family came first.

Professor Fletcher was about to tell Mary to take her pick when one more figure gently glided forward. It was a small one, easy to miss in this crowd of large bodies and egos, but its advancement sent a ripple of surprise throughout the students remaining behind, as well as the ones standing forward.

Camille, for her part, tried to look nonplussed as she felt the stares of her class pile on top of her. Her neck became flushed and her hands started to tremble, but she kept all such nervousness off of her face. There would be time for cowardice later; now there was only the task at hand.

“More than I thought there would be,” Professor Fletcher commented. “Mary, take your choice of two.”

“I, um, I’m not sure,” Mary said. She hadn’t expected to be handed this responsibility, and wasn’t prepared to make a strategic decision that would affect all of her comrades for the rest of the year in the space of a few seconds. Fortunately, Mary’s particular talent kept her from being alone in her head, and even more fortunately there was a brain more cunning than hers actively lobbying to be heard from behind its stoic, sunglass-clad face.

“Camille,” Mary said, trying to sound sure of herself. The healer had been a relatively easy call; every team would have wanted her. It was the second choice that Mary was a little surprised by.

“And Alex,” she concluded. Mary wasn’t sure why Nick wanted someone who was essentially a weaker version of herself; however, she trusted his judgment in these matters. She’d just be demanding an explanation once they were away from prying eyes and ears.

“Okay, then, you seven cluster together,” Professor Fletcher said. “Everyone else, back in line. The other three Captains to the front. We’ll start based on rank, lowest going first, then up, and so on until all teams are formed. You’ll have a couple of minutes to talk, and then I’ll be giving out class schedules. Starting on Monday, you’ll be showing up for gym together then going to your assigned lessons. Team training takes place on your own time, so I’d advocate making some plans this weekend to find days that work for everyone. Just my advice, take it or leave it.”

None of the students were so thick-headed as to imagine there was actually a ‘leave it’ option on the table. Their final exam would take place with this group. Training was top priority in every one of their minds.

Chapter 10

“So, I guess we’re a team now,” Alice said as the seven clustered together. All across the room the other groups were circling up as well, having a quick chat and handling formalities while everything was still fresh and new. They were trying to adjust their mindsets, going from seeing each other almost exclusively as rivals to regarding one another in the light of camaraderie and mutual goals. The transition would be somewhat tumultuous in the majority of cases.

“Great to have you guys on board,” Vince said cheerfully. He shook Alex’s hand and slapped him on the back in a half hug. He did the same with Camille, albeit far more gently. It’s fortunate that doing so turned her face away from him, because Camille’s blush and expression would have made him think he had seriously injured her.

“Glad to be with you,” Alex said. “I have to say I was a little surprised you picked me. I mean, Thomas and Stella and Violet are all really strong fighters.”

Mary glanced at Nick, who took it upon himself to field the question.

“That they are,” Nick agreed. “But as the good professor pointed out, one of the core points of teamwork is trust. Now, while their stepping forward means the world to us, you’ve spent more time hanging out with us last year. You were also the first one to tell Hershel that you didn’t care about the whole Powered thing. To put a point on it, the five of us have experience working together, which is an advantage. Adding a sixth person who shares in some of that experience is worth vastly more to us than just another heavy hitter.”

“I’ve got that department handled,” Roy bragged, flexing a not unimpressive bicep. “I have to tell you, the one thing that surprised me was when the little lady here joined us.”

“Definitely,” Alice concurred. “I never expected to get the only healer in class with us. What made you decide to work with us, Camille?”

Camille let out a low squeak barely discernible to human ears. Luckily, Vince already had his own theory about her decision of addition.

“She’s good friends with the other three. I guess they all had the same sentiment toward helping us,” Vince said. He turned to Camille and gave her a reassuring smile. “Thank you, by the way. I know someone with your ability could have had their pick of teams to work with.”

“No, I... I’m happy to be here,” Camille said, her soft voice piping up with more enthusiasm than she’d expected. She really was happy, too, that much was clear to everyone with training or telepathy. Alex already suspected the actual reason, but it was Mary who proved to be the more curious. So much so that she opened up her own mind and listened in to Camille’s thoughts for a moment.

“Whoa,” Mary said, taking a step backward and shaking her head. Whatever she’d been expecting, she hadn’t expected it to come with that much force, that much feeling. It was crazy that such a meek girl could be ratcheted up to that level of intensity.

“What whoa?” Alice asked.

“Oh, um, just whoa, I’m really excited about our team,” Mary lied lamely. “I can’t wait to get together and do some training.”

“Nor should we,” Nick leapt in. “We have a weekend before us, so I say we do a little team building event.”

“I swear to god, if you say the words horror movie I’m going to forcibly remove your baby-making equipment,” Alice said.

“Perish the thought,” Nick replied. “No, I was thinking more along the line of an outing, an excursion if you will. Something fun for us all to do together. Shall we say tomorrow night?”

“What did you have in mind?” Alex asked.

“A classic training technique to help us learn to work fluidly and seamlessly,” Nick told her. “Wear something nice and meet at Melbrook around eight.”

“I’m terrified, but curious,” Vince admitted.

“Have no fear, I guarantee a night that will culminate in both training and entertainment,” Nick assured him.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the part that terrifies him,” Alice said. “Well, that gives us tomorrow night, I say we get our schedules and relax a little with our evening.”

“Sounds good,” Mary agreed.

“Yeah, I’m down,” Vince said. “I’ll meet you guys there. I need to run a quick errand first.”

“We’ll try to survive without you,” Nick assured him.

*    *    *

Michael Clark was halfway across campus, heading toward the nearest dining hall, when he realized he was being followed. He kept his head trained in the same direction and tried not to give any indications he was aware. There weren’t many people around – regular classes didn’t start until Monday this year, so he didn’t have to worry about any bystanders if things got violent. Not that he would have anyway. No, his only real concern was if things got wild and he used his powers he might get identified. That was still a big no-no, so he’d try to restrain himself.

Michael slowed his pace by a few steps, letting the muffled gait of his pursuer draw closer, then spun around on his heels with his fists up, ready to deal with the threat by any means necessary. What greeted him was a figure with familiar hair and a slightly startled expression on his face. Michael didn’t let his guard down one bit. If anything, he grew tenser.

“Trying to sneak up on me, huh? Can’t say I’m surprised,” Michael spat.

“I think I’ll gloss over the irony of that particular statement,” Vince said. “I’m not trying to sneak up on you or attack you.”

“Sure, then why are you following me?” Michael asked.

“Well, I needed to talk to you,” Vince explained.

“You’ve been following for a while just to talk.”

“I wasn’t really sure how to start things off,” Vince said. “So I kept trying to think of a good way, but stayed close so I could and then... I suppose you started things for me.”

“Uh huh,” Michael said skeptically. “Fine, then. I’ll play along: what did you want to talk about?”

“Two things, actually. First off, I wanted to know how you found out about us last year.”

“Lots of research and putting the pieces together.”

“No, that’s how you proved it to everyone else. I wanted to know what tipped you off in the first place.”

Michael stared at his opponent fiercely. There was nothing aggressive in his body language, nothing to suggest this request was coming with a threat of violence if not complied with. Still, Michael didn’t owe this freak any favors.

“There was always something off about you,” Michael lied. “I just trusted my gut and kept digging until I found the truth.”

Vince sighed. “If that’s what you want to stick with then I can’t force you to tell me. We will find out eventually. I’d just hoped you would have been a little more helpful.”

“Hope is a beautiful thing, you hang onto that,” Michael said. “What else did you want?”

“Oh, well, the other thing I wanted is to say ‘thank you’.”

Michael tilted his head in skepticism.

“No, I mean it. Not only for setting me free from living a lie, but for helping me see how wrong I was last year,” Vince said.

“What do you mean?”

“I kept thinking that by limiting my power intake I was keeping everyone else safe. I was so scared of losing control that I purposely kept myself as weak as possible. But if you hadn’t stirred up the whole campus, I doubt George and Persephone could have slipped off with our friends and in that whole fiasco I realized something important: I can’t keep anyone safe if I’m weak. I have to get past my fear of losing control and start using my power to its limit and then some. If I really want to keep everyone safe then I’ve got to be stronger than everyone and everything else,” Vince explained. “So, for that lesson, I sincerely do want to thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Michael said with a sneer. “Let me know if there’s anything else you want me to teach you.”

“Oh, I don’t think there’s any need for that,” Vince replied. His voice was the same, as was his stance, but something seemed to shift to Michael. He couldn’t put his finger on why, however he was certain something about this situation had become vastly more dangerous.

“I took that lesson to heart, Michael, and I think you’ll find I’m now far less hesitant about how much power I keep held within me. I genuinely meant that thank you, and I do hope one day you and I can become mutually respectful peers, if not outright friends. That said, until you get past whatever issues you seem to have with me, you should stay away. From me, and especially from my friends.”

“Big talk from a freak,” Michael said. “I think someone needs to be reminded which of us always wins our fights.”

Michael took a step forward and readied himself to charge. Suddenly he felt his breath slip out of his chest as the air around him rippled with heat. In less than a second the temperature had leapt up by tens of degrees and it was only getting hotter. He tried to gulp down new air but it burned at his lungs and gave him little relief. He fell to a knee in hopes of seeking cooler air closer to the ground. Then, just as soon as it had started, it was over. The heat dissipated and Michael was able to take several ragged breaths to sooth his pounding heart.

“I’m not here to fight. I just wanted to ask you a question and say thanks,” Vince said calmly. “I don’t have interest in fighting you, Michael. I never did. The difference is that I’m not going to put up with your antics anymore either. Please keep that in mind next time you decide to ambush me, because I’m done pulling punches.”

Vince turned and headed off toward his dorm, leaving Michael still panting for air and fuming with rage.

Chapter 11

It was later than he expected when a series of sharp knocks rang against Nick’s door. He glanced at the clock and saw the glowing digital numbers flashing nearly midnight. He supposed it was a Friday night, and Mary and Hershel would want to get some couple time in after all. Still, it was a good thing he was a night owl or else Nick might have been perturbed at the intrusion.

He opened to door to reveal Mary, dressed for the night in sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt, who walked briskly past him and plopped down in his desk chair.

“Can I help you?” Nick asked.

“You sure can,” Mary replied. “We need to talk about the team.”

“Wouldn’t that require the rest of the aforementioned team to be present?”

“Don’t be an ass. I trusted your judgment on picking Camille and Alex today. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to know why you thought they were the best choices,” Mary said.

“Someone is feeling nosy.”

“Someone is feeling responsible. I got selected as Captain, which means the hard choices fall on me to make. I think I’ve got a better chance of doing that if I have the best understanding of my team possible.”

“Why, Ms. Smith, are you saying that I can offer insight even to a telepath?”

“I’m saying you’re a better tactician and strategist than anyone else in our group. And yes, part of being a good leader is surrounding yourself with smart people and then actually listening to them,” Mary shot back. “Now, can we please end this little dance? You knew I was coming over for this, and I knew that you knew, which you knew, and blah blah blah.”

“I suppose that’s fair,” Nick said, sitting on the edge of his bed and facing Mary. “So you want to know why I picked Alex and Camille. Well, let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Camille is the only healer in our class. Having her means that we are literally the lone team in any game that can bring pieces back onto the board after they have been eliminated. That single fact would have made me pick her, but she actually brings more to the table than that. She’s socially awkward enough to be accustomed to the ostracization that will accompany siding with us, and she’s one of the few people whose loyalty we will never have to question.”

“What makes you say that?” Mary asked.

“Because she’s in love with Vince.”

“How do you-”

“Oh, come on, it’s not that hard. The girl never even glances at him unless she absolutely has to, and when she does it looks like she just swallowed a live chicken that’s trying to work its way free. She blushes every time he’s in vicinity of her, and she gave up being a number one draft pick to join us. Frankly, it’s so obvious that really anyone could tell if they paid attention. Anyone other than Vince, I mean.”

“I suppose so,” Mary agreed. “I’m a little disappointed in myself for not knowing until today. I mean, I listened to her after we all huddled and... wow. I’ve never seen so much appreciation and dedication. I don’t know what the whole story is, but Vince must have done something incredible to leave an impression like that on the girl.”

“Though it pains me to sound so optimistic, that wouldn’t be much a stretch to believe, given that it’s Vince,” Nick said begrudgingly.

“Why, Nick, it almost sounded like you were showing faith in your friend for a moment there,” Mary teased.

“Moving on,” Nick said. “Alex was chosen for similar reasons, personality-wise. He is accustomed to being an outcast and has a high level of loyalty to our group. That will keep him from buckling under the coming pressure.”

“Yes, but the same could be said for Thomas, who would have brought abilities we didn’t already possess as well,” Mary pointed out.

“Thomas would have been good,” Nick conceded. “ However, the reason I chose Alex is precisely because we already have abilities similar to his. You see, you and he are the only people with any telepathic talents in the class, correct?”

“So far as I’m aware, yes.”

“You are. Which means our team now has on it the only people capable of hearing other students’ thoughts. While that does give us duplication in some respects, it does something far more important. It robs our opponents of any mind-reading. We are the only team that doesn’t have to worry about our strategies and plans being overheard, and we are the only ones who can pluck those same ideas from the brain of our opponents.”

“Ohhhh,” Mary said, comprehension dawning. “So it wasn’t about having Alex as much as it was about taking him away from everyone else.”

“Exactly,” Nick said. “Whether the team matches are maze-style encounters like our midterms or just out and out brawls, the ability to know our opponents’ actions before they make them is invaluable. Plus, Alex isn’t entirely duplication. He can do some things you can’t.”

“Such as?”

“It’s commonly understood that telekinesis can’t stop energy, right?”

Mary nodded. “There isn’t enough mass for us to interact with.”

“You should talk to Vince sometime about his and Alex’s fight with Thomas. I think you’ll find Alex has his own potential uses beyond just a backup for you.”

“I’ll do that. So tell me something, o ye who commands we pawns. You saw the other team compositions while we were in the gym, what do you think our chances against them are?”

“Better with some than others. Shane’s team is combat heavy; I mean, he got Stella, Violet, and Thomas, so if we’re put in a pure fight against them we’ll be in trouble. Britney’s is the inverse, more stocked with unique technique users like Gilbert and Adam. They’d have the upper hand if we did games that didn’t require conflict. Chad’s team is the closest to ours. He chose a good mix of both combat- and technique-oriented students so that he’s got a viable game plan for any situation.”

“So we have the best shot against his team?” Mary asked.

“Oh no, the worst. He composed his in the same style as ours, but with much stronger people. Rich, Sasha, Selena, we are talking about some Supers that are not to be taken lightly,” Nick explained. “As it stands now, we’d have no chance of winning against his team.”

“Hmm. I suppose that only leaves us with one option,” Mary surmised. “We have to get stronger.”

“Indeed we do,” Nick agreed. “Training starts tomorrow, so get some rest. I promise, it will challenge you in ways you never expected.”

Mary was tempted to peek into Nick’s mind and see just what he had in store, but she thought better of it. She had a feeling that whatever it was, hearing about it this late would not be conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Chapter 12

Nick flipped the cards onto his desk again, staring at the hand before him with a frown. There was no doubt about it: his assessments were spot on, but in a way he wished they weren’t. He might have liked to take solace in ignorance, to quiet the machinations of his ever-ticking mind. Since that option was not presented to him, he instead looked at the other hands on the table. There were four of them, each different from the last. The arrangement would have seemed random to anyone else, which indeed was why Nick had chosen this medium for physical observation. The others didn’t need to know what he knew, not yet anyway.

They needed to bond first, and bonding meant spending time together in high spirits. High spirits were best sustained when one believed they had a significant chance of victory. Nick would have to crush those hopes soon, because as it stood the hand before him was the weakest one on the table. That meant if they were hoping for a real shot at victory there was only one course for them: changing the cards.

Nick set down the remainder of the deck and checked the time. People would start arriving soon. He needed to get ready. If things went to plan, he could use tonight to get people bonded and to lay a bit of the groundwork they’d need for the tasks ahead. If they didn’t... well, given the number of backups Nick had in mind, it would be quite extraordinary for things not to go according to at least one plan. He reached into his closet and pulled out a dark-colored button-down. He’d gotten most of the prep work done during the day; however, he still had a few tasks left.

*    *    *

Camille stepped nervously into the Melbrook common room to find all the others already gathered. She hadn’t been sure what Nick meant by “dress nice” so she’d changed outfits several times trying to strike the right chord. Initially she’d gone with a white dress that went to her calves, but she’d opted against it in case the night’s activities required any extensive movement. Eventually she’d settled on a light green blouse and jeans. Looking about the room at the range of clothing, from Alice’s pink dress to Alex’s flip-flops, she decided she’d struck a good medium.

“And at last, we are all assembled,” Nick declared, gesturing to the short girl’s entrance.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said weakly.

“Don’t worry about it,” Mary said. “Alice only got out here around two minutes ago.”

“I had to find the right shoes,” Alice defended.

“How do you know which shoes are the right ones? You don’t know what we’re doing,” Mary pointed out.

“Thus I selected the ones that were utilitarian in function and adorable in looks,” Alice shot back. “On that note, what are we doing tonight? Now that Camille is here will you finally tell us?”

“I’d be happy to, once we arrive,” Nick replied with a smile. “For the trip we’ll need to split up into three vehicles. I’ll drive, Alice will drive, and I believe Alex has a car as well.”

“I’ve got a Focus that’s a few years old,” Alex confirmed.

“We’ll do our best not to hold that against you,” Nick said. “To the cars!”

“Don’t you need to tell the drivers where we are going?” Vince asked.

“Nope! Just follow my car!”

“This seems kind of weird, even for him,” Alice whispered to Mary as the group filtered out the front door.

“Leave it be, I’m sure he has something in mind,” Mary said.

Alice raised an eyebrow. “Did you peek?”

“No, but I mean, it’s Nick. For all his excessive eccentricity, he always has a goal behind the things he does.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Alice sighed. She wished Mary was a little less correct in that assessment.

After some quick debate, the cars were stocked with passengers. Alice, Mary, and Roy piled into Alice’s car. Camille joined Alex in his, leaving Vince and Nick to rely on the Volkswagen for transportation.

*    *    *

The knock on Dean Blaine’s door was loud and pronounced. The educator glanced at one of the many monitors hooked up to the closed-circuit camera system to see who his guest was. Despite the everyday appearance of the four-bedroom home a few blocks from campus, Dean Blaine’s house was a fortress of security. Concealed cameras covered all areas of his perimeter, the charming bay windows housed glass of a thickness rated “rocket-resistant”, and his doors and walls were all reinforced with sheets of steel in their centers. Some might have considered it a bit of overkill. Those people had never worked as Heroes. The ones who were lucky enough to retire had to take precautions to make sure they lived long enough to enjoy it.

In this instance, Dean Blaine had little to fear from his weekend caller. He unbolted the front door and swung it open, revealing Sean Pendleton dressed in a pair of slacks and a black silk shirt.

“I couldn’t get you to dress this nicely for the first day of meeting students, but you’ll do it to intrude on my time off?”

“Now don’t be like that, Blaine,” Sean said, a cheerful smile plastered to his face. “There was a time when we tore up the town on any given weekend.”

“That time was long ago, and with a much larger group I might add. And you can call me Dean Blaine. You’re an employee now, need I remind?”

“I am indeed, but we’re off the clock,” Sean pointed out. “Besides, I come bearing gifts.” From behind his back Sean produced a small but very nice bottle of scotch.

“Dare I ask how you acquired it?”

“I did have a savings account with legitimate funds before my incarceration,” Sean said. “So what do you say, shall we have a drink then perhaps go out on the town for old times’ sake?”

“Are you really that bored?”

“Dreadfully so, I’m afraid,” Sean lied. “There’s little action to be found in this town when one is on the side of authority.”

“Fine,” Dean Blaine acquiesced. “You can come in for one glass of scotch. Just one.”

“You haven’t changed a bit, dear boy,” Sean said, stepping into the tastefully decorated living room. “Still always willing to put yourself out to cheer up a friend.”

Dean Blaine shut the door and bolted it behind Sean. He let the comment pass without objection, though he couldn’t help noting just how wrong Sean was. Dean Blaine knew himself quite well, and he knew he had definitely changed in their time apart.

He just wished he knew if it was for the better or not.

Chapter 13

The bottle was nearly empty as Blaine topped off both their glasses. His head had a pleasant swim about it, not quite so much that his senses were yet on leave. It was more that they were on a coffee break: not immediately active but ready to spring at a moment’s notice, if called. It was the stage of intoxication he liked best, and one he rarely went past.

“Scotch,” Sean said, tasting the word as much as the drink. “This is one of those things you expect not to notice how much you miss in prison. Then you get out and it’s like a shock to the system, you didn’t even know how much you wanted some. That, by the way, is a crock of shit. I was keenly aware of how much I missed this and a thousand other little pleasantries from the outside world.”

“And yet it took me ample convincing to get you to leave,” Blaine pointed out.

“You’ll forgive my hesitation. Our last encounter wasn’t exactly one that captured the pinnacles of our friendship.”

“Sean... well, I can’t really say I’m sorry, given what you were doing. I still wish it hadn’t had to be me that brought you in.”

“I understand, Blaine. In the end it had to be someone from our class, and given all that’s unfolded since then, perhaps I was lucky to be snared by Zero after all.”

Blaine shook his head a little. “Of all the futures I imagined when we were enrolled here at Lander, I must say this wasn’t one of them.”

*    *    *

“Open the door!” Sean yelled, his voice muffled by something. Blaine and Gerard both stood from the table, but Victor had already been up getting a drink, giving him the advantage of position. He flung open the flimsy apartment door to reveal Sean, arms loaded down with a case of beer and assorted snacks. He had a bag of chips in his teeth, which accounted for the distortion in his speech.

“About time,” Victor thundered. No matter how often Blaine and Gerard tried to explain to him that they had neighbors who were partial to silence, the barrel-chested young man was never quite able to restrain himself fully.

“Maybe if I’d had a little help I could have made better time,” Sean snapped, wobbling through the entrance under the burden of his load.

“Maybe if you were better at poker you wouldn’t have lost last week and been tasked with snack duty,” Victor fired back, one of his ham-sized hands delicately plucking a fresh beer from the case to join the one he’d already gotten from the fridge and drank halfway down. Blaine and Gerard got up to help Sean unload, a relatively quick process consisting of putting chips on the counter and beer in the fridge. With the food settled, they sat down at the small kitchen table and Gerard began to shuffle. His bony fingers were shockingly delicate and deft, rearranging the order of the cards with exemplary speed.

“What we need are fresh players,” Sean proposed, settling into his own seat and popping his weary back. “That way I’m not always getting my clock cleaned by you guys.”

“We’ve invited everyone in our class,” Blaine pointed out. “Then again, we’re seniors now, so the environment is leaning more toward outright competitive than friendly.”

“In fairness, that’s not true of everyone,” Gerard pointed out. “Phil and Joshua aren’t avoiding us out of malice; they simply prefer to spend their time training.”

“Not to mention Phil is such a Boy Scout he’d never play poker. And wherever Phil is, that’s where you’ll find Clarissa,” Victor added. He held himself back from the sigh that wanted to escape his lips. That girl was so breathtaking, yet all she ever seemed to do was follow after Phil like a puppy with an oblivious master.

“Casper comes to some of our other stuff,” Sean said.

“Yes, but he refuses to take part in anything involving gambling. The tenants of his faith label it a sin,” Gerard expanded.

“And of course Marianne has been dating that guy for the past couple of months,” Sean said.

“A Super like her with a human. Such a waste,” Victor said with a shake of his head.

“Love doesn’t draw distinctions between those with and without abilities,” Gerard said, his quick hands now doling out the cards one by one. “Now, how about we cease lamenting those who aren’t present and focus on the game with those who are?”

“Fine, fine,” Sean said, looking at his hand. The game was five card draw, and it was not starting out well for him. “So, you guys nervous about the final exam in a few weeks?”

“Terrified,” Blaine said immediately.

“Hell, I didn’t mean you, Blaine. Of course you’re going to make the cut.”

“Nothing is certain in our world,” Gerard corrected him. “Though I agree that there is a very high likelihood my roommate will gain the title of Hero.”

“I’m definitely going to be one,” Victor declared loudly. “No matter what they throw at me, I can handle it.”

“Oh? So what’s the plan if they make you square off against Blaine, or Joshua, or Phil?” Sean asked.

“Obviously it’s a secret,” Victor replied. “I can’t just go telling you what my strategy is with Blaine right there.”

“I can leave the room if you like,” Blaine offered.

“No, no, that’s fine. I’ll just keep it to myself, thank you very much,” Victor said hastily.

Sean smiled. Despite his big talk and boisterous nature, Victor was actually a pretty solid guy to have on your team. He really hoped the lummox made it through. As for his own chances at graduating, he evaluated them about half and half.

“For me I think it comes down to what the test is,” Sean speculated. “In the right environment I can be quite impressive. In the wrong one I can look useless.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. No one who looks useless makes it this far,” Blaine said. He set down two cards, which Gerard swept into a pile before doling out two fresh ones.

“Everything is relative,” Sean said. “Compared to some of the heavy hitters out in the world, all of us would look pretty weak.”

“Then let us be thankful none of them are enrolled at Lander,” Gerard replied, setting a small set of chips in the center. There were monetary values ascribed to the chips, just not nearly at the standard denominations. With a buy in of only five dollars, the game wouldn’t last too long without the ability to bet low values.

Victor raised by ten cents, Sean checked, and Blaine raised by another five cents. Each was so focused on the game laid out before them that they nearly jumped in surprise at the knock on the door. Blaine and Gerard exchanged curious glances. They weren’t expecting any other players to tonight’s game.

“Maybe someone decided to join us at the last minute?” Sean tossed out.

Blaine rose from his seat and crossed the short distance to the door. He pulled it open to reveal a pretty girl with wavy blonde hair.

“Hey, Blaine,” she said cheerfully. “My stupid brother forgot his wallet in my car after getting the groceries. I came to drop it off.”

Blaine stepped aside to allow entrance, giving the girl a greeting smile.

“Hey, Shelby,” Victor called.

“Good evening, Shelby,” Gerard greeted. “Would you like to join us?”

“No, thanks,” she said, making her way to Sean. “I just figured someone might need this when he loses again and has to pay up at the end of the night.” She held out a slim black piece of leather, which Sean accepted bashfully.

“Thanks, sis,” Sean said. “But I don’t expect to lose tonight; I’m feeling lucky.”

“Uh huh. I don’t need to see the future to know how bad you suck at poker,” Shelby said with a mischievous smile.

“I’m sure it helps,” Blaine said, pulling up his own chair. “Would you like a beer or a snack?”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Shelby replied. “I need to hustle; I’ve got a date tonight.”

“Same guy?” Sean asked.

“Same guy,” Shelby confirmed.

“That’s four weekends in a row. Do I need to give this gentleman the standard ‘put the fear of big brother into him’ talk?” Sean asked.

Shelby laughed. “I appreciate it, but he’s one of Blake’s friends so he’s already been thoroughly threatened with fraternal retribution should he hurt me.”

“Long as the job gets done,” Sean said, adding another few chips to the pile.

“You guys have fun, and don’t cream my brother too bad,” Shelby said, showing herself out and shutting the door behind her.

“See, now I feel bad, because when we totally wreck you tonight it will feel like we’re going against your cute little sister,” Victor said.

“Don’t worry about it; regardless of what she says, tonight I’m feeling lucky,” Sean said proudly. “I’m going to win this game, then in a few weeks I’m going to ace the test and become one of the world’s greatest Heroes.”

“Nothing wrong with dreaming,” Gerard said. “In a perfect world we’d all make the cut and meet together decades from now to play a game of cards and talk about all the villains we’ve brought to justice.”

“Perfect world my ass,” Victor said. “That will definitely happen, just you watch and see.”

*    *    *

The bottle was now empty, and the two lone figures sat in Blaine’s house, watching through the windows as the wind whipped at the trees.

Chapter 14

Roy leapt for the fence, his fingers taking grip and his strong arms pulling him to safety just in time. The mother elephant was very unhappy and was making her rage known. Keeping careful hold on the phone with his left hand, Roy pulled himself up with his right. Eventually he got his footing and began climbing the tall steel fence as the elephant rampaged beneath him. Nearby, Vince and Alex watched nervously as Roy moved. It was pretty obvious why he had to be the one in the picture after this ordeal, but Roy still felt a tad bitter. When this was all said and done, he and Nick were going to have a very long talk.

*    *    *

Alice floated to the ground gently, Camille waving to her that the photo had been a success. She hurried over to the other two girls and tried to smooth her now wind-whipped hair.

“Okay, that takes care of Alice standing on a traffic light,” Mary said, dragging her pencil across the orange paper.

“How many left?” Camille asked.

“Six to go,” Mary replied. Alice checked her watch. That only left forty-five minutes until the deadline. They were really going to have to hurry.

“Let’s move then, what’s next?”

“We need Camille riding on top of a horse,” Mary said.

“Do we have any idea where to find a horse at eleven at night on a Friday?” Camille asked.

“No, but after tonight we will,” Alice said. They’d come this far, there was no freaking way they were going to give up.

*    *    *

“So, here it is ladies and gentleman,” Nick had said several hours prior, producing two pieces of paper from his pocket. One was orange and the other blue.

“Are we doing arts and crafts?” Alice asked. She was confused and more than a little annoyed. He’d led them to a small parking lot some ways into downtown. It appeared to be for a nail salon that was closed for the weekend. Lit only by a street light, Nick’s grin was positively devilish as he addressed his teammates.

“Nope: photo scavenger hunt, of sorts,” Nick replied. “On each page is a list of photos you need to take. There are requirements for specific people in some of them, so make sure you plan appropriately.”

“How exactly is this team bonding?” Mary asked. “Fun, sure, in the right circumstances, but I’m not certain what the point here is.”

“If it were obvious then you wouldn’t need to do it to understand,” Nick said. “Trust me, when this is all over you’ll be a much more effective team.”

“I guess we can give it a shot,” Vince said. Even he was having trouble concealing his disinterest.

“I’d hope so, I mean, with what’s on the line and all,” Nick baited.

“What do you mean?” Alex bit.

“Didn’t I mention? There’s a prize if you manage to complete your lists by midnight. Since it has been brought to my attention that you philistines don’t enjoy slasher cinema with the same gusto I possess, if you can bring me your pictures by midnight then I’ll swear never to hijack our events into horror movie marathons again.”

“Wait, seriously?” Alice said, light and hope sparkling into her eyes.

“I swear it on my love of sarcasm,” Nick replied. “But if you fail, then we’ll be spending tomorrow in a day-long fright flick fest.”

“Seems like a gamble,” Alex said. He was trying to play it cool but inside he was burning with desire to take the bet.

“Such is life,” Nick replied. “I’m going to be at Toady’s, the bar down the street. If you succeed, we spend the night relaxing in a nice lounge with the tab on me. If you fail then we go over the reasons why.”

“I get it,” Vince said. “This isn’t about pictures, it’s about seeing how we organize to accomplish a common goal.”

“Always at the top of the class,” Nick said. Of course, this wasn’t nearly the extent of it, but Vince at least had the gist.

“Then I’m in,” Vince said.

“Me, too,” Alice agreed. The others signaled their affirmation and Nick handed out the papers. They were left to separate and distribute responsibility as desired. Once upon a time he would have had to give out cameras too. Thankfully the dawn of the cell phone age had rendered such additions unnecessary. He stepped into his car and left them to debate, the teams already coming together just the way he’d expected them to.

*    *    *

Alex slid down from the piece of modern art carefully, still not certain who referred to a sheer vertical wall as art. He’d gotten his picture atop it, so whatever it was, it was crossed off the list. That was a good thing too, because time was quickly running out. The pictures weren’t terribly hard to get – well, except maybe the elephant one - but they had specific requirements and took time to drive to. A tickle in the back of his mind wanted to pay more attention to that fact, along with the requirements of people in pictures. It felt there was something there, something he should be paying attention to.

Instead he focused on getting down safely. Next up was a Vince picture then two more and they were home free.

*    *    *

Nick sat comfortably as the soft music filtered down from the speakers. Toady’s had a pleasant atmosphere with gentle lighting and comfortable seating. It was trendy enough to have people but not so popular that it was swamped. He held down the large area with ease as he waited for his friends to arrive. A quick check of his watch told him they had fifteen minutes left until the deadline. Part of him almost felt bad for them, knowing there was no way they’d be done on time. It was necessary, though: failure led to insight, which led to growth. They needed to fail. Better it be at some stupid little contest than somewhere that mattered.

Besides, he had some choice films selected for tomorrow.

Chapter 15

When Vince, Alex, and Roy finally arrived at the lounge, they found the girls already sitting at Nick’s side, a look of defeat on their pretty faces. Nick, on the other hand, looked like the cat that got the cream, drinking a soda and flashing them a winning grin as the three young men approached his section.

“I call shenanigans,” Roy thundered, bounding ahead of the others. “There was no way we could have done all that in the time frame you gave us. The places were all over town.”

“I hate to say it, but I agree,” Alex said. “I think you set us up for failure on this one.”

“That does sound like Nick,” Alice mumbled under her breath.

“We only beat you guys here by a few minutes,” Mary told them.

“Which was still a good half hour past the deadline,” Nick pointed out, setting down his drink. “Now, let me address your concerns. Did I set you up to fail? Well, it depends on what you mean by that phrase.”

“We’re listening,” Mary said.

“If you mean I did it knowing you would fail, then yes. If you mean it as I gave you a task that couldn’t be accomplished, then no. What I gave you was doable, I just knew you all wouldn’t be successful at accomplishing it.”

“How could you know something like that?” Camille asked, her voice only a few degrees louder than the background music.

“Elementary, my dear healer,” Nick told her. “I knew you’d go after this the same way most of you go after every problem: you’d pick a path and charge ahead blindly. At no point did it occur to you that there might be some strategy to implement in this particular task.”

“Like what?”

“For starters? You could have mapped out your routes a bit. Nearly all of my tasks had specific geographical markers required. If you all had taken the time to lay out a map, like so-” Nick pulled a folded map from his pocket and set it on the table in front of him. He unfurled it, showing a variety of dots scattered across the town’s surface. There were six different colors, each in locations the group was now more familiar with. “-you could have easily seen the natural clusters and plotted a path that had you doing one task after another, cutting down on travel time drastically.”

Alex stared at the dots, piecing together who was what color from the spots he knew various pictures had been taken. Something was nagging at him, and now that there was time to think he let that nag mature into a full-grown thought.

“You’re lying,” Alex said. “Roy is red, Vince is blue, and I’m orange, right?”

“Correct,” Nick confirmed.

“Then there was no ideal route. No matter what we did we’d still have to cross town at least twice. That trip alone would have put us over the time,” Alex pointed out.

“Correct again,” Nick agreed. “Which brings me to my next point. You formed the wrong teams.”

“How?” Roy demanded. “You gave us the papers with our requirement. All the boys were on orange and the girls were on blue.”

“I did do that, but I never told you how to split up,” Nick pointed out. “You just accepted the format that was given to you without applying any thought of your own.”

“Shit,” Alex said, his face still peering at Nick’s map.

“What?” Mary asked.

“He’s right. If instead of the red dot Vince and I had been paired with the white one we could have easily planned a route with almost no backtracking,” Alex said, pointing to the map to illustrate.

“But then how would we have known what pictures to take? The other team would have had the paper you needed for at least one person’s pictures,” Alice said.

Vince shook his head. “We were using cell phone cameras with digital displays. It would have taken no time for us to photograph the other team’s sheet.”

“Right again,” Nick said. “I’m starting to think you folks are smarter than you look.”

“So what, if we’d done all this prep work we had no idea we needed, then we could have won the bet? That seems pretty convoluted,” Alice accused.

“Does it? Does creating a real life demonstration of your natural failings in an environment with low consequences seem convoluted? Perhaps you’re missing the point of this little display,” Nick said, rising from his seat. “I wanted you to see what you all lack, which is planning and critical thinking skills. At no point did any of you try a strategy even remotely outside the box. You ran forward recklessly, focused on just doing things faster rather than smarter. The reason you lost tonight isn’t because you weren’t intelligent enough to figure this out, it is because you simply aren’t used to doing things that way. But you need to be, because if our previous test showed us anything, it is that these exams won’t boil down to pure power. We’ll need strategy, too.”

“Isn’t that what we’ve got you for?” Vince asked.

“Yes, and at the same time no,” Nick replied. “I’ll explain more later on; right now let’s just relax a little. The game is over so we can sit back and shoot the shit for the remainder of the night.”

“Works for me,” Alice agreed.

“Then tomorrow will begin the slasher marathon to end all slasher marathons,” Nick finished.

“Wait, you’re really going to make us do that? I thought it was just a threat so we’d work harder,” Alex said.

“Oh no, I always honor my bets,” Nick informed him. “Besides, if there are no consequences to failure then the lessons just don’t take as well.”

Vince turned to Camille. “If you want to jump ship to another group, I bet there’s still time.”

His tone was light-hearted and clearly meant in jest. Still, Camille turned an analytical eye toward her new comrades. Half of them were glaring at the boy wearing sunglasses indoors, and most of the others were staring fiercely at a map in dim lighting. Tonight had been one of the oddest training exercises she’d ever participated in, but she had to admit it had been successful in driving home a point to everyone. Besides which, she’d actually kind of enjoyed herself in the hecticness of it all.

Camille gave Vince a small smile. “I think I’ll stick it out for a while longer.”

Chapter 16

Vince yawned broadly as he walked into the concrete-walled classroom. After Nick’s movie marathon on Sunday he’d slept incredibly poorly. His dreams had been stuffed with monsters to the point where they slipped into the absurd. Case in point: one dream had him chased by a giant pumpkin wielding knives, while a later dream had him chased by a giant knife wielding pumpkins. The first had been scarier, yet curiously it was the second that jerked him from his slumber. He tried to shake off his weariness as he scanned for a seat; after all, this was the first day of his real classes. He wanted to be alert.

The classroom was more a circle of wooden benches than a lecture hall, all wrapping around a focal point where Professor Fletcher stood patiently. To be honest, Vince was more surprised there was any seating at all in a course on close combat; he’d expected more circles and days duking it out with fellow combatants. Still, after what he’d seen Professor Fletcher do, Vince wasn’t going to question his methods. Any man with that much skill was worth listening to.

Other students began filtering into the room one by one. Thomas took a seat next to Vince, and they were soon joined by Stella and Violet. Chad and Shane entered a few minutes later, followed by Michael close at their heels. Sasha walked in with Julia and purposely passed by Vince without even a passing glance. Jill, at least, gave him a supportive smile before joining her suite mates when she walked in. Roy ambled in near the beginning of class and plopped down in the closest space he could find. One of the last people to enter was the most surprising to Vince.

“Camille? What are you doing here?”

“They assigned me,” Camille said, glancing around the room nervously as she stepped farther from the doorway. Everyone seemed so much bigger than she. Bigger and stronger.

“That can’t be right, you’re a healer,” Vince said worriedly. “Let’s go talk to the professor and see-”

“It isn’t a mistake,” Stella interrupted. She glanced at her diminutive friend and raised an eyebrow. Camille gave her head the barest of shakes and Stella looked back at Vince. “Trust me, the girl belongs here.”

“Are you sure?” Vince’s question was addressed at Camille, not Stella. No matter what anyone said, if his teammate didn’t feel she was up to the task, he wasn’t going to let her get hurt.

“I’ll be fine,” Camille assured him. She sat down on his other free side, and the remainder of the stragglers came into the room and plopped down, prompting Professor Fletcher to begin his first class.

“Good morning,” Professor Fletcher said to his bright-eyed students. His stunt on Thursday had been a bit heavy-handed, but the results couldn’t be argued with. He’d won their respect if not their admiration, and they were hanging on every word he said. Professor Fletcher pitied educators who didn’t have overwhelming brute force as a teaching tool.

“Let’s start with a little background. How many of you have been training in any form of martial combat for more than the past year?” Professor Fletcher asked.

Most of the hands in the room went up.

“Good, more than five years?”

A multitude went down, and Vince was a little surprised to see the slender arm next to him remain in the air. Camille did her best to look nonplussed.

“Better than I expected. Ten years?”

Nearly all the hands went down, only Vince’s, Shane’s, Michael’s, Roy’s, and Chad’s remained airborne.

“Nice. Any of you over-achievers got fifteen under your belt?”

Chad and Shane were now the only ones with their hands aloft.

“Okay then, for anyone without at least five years of training, we’re going to treat you like newbies,” Professor Fletcher said firmly. “That means we’ll be having one on ones to see the way you move and selecting the martial art that is best suited to your natural talents. Anyone who has five but less than ten, we’re going to stick with what you know. No sense in trying to break habits and reactions that are already ingrained. Those of you with ten years and up, congratulations. You just became teachers.”

“Say what?” Shane said in surprise.

“You heard me. You got your fill of pounding each other pointlessly last year, though there will be plenty more of that to come. But people with your level of experience need to be teaching as well as training to advance. I can’t be the first one to tell you this.”

“It is a commonly accepted practice,” Chad agreed. Shane did his best not to look abashed at having been ignorant of what was evidently public knowledge.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to train you as well,” Professor Fletcher assured him. “You’ll just also be responsible for helping the newbies improve in whatever art they undertake.”

“What if they choose one we don’t know shit about?” Roy queried.

“Then hand off to someone who does. Or to me. You’re not personal trainers, you’re just there to answer basic questions and give feedback. It’s not like the premise really varies that much. Hit the other guy and don’t let him hit you. The rest is details,” Professor Fletcher said. “Important details, but details all the same.”

“Still feels like a waste of time,” Roy grumbled.

“Tell you what, kid, the day you can beat me is the day you no longer have to listen to my methods,” Professor Fletcher offered. “And that goes for all of you. When you’re stronger than I am, then you become the teacher.”

Chad mulled the idea over briefly. He couldn’t beat the professor, not as he was now. But the fight hadn’t been a complete loss for him. He’d been able to observe the older man’s movements and techniques to some extent. He couldn’t beat the professor yet; however, eventually that would change. It had to. Chad was aiming for a space at the very top of the mountain, a place of unassailable power.

That meant, sooner or later, Chad would have to surpass everyone, even the people teaching him. Even the friends sitting next to him. Even the Heroes out in the world already. Chad was going to pick up the name that the rest of the world seemed content to tread on and he was going to carry it all the way to the top. He wouldn’t stop until he succeeded. No matter what.

Chapter 17

The Subtlety class was smaller than Close Combat, and had actual desks rather than a mere smattering of benches. Of course, there were only four students able to discern those differences, as very few had been selected for both courses. Julia and Sasha were both such rare cases, walking into the room and noticing they were among the last to arrive. They recognized Gilbert and Hector, both still softly simmering in sweat from the Close Combat class, lounging near the back. Sasha scanned the room further, noticing Will and on impulse turning to join him. That’s when she noticed who he was already sitting with.

Sasha barely repressed a sneer as she altered her direction instantly. She understood that Will was somewhat insecure about the viability of his ability taking him all the way to Hero levels; Jill had confided that much in her during their first year as suite mates. Still, that didn’t fully excuse his continued association with those freaks from Melbrook. It was bad enough she had to deal with Vince in her first class, now she was discovering that this one would be shared with the sunglasses-wearing weirdo and the buxom bitch. If some part of Sasha remembered that only four months ago she’d counted both of those two as friends, it kept itself silent. That is not to say it allowed itself to be extinguished, merely that it recognized the fact that biding one’s time is a classic, and often beneficial, strategy.

“Good morning, class,” Professor Pendleton greeted them. “I’m glad to see you all found the classroom today. I hope you have the same luck tomorrow.” With that, he stood from the desk he had been nimbly perched and began handing out syllabi. The first hands went up before he’d even gotten halfway around the room. He dutifully ignored them, finishing the process and sitting back down at his desk.

“I can see you already have questions, but let’s hold those for the moment, shall we? Instead, I’d like us to read through the syllabus. Who would like to start?”

Alice was slow in lowering her hand, still not quite ready to accept that she wouldn’t get to query the strange professor for answers, so hers was the highest when he asked for volunteers.

“Thank you, Ms. Adair. Please start us off. Read the first paragraph.”

“Um, I’m not sure it’s really a paragraph. I mean, it’s just one line,” Alice said uncertainly.

“Less lip and more reading, Ms. Adair,” Professor Pendleton replied swiftly. Alice felt her cheeks flush for a moment then turned her eyes to the page.

“Lesson One: Lie,” Alice recited dutifully.

“Adequate,” Professor Pendleton said. “Next part, how about Mr. Reid?”

“Lesson Two: Sneak,” Gilbert said, not bothering to question the curious nature of this process.

“Much better,” Professor Pendleton praised. “How about Mr. Weaver goes next?”

“Lesson Three: Cheat,” Rich snapped off automatically.

“And for the finale, I think it should go to Mr. Campbell,” Professor Pendleton instructed.

“Lesson Four: Think,” Nick said, eyeing the strange lanky man at the front of the class with something bordering on respect. He had an inkling where this was going and might have actually felt a twinge of excitement deep down in his gut.

“Lie, Sneak, Cheat, and Think,” Professor Pendleton repeated. “These are the tenants of a Hero who specializes in Subtlety. Very few of us are the physically powerful types. Those of you enrolled in combat classes will likely find yourself losing this course next year. We give you the opportunity, however, because one never really knows where the seed of true talent may have been planted.”

Professor Pendleton stood from his desk once more and stepped around to the front in a short series of long-legged movements.

“Now, before we go any further, there is something you all need to know. Subtlety is considered the grey line between Hero and criminal, and those who graduate with it as their major are seen as high-risk tightrope walkers along this metaphorical division. More of us turn to crime than any other specialty. There are a multitude of theories why that is the case, but at the end of the day the blame must be laid at least partially at the foot of the nature of our job. You see, those who master Subtlety do not bask in the sunlight of public acclaim and moral purity. Rather, we are the ones who must outthink, outmaneuver, and out-plan our enemies. We are the ones who steal into a South American drug compound to retrieve data on the giant robot someone built. We are the ones who seduce and con friends of criminals to learn where they are and what weaknesses they have. We dirty our hands with the jobs that must be done but that no person with a sound moral compass would want. Because we can. We are smart enough, bold enough, and yes, grey enough, to handle the lurking and conniving. It is a thankless job, save only for others of your craft who appreciate the work you put in.”

“Then why would anyone want to do it?” Will asked, the words popping out before his sense of logic could stop him.

“Because someone has to. Without those stolen plans, without that insider information, without a weakness to exploit, people are going to get hurt. Possibly die. Not just citizens either, but fellow Heroes. As I said, most of you with combat options will leave this class behind at the year’s end. The reason is that you will have options outside of this path, and who can blame you for taking them? We are the fewest of any Hero type. We are also some of the most valuable,” Professor Pendleton explained.

Will nodded his understanding and fell silent. He felt a stirring in himself, a stirring that was echoed in the bodies of several others around him. This was an avenue he’d never known about before, one he’d never suspected existed. This was one where wiles and wit were prized over bulk and biceps. This relied on quick thought and fluid morals. This was one he might actually be able to do.

“Now that I’ve hopefully turned most of you off to the profession as a whole, let me elaborate on the syllabus,” Professor Pendleton continued. “We are going to learn the hallmarks of the field through the year, piece by piece. Make no mistake, the most important part is lesson four. That one we will be doing constantly. To that effect, our classroom will be a floating one. Some days I’ll tell you where to meet next time. Other days I will give you a riddle, or a puzzle with the location concealed within. If you can’t solve it, you miss the class. As you can infer, missing too much class doesn’t reflect well on you when the year-end review comes around. With that said, I’d like you all to flip your syllabus onto its back.”

The students complied, revealing a strange diagram with numbers dotting the edges and something that seemed like a maze in the center, with entrances jutting from each digit.

“That will tell you where to meet for the rest of this week,” Professor Pendleton said, giving what he felt was an adequate explanation. Still he decided to toss in some encouragement as well.

“Good luck.”

Chapter 18

Mary fidgeted nervously as she waited in the empty room. While all the rooms underground in Lander had concrete walls and a Spartan feel, the thick metal door and lack of any décor left no doubt that this was a space used for battle. She wondered why she was the only one here. She’d heard Professor Stone give her the instruction to come to this room after class, but only because she’d been listening to the older woman’s thoughts. In the rest of the Focus, classroom the only other person who might have picked up the message was Alex and the Professor had been adamant that she not discuss her hearings with anyone else.

Mary knew she was being a bit paranoid, but given the events at the end of last year she felt that, if nothing else, it was prudent to show some caution. So before coming, she had let her friends know who she’d be meeting with and in what room. She’d also had them pass word to Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport. She’d felt a bit silly doing so - after all, this was probably nothing more than a quick teacher-meeting over something she needed to know. Still, she’d held out hope that someone else from the Focus class would be here, that Professor Stone had communicated with all of them in some way to send the message.

The older woman stepped gingerly in the door and extinguished any hope Mary was still holding onto that this might be a communal meeting.

“Good afternoon,” Professor Stone greeted cordially. “How were the rest of your classes?”

“Ranged Combat was enjoyable,” Mary replied. “Control was somewhat tedious.”

“Give it time, I’m sure Professor Hill will challenge you soon,” Professor Stone assured her. “Of course, eventually someone with your talents will find your specialty in Focus. That much is certain.”

“Is it now?”

“Without question,” Professor Stone reiterated. “Control is a useful course for anyone who moves the world around them in that it forces one to elevate their geospatial thinking and their awareness of the objects surrounding them. Control, however, is ultimately the manipulation of outer forces upon outer forces. That is a poor fit for those like you, Mary, because your skill is inwardly oriented. Thus, you will find the most benefit in Focus.”

“Good to know. Is that why you asked me here?”

Professor Stone laughed, a soft tinkling sound that dried prematurely in her throat. She stepped further into the room, walking gingerly across the hard floor. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t waste my time telling students what should be obvious. No, I called you here because while Fletcher has a crude sensibility to him, the man’s tactics do present a certain amount of efficiency.”

“I see,” Mary said, her foot stepping back ever so slightly.

“Relax, little one, I don’t wish to harm you. It is simply that I didn’t get to test you last year, so I don’t know nearly enough about your limits to teach you effectively,” Professor Stone explained. “This is an evaluation, nothing more.”

“Ah,” Mary said, a trickle of relief seeping through her bones. “I suppose that makes sense.”

“A benefit of the truth: it holds together effortlessly,” Professor Stone said with a smile. The metal door to her left slammed shut forcefully, and across the room Mary could hear a locking mechanism click into place.

“I thought this was just an evaluation.”

“It is, but we take safety very seriously here in the Hero Certification Program,” Professor Stone said.

“How does locking us in make us safer?”

“It wasn’t our safety I had in mind,” Professor Stone informed her. “I’ve seen your fights and read your file. A girl with your talents will likely cause significant collateral damage before she reaches her own threshold.”

Mary gave the elderly woman a half-smile. “Not to mention the amount of power necessary to bring me there.”

Professor Stone returned the cheerful grin. “Yes, that, too.”

*    *    *

Chad was in the gym doing a bench press when he heard a distant rumbling through the walls. Briefly, he wondered if it was thunder. After a moment’s pause, he realized any thunder strong enough to be heard all the way down here would leave the topside of Lander in splinters and destruction. He considered investigating, then shrugged it off and finished his set of reps. Whatever it was, it probably didn’t concern him.

*    *    *

“Very impressive,” Professor Stone said, stepping over the newly-formed rubble at her feet. “You can pack a lot of wallop in your attacks.”

“I’ve been told I’m strong for my age,” Mary said graciously.

“Don’t be ridiculous: you’re strong, period. Age has nothing to do with it.” Professor Stone reached down and selected one of the biggest hunks of concrete, plucking it from the ground with a frail arm that couldn’t have budged the miniature boulder without mental assistance. “Of course, raw blasting force is only one aspect of our abilities. There are other things, too. Things like sustained effort.”

Professor Stone tossed the concrete in the air and it zoomed toward Mary. Mary took hold of it when it was a little over halfway to her, slowing its movement only to discover that something was still pushing it forward.

“Think of it as an inverted tug of war,” Professor Stone explained. “We both push it toward one another until it reaches someone.”

Mary understood and ratcheted up her effort level. The concrete moved back to the middle of the space between the two women where it stopped abruptly. Mary tried to push it further, but Professor Stone seemed to be able to match her perfectly, increasing power when she increased, and dropping when Mary faltered. Mary adjusted her foot positioning for comfort. If the old lady wanted to make it an endurance contest that was fine by her. She’d spent the first seventeen years of her life in constant mental alert to deal with the voices splashing through her mind. Mary could hold up a rock for days if she had to.

“You really could, too. This is almost effortless for you,” Professor Stone complemented.

Mary blinked. It hadn’t occurred to her the professor might be reading her own mind.

“Of course not; you’re accustomed to being the only telepath at the party,” Professor Stone said. “That’s why you’re so prideful and careless.”

“Beg pardon?”

“You’re prideful. Despite what has happened, you still have a disproportionate sense of your abilities. Right now, you really think you can best one of your teachers in their field of specialty. Did it perhaps occur to you that George and Professor Fletcher aren’t flukes? That all of us are quite adept with our skills?”

“I just-”

“And as for careless, well, coming here alone in the first place was rather stupid of you. I know you told people, but by the time they knew you were gone you could already have been beyond retrieving. No, you showed up because at the end of the day, you believe that the only reason you were taken last time is because you were caught unaware. You think that if you’re cognizant, you can handle yourself in any situation.”

“I didn’t-”

“No, of course you didn’t. Well, let me lay it out for you, young lady. You are one of the strongest advanced minds I’ve ever encountered. That said, if I’d come down here to do you harm, you would already be unconscious. You need to start being cautious, you need to start watching yourself, and most importantly, you need to realize that ‘one of the strongest’ is not the same thing as ‘the strongest’.”

Mary felt the concrete tear through her own force as it sailed toward her small body. She tried to press back, but she couldn’t do more than slightly slow it down. A few feet before impact, the giant piece shattered and sent a spray of concrete shards around her. They tore against her arms and legs, but not one piece touched her torso.

Mary realized that at some point she’d closed her eyes. She slowly peeled them open to reveal Professor Stone slowly making her way toward the door, which was now open.

“I look forward to teaching you, Mary. You’ve got a lot of potential. Go see a healer before you head above ground.”

Mary glanced down and realized she had dozens of small cuts along her appendages, each one about the same length and depth. Only then did she understand what the professor had really done.

“Every piece... you were controlling every piece after it broke, all of them simultaneously,” Mary said, her shaky voice betraying the shock in her words.

Professor Stone didn’t bother stopping or turning around. She’d seen how far the girl could go, and seen where she was weakest. All that remained now was to see if she had the determination to take her talents to the next level.

Chapter 19

Camille was happy to walk into her first class of the afternoon wearing regular clothes instead of her HCP uniform. As much as Lander underground was relaxing, in that everyone knew what she was and there was no pretense, it was also such an cloistered community that slipping into the background became nearly impossible. Camille had spent years steeling her nerves to be able to fight when the situation demanded it, but in her day-to-day life she was still much happier as the small girl who few people noticed. Not to mention that up here she was enrolled with the full Lander student populace, making her chances of running into Vince significantly lower.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like being around her silver-haired teammate; it was that she liked it far too much and was awful at hiding her feelings. Every time she flushed, every time she got all nervous and bumbly, she was sure it would be the time Vince would finally notice those things only happened around him. Mercifully, that hadn’t happened yet; however, Camille wasn’t one to push her luck. If she was going to help him, she needed to be near him, and there was surely no way to drive him off faster than revealing she cared for him as more than a friend.

Camille ascended the steps of the lecture hall, so absorbed in her thoughts that she nearly jumped a foot in the air when a well-manicured hand snaked out from an aisle and grabbed her arm.


“Whoa, relax,” Alice assured her. “I was calling your name, didn’t you hear me?”

“Oh, I, uh, I guess not,” Camille stammered out as her heart thundered in her chest.

“Sorry about that,” Alice apologized. “I just wanted to get your attention before you went past. There are plenty of seats by me.”

“Right, of course,” Camille said as the adrenaline exited her system. She entered the row Alice was perched in and took a seat to her left. It wasn’t exactly the anonymous background she’d craved, but at least it wasn’t Vince. “So, how was your first day? I haven’t seen you since our... since Professor Baker’s class.”

“It was okay,” Alice replied. “I think Professor Pendleton’s will be my worst. I mean, I’m not really good at any of them, but at least the others have outlined syllabi and stationary classrooms.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that is one of the tougher subjects to excel in,” Camille replied.

“No worries there. I’m pretty sure he expects most of us to fail out of it by year’s end, which is fine by me. The hard part will be deciding which of the other two I want to try and squeak by in.”

“I’m sure it isn’t that bad. I mean, you made it to year two, after all.”

Alice sighed. “I did, but I’m still not sure if I would have if I’d gone through the normal channels.” Alice paused for a moment and seemed to steady herself mentally. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be such a bummer. I guess all the stress of things is already getting to me.”

“It’s a problem I certainly understand,” Camille assured her.

“You know what the biggest issue is? It’s been all work since we got here. Even last weekend was a training exercise. I think we need to take a night off, just do activities that have nothing to do with... well, you know.” Alice had almost said ‘HCP’ out loud, a slip that easily would have ended all of her worries about it if she’d been overheard.

“That sounds nice,” Camille said, her tone as noncommittal as she could manage. She didn’t have the heart to tell Alice that any night spent around Vince wasn’t going to reduce her stress level, even if the activities were relaxing.

“Oh! I’ve got it,” Alice said, a spark of excitement lighting in her bright blue eyes. “Let’s do a girls’ night this Friday. Just me, you, Mary, and maybe some of the others. No training, no shop talk, we’ll even skip our afternoon classes and go do a mani/pedi treatment.”

“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,” Camille objected.

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s the first week of classes, what’s the most we could miss? And I know a perfect little place near the ocean. I’ll make us reservations as soon as class is over.”

“I should really check my calendar,” Camille tried again.

“That’s a good idea; if you don’t have a class that runs too late in the morning we can get lunch, too. We can practically make a whole day of it!”

Camille took a deep breath and tried to think of another excuse to throw up. Unfortunately she was learning the hard lesson that Mary had been privy to last year. Alice may not have much in the way of special abilities, but once her mind was set on something, one would have better luck changing the course of a river.

“Sounds... fun,” Camille conceded. It wouldn’t be that bad. It was just the girls after all, and they were going to be teammates now so a little bonding was in order.

“It will be, just wait, by the time Saturday rolls around we won’t have a care left in the world.”

“Except for the coming week, and the one after that, and the one after that, et cetera,” Camille pointed out.

“Well, yes, but you can’t let all of that snow pile on you. Or, if you must, you have to at least put it aside for our days off,” Alice replied.

“Days? As in multiple?”

“Of course, we’ll need more than just this over the coming year. Don’t worry; they won’t all be girls only. I just don’t want Nick to hijack our relaxation plans into some sort of ridiculous shenanigans.”

“He does that often, huh?”

“Ugh, more than you would believe. You’ll see for yourself soon, the boy is absolutely insufferable.”

Camille didn’t have a chance to reply because the professor stepped up to address the class, but even if he hadn’t she wouldn’t have known what to say next. She certainly couldn’t say what she was thinking, which was that for a girl who slandered Nick so readily, Alice seemed to light up noticeably when she talked about him.

That would be inappropriate, not to mention that Camille was the last person who ought to call someone out over conflicting feelings.