Chapter 49

“I’d just like to start by saying that everyone did an amazing job,” Mary began, standing in front of her team as they lounged in the Melbrook common room. “I was listening to the team’s thoughts throughout the match and you all were great about staying with the plan and thinking ahead.”

“Even Roy toed the line,” Hershel agreed. The more muscular brother had opted not to attend the debrief meeting. Hershel suspected he was pouting at only getting one fight throughout the whole ordeal.

“He did indeed. In fact, it’s thanks to him and Alice that we got the flag, so an extra kudos to them both,” Mary continued.

Alice blushed as the room gently clapped for her and the absent warrior. It had been more luck than skill that she’d noticed a piece of fabric flapping in an artificial breeze; still, she was glad she’d finally contributed something to the team.

“Now then, because we only improve by learning from our mistakes and successes, Nick had a few things he wanted to address before we officially start celebrating our win,” Mary said, sitting down.

“Thank you, Captain,” Nick said with a flourishing bow. “First things first, I’d like to show you all a little motivation tool I’ve put together.” He reached behind the couch and produced a rectangular black wooden frame. Within it were seven playing cards, each with the corresponding team member’s name beneath it.

“Oh goody, the ‘we suck’ analogy has been framed,” Alice said.

“Not exactly. You remember how I said I would update this as my data changed? Well, in light of today’s match, I have a couple of alterations to make.” Nick laid the frame on the couch and popped off the back. With surprising dexterity, he slipped away two of the cards and slid two more into their places. He refastened the back and held the frame up once more, turning it out for the room to see.

“I’m a queen now?” Vince asked uncertainly.

“I’d say adding electricity to your ranged arsenal more than qualifies you for that,” Nick replied. “Incidentally, why is it you didn’t mention that little development to any of us?”

“I don’t know. I mean, Professor Fletcher really put in a lot of work helping me learn it and it took a good while. I guess bringing it up felt like bragging,” Vince replied uncertainly.

“For reference, telling the people who coordinated strategies for the entire team that you have a new skill is very much not bragging: it is merely reporting information,” Nick assured him.

“So, Vince I get, but why is Camille now an ace?” Alex asked. “Wouldn’t that mean she had combat abilities?”

“Indeed she does,” Nick confirmed. His eyes happened over to the small girl, who at present looked as if she might faint. Had the file Professor Pendleton provided not included her explanation to Vince about her victory, Nick might have taken her reaction merely as embarrassment at the attention. As it was, he knew she was hiding her real power from Vince for some reason. Nick didn’t know why yet, but he would very soon. Until then, he saw no benefit in upsetting one of his new heavy hitters.

“It seems Camille has quite a martial arts background she neglected to mention to us. Given how well she held her own today, I felt the card change was appropriate,” Nick explained, taking an odd pleasure in watching the relief and shock wash over Camille’s face.

“That is awesome,” Hershel said. “You have to tell us about your fight.”

“I... um... I...” Camille stuttered weakly.

“She would never be so bold as to interrupt me during an official address,” Nick swooped in. “To continue, while we certainly had a lot of success today, I want to bring a very key piece of information to light. We damn near lost this match.”

“What do you mean? I thought everyone won their fights except Alex, who got double teamed,” Alice said, adding the last part in a bid to spare Alex’s ego.

“We did. We came out ahead in nearly every combat situation, but if it hadn’t been for a severe fuck-up on their team’s part, I doubt we’d be celebrating right now.”

“It’s true,” Vince agreed. “Britney was invisible when she and Michael came and attacked us. If he hadn’t gotten careless and frozen her arm, we wouldn’t have known she was there. Even with that, if he’d frozen Camille instead of his teammate, I’m not sure I could have kept her from getting to the flag in time.”

“Precisely. I’m not saying this to point fingers or make anyone feel bad. You all did exactly what you were supposed to do. I just want to you to be aware of the importance of keeping abreast of the enemy’s tactics. Britney’s plan removed a big part of our telepathic advantage, giving up combat losses to keep us occupied, and putting their faith in her securing the flag before we noticed she was there. It was risky as hell and it very nearly worked. We definitely earned this win, but by no means was it the blowout it might seem to be at a glance. Don’t get overconfident, and don’t underestimate our opponents. After this little upset, I don’t expect them to be underestimating us.”

“Wow, way to be a bummer,” Alice said as silence descended.

“My apologies,” Nick said with a fast grin. “Learning from both victory and failure is the only shot we have to make it through this thing.”

“So what do we need to do?” Alex asked, his voice more eager than he meant it to be. Being the only one who lost today had left a bad taste in his mouth. He felt himself hungering to train and improve, never to be caught in such a humiliating defeat again.

“For tonight, we relax,” Nick told him. “In the coming weeks we’ll come up with some new training, but that’s in the coming weeks. Today, we kicked ass, and I think we earned a night to take it easy. Maybe we’ll even celebrate more enthusiastically this weekend. That’s all up to you guys. As it stands, we’re winners, and I think we should bask in the glow of being on top for a change.”

The sentiment, even if not verbally articulated, was definitely exuberantly echoed throughout the room.

*    *    *

 “I want to thank you for bringing this to our attention, Miss Ferguson,” Dean Blaine said gently. “I know it can’t have been easy.”

“After what happened today it would have been a lot harder to try and sleep at night if I hadn’t told you,” Britney replied. Her eyes had grown moist during their talk, however her voice had remained steady through the entire duration. Britney knew this had to be done, if it made her feel like a snitch or like she was betraying an unspoken allegiance to her fellow students, that was irrelevant. This was the right thing to do.

Dean Blaine regarded her with a new measure of respect. Fighting clear cut bad guys was easy to get behind, mentally and morally. When the world was black and white you never had to worry about feeling conflicted. In situations like this, in contrast, where there were ample easier ways out, Britney had still taken the right path even though it would weaken her team. As an educator he wasn’t supposed to play favorites with his students, yet all the same he found himself earnestly glad that someone like this was placing so well in all of her exams.

“I assure you that we will take appropriate measures. In fact, Michael was already under close watch, but having one of his own peers express such concerns certainly solidifies what we’d feared.”

“I just don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Britney said. “We got lucky today. If Vince hadn’t been so much stronger... let’s just say I don’t think Michael would have been nearly as gracious a winner.”

“The safety of my students is paramount,” Dean Blaine told her. “This will be dealt with. I promise you.”

“Thank you,” Britney said rising to leave.

“Please send in Professor Fletcher on your way out. He should be waiting outside the door,” Dean Blaine requested. Britney nodded her agreement and stepped outside of his office. A few minutes later the older man walked in, taking the seat she’d been occupying seconds before.

“I’d hoped with a bit of a leash and some close monitoring he would straighten up,” Dean Blaine said simply. “Since you’re the teacher of his best subject, tell me your impressions.”

“He’s talented. If he weren’t so angry all the time he could make some serious progress with an ability like his,” Professor Fletcher said. “What is it about Vince that’s got him so twisted up in knots?”

“Mr. Reynolds is only the most recent in Michael Clark’s line of conquests. His record indicates that when he loses to someone, most importantly when he loses image, he becomes obsessed with utterly surpassing them,” Dean Blaine explained. “It was actually a strike in his favor when applying, because up until his time at Lander that obsession manifested itself in tireless training and effort to surpass his rival. I daresay his recent shift to the psychotic revolves around his inability to make any traction in beating Mr. Reynolds, as well as a downward slide into alcohol abuse.”

“He’s drinking that much?”           

“I’ve had a few covert searches of his dorm room performed. Suffice it to say he is well beyond the limit of what a healthy liver can reasonably be expected to handle, even a college-aged one. I’ve sat him down and reached out to him in a few private meetings, however nothing seems to be getting through.”

“Then today he nearly scrambled up Alex’s brains,” Professor Fletcher said. “If he’d tried to throw one more punch I was going to have to stop the whole match and intervene.”

“You were watching it?”

“Of course.”

“And tell me Carl, with all your years of experience, what do you think?”

Professor Fletcher chose his next words carefully, all too aware that the future of the young man in question would hang on them. “He had a killing intent. I’ve seen that look in too many people’s faces not to recognize it. I don’t know if he’s aware of it himself, but he wanted to kill that telepath. Now just a desire doesn’t mean much on its own, some of the best Supers I know were ones who had to actively control themselves to keep from letting their darker urges get the better of them in battle. Not everyone is inherently perfect. Having a monster inside doesn’t automatically make you one, provided you have the discipline and self-awareness to keep it on a chain.”

“I would agree with you on all counts,” Dean Blaine said. “In some ways I prefer dealing with people whose darkness is more visible. It leads to less unfortunate surprises.” If his voice was a touch bitter, Professor Fletcher let it pass without comment. “The issue here is that I think Michael Clark lacks that chain, whether it is a result of the alcohol abuse or some yet undiagnosed psychosis. Regardless, he has shown himself to be an unacceptable threat to the other students.”

“So we boot him?”

“We could, however given his skills and violent tendencies I feel like it would merely be a matter of time before he wound up in prison for some assault crime.”

“I suppose so, but what other options do you have?”

“There is one other way to go with it. What Michael needs is more discipline and focus than he is getting in his current environment. Obviously he won’t be making the cut for Hero, but before we resort to full expulsion, we could give him a semester or two at Lander’s east campus to get himself together,” Dean Blaine said.

“I wasn’t aware Lander had an east campus,” Professor Fletcher said.

“It’s closer to a sister school than anything else. We don’t talk about it often because we only send over students who require very special training or very strict discipline,” Dean Blaine explained.

“Sounds like a good fit for him then,” Professor Fletcher agreed. “What will you do if he doesn’t want to transfer?”

“I wasn’t planning on making it a request. Tonight Michael Clark will either be moved to Lander East or he will be booted and banned from the HCP program,” Dean Blaine replied without inflection. “I will not give training to a man who I believe will use it to harm others. Not now, not ever. Not in my school.”

“Understood,” Professor Fletcher said. He began to leave, then a rogue thought wandered through his mind. “If I remember right, you’re a Lander graduate yourself. Ever do any time at the east campus during your days here?”

Dean Blaine turned away from his employee so Carl wouldn’t be able to see the ever so slight grin trying to break through his professional demeanor. “That will be all, Professor Fletcher.”