Nicholas was waiting for a fresh drink when he spotted a familiar figure practically stomping through the casino below. A thin smile touched his lips as he charted the figure’s path while watching from his balcony. The figure was male, and he was a few days later than Nicholas had expected, though he was certainly moving with haste now that he was here. Nicholas briefly entertained the idea of letting security deal with the clearly irate man, then thought better of it. For right now he needed to play a gentle hand; being too antagonistic would work against his long-term strategy. Besides, this was not a man one trifled with lightly.

“Diane,” Nicholas said as his waitress appeared with a fresh cocktail. “Bring me a glass of scotch, whatever Gerry keeps on reserve should be fine, and tell security to show the man they’re tracking up here to my table.”

“Yes sir. Anything else?”

Nicholas paused for a moment, then responded with two words: “Crab cakes.”

Orders taken, Diane dissolved into the regular area of the restaurant from which she’d emerged. Nicholas was sitting on a private section that jutted out and overlooked the casino below. It was reserved for high rollers, visiting celebrities, Heroes of a certain caliber (who were really just another type of celebrity), and friends of The Family. It was where he took most of his meals, at least the ones he ate in the public eye.

The scotch had been delivered and Nicholas’s own drink was a quarter finished when his guest finally arrived. Nicholas rose from his seat, slapped on a happy grin, and extended his hand in welcome.

“Dean Blaine, such a pleasure to see you.”

Dean Blaine, to his credit, did a better job at concealing his frustration at his former student than he had when dealing with the lackeys below. Rather than giving into the temptation to deck Nicholas right in his smug little face, Dean Blaine merely ignored the extended hand and took a seat at the table.

“What,” he began, striking the “t” against his teeth, “do you think you’re trying to pull?”

Nicholas lowered his hand and sat back down at the table. His left hand twitched as he suppressed an urge to adjust sunglasses that were not, and had not been for months, still on his face. Strange that though Nick was gone the tics he’d crafted remained.

“I’m having dinner. The drink is for you, by the way, and we should have some crab cakes here in a few minutes.”

“You know perfectly well that’s not what I’m talking about.” Dean Blaine reached into his jacket pocket and produced a folded stack of papers. He set them on the table and then pushed them across. “This is your class schedule for the coming year. At Lander.”

“I appreciate it, but I already printed out a copy when I registered for classes,” Nicholas said cheerfully.

“Which is, essentially, the core issue we seem to have. You were expelled. While most of memories of the HCP were obscured, that part should have remained very clear.”

“I remember it so well I even recalled your name, didn’t I? No, you were very clear, and I am under no misimpressions. I understand perfectly that I have been expelled…from the HCP.” The weight Nicholas put on his final words left no doubt at their implication.

“Lander and the HCP go hand in hand,” Dean Blaine replied. “We welcome back those who merely fail out of the program, however being expelled carries the understanding that you are no longer welcome on campus.”

“You’d think so, but our lawyers were able to find a surprising amount of precedent suggesting that not to be the case.” Nicholas paused while Diane returned with the plate of crab cakes, still steaming slightly and looking positively delectable. Once she was gone, he continued. “While grades at Lander can hinder one’s progression in the HCP, it seems that’s a one-way street. Leaving the HCP, situation regardless, is not in itself reason for a college to bar a student from regular classes.”

“You’re not the only one with lawyers,” Dean Blaine said stiffly. “Let me assure you, the ones we keep are good enough to make it a much cheaper and easier solution to just change schools.”

“Sadly my heart is set on Lander,” Nicholas shot back. “And the fact of the matter is that I can make a stronger case for staying than you can for me leaving. My HCP memories are gone, I can’t blow the whistle on any former Supers I was in with thanks to the memory mojo, and I’m sure you’ll make everyone aware to steer clear of me. On the other hand, all my class memories are intact, I have a community of friends and teachers outside the program I don’t want to leave, and consistency is a key factor for growing minds like my own.”

“You never talked to anyone outside the program.”

“I had enough interaction that my lawyer can paint me as the boy being victimized by the big bad HCP. I even had a girlfriend freshman year; maybe I wanted to rekindle things with her now that I have free time.”

Dean Blaine took a long drink of the scotch in front of him. It wasn’t bad, but he’d definitely had better. “So you can probably come back if you want. That still doesn’t answer the question of why you’d want to. You seem far more at home here.”

Nicholas leaned back in his chair, surveying the room around him. Dean Blaine wasn’t wrong. This was his kingdom, his domain. Here he was a prince being groomed for a throne. Here he was someone special, with or without his ability. His hand twitched again, breaking his concentration.

“My reasons are largely my own, Dean Blaine. But I’ll tell you this much: HCP or not, Lander is far from boring.”

“Far from boring,” Dean Blaine repeated.

“Indeed.” Nicholas glanced away for mere seconds to spear a chunk of the crab cakes cooling on his plate, and in doing so he missed the instantaneous flash of a smile that lighted upon Dean Blaine’s face, then vanished just as quickly.

Which just went to show, a moment’s distraction can make even the most skilled manipulator miss the clues that he is being played.

 *              *              *

Vince coughed roughly, a few flecks of spit and blood splattering onto the ground. They were quickly absorbed by the thick layer of dust that coated everything in this awful place. He pressed his hand into the dirt and pulled himself back to his feet. A few blinks to clear more damned dust from his eyes and he was ready to go again.

The sun gleamed off George’s metallic form, a factor that he’d already used several times to blind Vince just before an attack. Unlike the younger man, he wasn’t effected by the constant, scorching heat, nor by the bits of brown dirt that swirled around them constantly. This environment was only taxing for someone made of flesh. It was one of dozens of variables specifically calculated to leave Vince weary and weak. Personally, George thought it was overkill, but he wasn’t the one calling the shots.

“Need me to get you a rock to sit on?” George taunted. “I don’t think you’re going to make it through another day. Best to call it quits and get you back to the safety of your dorm.”

There was no response from Vince; he’d learned by the third day that responding to George’s barbs only sapped him of saliva, intensifying his sense of dehydration. Periodically the robotic man would stop to demand Vince take a drink from the nearby canteen. No one wanted him to drop dead, it seemed, but he’d over-taxed himself and passed out more than a few times. He always got back up, though. He always kept going after his opponent. Not out of some sense of duty or obligation, nor even a misguided belief that there was nobility in fighting a hopeless battle.

Vince pressed on because of The Deal they’d struck on their first day here.

He charged forward, feinting right, then darting left. It wasn’t going to fool George, Vince knew that already, but it would force him to expand the field he was observing in case Vince did it again. That would dilute his attention, even if it was only by a fractional amount. Every little bit helped. Vince reached down deep in himself and grabbed some kinetic energy. Electrical was wasted on a man who could convert it to his own power source, and fire would only make this wasteland more hellish on himself. Besides, the way George was knocking him around, there was no shortage of kinetic energy to replace it with.

Vince spun forward just shy of George’s reach, dancing back a half-step, then barreling toward him with renewed intensity. It threw off the timing of the punch George had directed toward his face, catching Vince in the shoulder instead. He was ready for this one; the bone-shattering force of the blow instantly became part of Vince’s internal arsenal rather than sending him flying. His own attack was deflected by George’s nimble hand, jerking him off balance and loosening his shoulder in its socket. Vince was able to stop himself from falling over, but the momentary distraction meant he wasn’t ready for the knee George drove into his ribs.

Vince let out a soft whimper of pain and collapsed. With extreme care he poked his sides. Two ribs were broken, at least one more was bruised. That, at least, would be gone in the morning. Vince didn’t know why his broken bones vanished as he slept, nor why this healing did nothing for his everyday aches and soreness, but he’d come to accept it as just another part of this strange situation.

“Nice try kid, now how about we get you to a hospital and let things be done.” George backed off to let him recover. It might have seemed like this was a kindness, but in truth it was almost sadistic. If he’d hammered on Vince without pause the young man would have been beyond repair, he wouldn’t have been able to fight on. That would mean this deal, and his suffering, were over. Instead, George let him get back up, and the excruciating process dragged on.

“Bet you thought you’d have figured something out by now. Bet you were feeling all kinds of badass after that little spectacle you put on at Lander. Sorry kid, but you need to accept reality. Just because you were able to hold back a few sophomores for a couple of minutes doesn’t mean you’re ready to play with the big boys. Especially when you had to have Campbell brain-jack you to pull off even that. Give it up.”

Vince dragged himself back to his feet, his breathing labored as each gasp drew protest from his ribs. The first few days he’d been fired up, taking George’s barbs and coming back harder and faster. After a week or so, he’d learned to steady his emotions. George once said that inner fire might make you scary, but inner cold made you dangerous. Vince was beginning to understand what he’d meant.

An unsteady step forward confirmed that he could at least still walk under his own power. Good. As long he could keep coming then he hadn’t lost. The Deal was still in full effect.

It wasn’t a complicated bargain, neither party was that sort of thinker. George had merely made him a proposition once his seeming captive had awoken: Vince was free to go at any time, and if he ever reached a point of injury so great he couldn’t continue, he would be transported to a hospital and abandoned. The flip side was that if Vince was able to beat George, even once, then George would willingly return himself to jail. That alone might have kept Vince going, but then George had added a cherry to the top of the offer. If Vince beat George, he got more than to return a fugitive to rightful incarceration. George would also take him to see his father. With that carrot dangling in front of him, Vince never even once considered giving up. George could taunt him, beat him, and ridicule him all he wanted. Vince wasn’t quitting. And if he could at all help it, he wasn’t going to lose by injury either.

The silver-haired young man took two more weary steps forward, drops of sweat falling from his forehead into the damned dusty ground, then charged.

 *              *              *

Mary jumped slightly at the sound of a tree being shattered into kindling. She’d gotten lost in her book and not noticed when Alice switched up her training. Looking up from the depths of the dense tome, she noticed her blonde friend had moved toward the edge of the clearing for this round of practice.

Alice’s face was furrowed in concentration as she focused on reversing, then intensifying, the flow of gravity in a defined area. The small tree she was staring at began to shiver as one of the natural forces of the universe was suddenly thrown out of whack. A quick sweep of her hand removed a lock of sweaty hair from Alice’s eyes. She’d been training for a few hours, alternating between using her body and her power, and if she followed the routine she’d established in these woods it would be several hours more before she was done. If Mary had feared allowing her to come would fill this silent sanctuary with chatter, those worries were unfounded. Whatever Alice was going through, she’d evidently found more solace in training than talking. Not to say she was unfriendly or aloof, merely constantly occupied.

The tree tore free from the ground as the upended gravity’s pull proved to be too much for even strong roots to struggle against. It drifted into the air lazily, the powerful pull reduced almost immediately to a sense of weightlessness. It had taken Alice two weeks to get a sapling out of the ground and another three days before she’d been able to keep one from flying off into the air. That had been some time ago; the tree currently suspended in mid-air was far larger than a mere sapling.

Alice took hold of both ends with opposing gravitational forces, pulling it tight and bringing its drift to a stop. She’d wasted more time than she cared to admit trying to fine-tune this trick to the point where she could actually pull the tree in half. No matter how much she put into it though, she was never able to conjure enough force to overcome the structural integrity of one of Mother Nature’s oldest designs.

Another prodigious cracking filled the air as this tree shattered at its center then fell to the ground. Alice couldn’t pull them in half, but she could now add a third pull of gravity in the middle. Once it was pulled tight not even a mighty oak could overcome the forces of physics.

A quick walk to a new target a few feet away began the cycle anew. Alice would do this for some time longer, working very hard at focusing her mind down to singular tasks. Learning to train it to blot out all other thoughts. All other distractions. All other curiosities. Learning to blur out everything but the task at hand.

Especially things related to her parents.

 *              *              *

Hershel stretched backward, listening to the soft pops from his spine as it crackled, giving him blissful but all too short relief. He’d gotten better at lifting with his legs, that much had been necessary to avoid serious injury, but even after several months of work he still hadn’t quite managed to eliminate using his back entirely. That meant by the time he was ready to change into Roy his body had acquired quite a number of throbbing aches and pains. And that was on the good days. Sometimes he didn’t even get to turn into Roy, which meant the pain persisted through the night.

With a mighty haul of effort Hershel yanked two pails loaded with feed up from the ground. There was grunting and snorting from the stalls, all reinforced with a myriad of metals designed to keep the altered animals contained. They worked well, for the most part. There had been an incident or two, but from the way everyone else shrugged them off Hershel had assumed it was par for the course around here. Of course, after the first one he began keeping an emergency container of whiskey on him at all times. Hershel was easy-going, not stupid.

“Hurry up!” Gus yelled from the arena. “We need you to check the saddles before tonight’s show!”

“Hurrying,” Hershel called back, throwing his already pained body into motion. This hadn’t really been the sort of training he was anticipating when he asked his mother to find him a teacher, but if the protesting in his muscles and the smaller waistline on his pants were any indication, it was certainly yielding results.

Roy was less optimistic about their situation, but then again what was new about that?

 *              *              *

Sean Pendleton looked around the room anxiously. It was strange; there was a time when he’d have been filled with comfort to see so many masked faces perched atop flamboyant costumes. Then again, he would have been wearing one as well. Not so ostentatious, obviously, Subtlety Heroes tended toward more muted color schemes. When Sean had been Wisp his outfit was done in black swirls and soft grays. It didn’t have any built-in armor like many of the others, so it was thin enough to wear under street clothes when need be. The mask and gloves he could carry, but the real issue had been the boots. Those boots were a pain in the ass. Not that any of that mattered anymore. Wisp was gone, and Sean was dearly hoping no one recognized his lean face as the one that once been under a mask.

There were other people in regular clothes dotted amongst the Heroes. Some were liaisons for the Hero community, some served purposes best left unspoken, some were lawyers kept on retainer in case they were needed, and others were people who’d walked away from the spandex and the action some years earlier. Among them were Mr. Transport and Mr. Numbers, talking to a petite woman and a large man wearing suits that matched their own. Another uncostumed individual, Dean Blaine, walked through the room and sat in an uncomfortable folding chair next to Sean. Both of them were now facing the stage, a moderately sized elevated platform with a white screen behind a podium.

“Feeling awkward?” Blaine asked.

“How could you tell?”

“Let’s call it Hero’s intuition.”

The others were filtering into their seats as well, some understood signal telling them the presentation was about the start. Sean noticed a few of his fellow Lander professors among them, though they were talking to different clusters of Heroes that Sean was less familiar with. That was understandable; one always had a deep connection with the fellow graduates of their class. It was impossible not to, they’d scrapped and battled and trained alongside one another until only they were left standing. That sort of experience bonded people in a way that was nearly unbreakable.

Even when one might fervently wish to break it.

“Thank you all for coming,” said the keynote speaker, stepping up onto the stage and taking his place at the podium. Charles Adair had also come out of costume, choosing a fine gray suit instead of The Alchemist’s costume and cloak. Blake Hill was a few steps away, adorned in the deep black shades of his Black Hole costume. Though they were not the ones who had called and organized this gathering, at least not officially, then were recognized as the people most suitable to lead it, given their relationship to the subject matter. Sean might have been able to think of people who knew the subject better than Blake Hill, however Charles’ expertise was beyond reproach. Not that many people here knew why.

There was a gentle electronic hum and an audible clicking sound, then the screen behind Charles filled with a familiar image. It had been all over the news in the past weeks, the subject of many round table discussions and piles of speculations. It was of a man perched atop a floating hunk of rock, a woman at his side and a recently freed prisoner at his feet. He was the reason they were all here. He was the problem that warranted the collective attention of as many Heroes as could be mustered.

“As you all know, my former teammate, Globe, revealed himself to be alive some weeks ago with the very public jailbreak of Relentless Steel. Since he was kind enough to make his identity public before his retirement, I can tell you this prisoner’s real name is George Russell, and he was an educator in the Hero Certification Program for many years.”

The room murmured. One Hero going rogue was bad, but a teacher was far more dangerous. A single Hero would only have in-depth knowledge about the identities and weaknesses of his graduating class and possibly a few Supers who’d been in class years close to him. A Professor would have that same data on every Hero he’d ever taught.

“Yes, the implications here are very serious, yet bad as they are the reemergence of Globe is still a higher priority,” Charles continued. “Most of you know that he turned on us with the murder of Intra, and that we were only barely able to defeat him, thanks largely to Black Hole. We thought we had triumphed, however it now seems we were wrong. For any of you wondering how we made a blunder that large, that thought alone tells me you’ve never had any dealing with the man called Globe. That is largely why we have called this conclave. If you go up against him, it is imperative you know what you are dealing with.”

The clicking sound came again, and now they were staring at the same man, but decades younger. His face was lean, his mask crisp, and his eyes shining with pride. Sean recognized the photograph; it had been cropped from their graduation picture. He knew that next to Globe was Intra on one side and Shimmerpath on the other. Three people down one could find Zero and Raze, then one more over Wisp’s smiling face would beam back at them. It had been an unspeakably happy day.

“Globe was the top ranked graduate in his class, no small feat any year; however his is especially impressive given the quality of Heroes that came out along with him. It has been referred to by some as The Class of Legends, and while the name is hokey I urge you to take it seriously. The graduates of that year’s class were of exceptional power and skill, and Globe handily trumped them all.”

Sean wondered how Blaine felt about that. It had been closer than some people thought. Most believed Intra to be Globe’s main contender, but Zero hadn’t been too far behind either.

“As to how Globe managed to come out on top, that’s part of what we’ll be going over. His ingenuity, his resourcefulness, his determination, but we’ll begin with the largest factor in his, or any Hero’s, success: his power. I know there has been much speculation on exactly what Globe could do, given the variety of abilities he demonstrated during his tenure as a Hero.”

There were rapid clicks a series of images flashed before them: Globe, holding up a hand to stop a giant robot’s impending fist. Globe, walking unscathed through a river of lava that parted before him. Globe, holding a bus overhead with a single finger as he calmly knocked back a bolt of destructive energy.

“Many have theorized that Globe was a telekinetic the likes of which had never been seen. Others believed he had an ability that randomized, giving him different gifts on different days. As is policy, his true talents were kept secret, just as his identity. Since he was believed dead so soon after becoming a criminal, this data was never declassified. However, given the extenuating circumstances, we have received permission to educate you all on the actual nature of Globe’s ability. I wish I could say this was meant to be helpful, but in truth I’m just hoping it helps you stay alive.”

The slide clicked again, this time showing what appeared to be a bastardization of DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. A human silhouette was in the center, with a carefully measured radius encircling him.

“Globe’s ability was area manipulation. His body exuded a field that allowed him to control his surroundings. I don’t mean merely minor things like moving objects or melting butter. Globe’s control was total, down to the molecules. He could sunder the very laws of physics. He negated energy, he changed chemical compositions, he could even render all other Supers in his field powerless. Or merely use their bodies to do what he wanted. When it was studied originally, one of the researchers deemed Globe’s ability ‘The God Field.’ That term is more accurate than any other I’ve heard associated with his power. To all things in his sphere of influence, he was effectively God.”

If the news of George’s profession had drawn the frantic murmuring that showed nervousness, this revelation drew something far more terrifying: Silence. Each Hero in the room was comparing his own ability to one just described, trying to think of a way to overcome it. The lack of outburst meant all of them were coming up empty.

“The obvious limitation to Globe’s power was, rather self-evidently, that it only applied within the field he emitted. At graduation his sphere was estimated to be around sixteen feet in any direction from his body. Just before his supposed death it was around twenty. The growth rate slowed as he aged, however it did continue to inch forward over time. We have to assume this trend has continued in the years he has been hidden. Aside from that weakness, his power is limited only by his concentration. We believed we had bested him thanks to the pain from Intra cutting off his arm in their fight. On that note, there have been two recorded Supers that Globe could not control directly nor suppress the powers of. One was Intra, whose own ability was believed to overpower Globe’s in regards to his body.”

Sean already knew who the other was, but still tried to look away from his seat neighbor anyway.

“The other was, of course, the Hero who was immune to all abilities. I’m sure everyone here is at least passingly familiar with Zero.”

 *              *              *

The office was dark and cool, it was a place designed for ambiance over functionality. Ms. Pips had little need for an office outside of the occasional private meeting. Her official job was in the casino, schmoozing high rollers and making sure everything ran the way she liked it. Her unofficial job…well, that was often conducted in the same casino, or in far less savory places, though as she grew older she found herself more inclined to let her subordinates handle the second category. If she were a male she could have delegated such errands to them entirely, but it seemed even in their unorthodox world people were more willing to assume that the moment a woman stopped doing something it was because she was no longer able. Not that this was that sort of meeting, though it could become one. Every meeting Ms. Pips conducted could always become one.

“Have a seat,” she said to the young man, more man than young than she remembered, who stepped through the door.

“Of course,” Nicholas replied, walking across the plush rug and settled in a high-backed leather chair. He might be flippant when out and about, but he knew that this office was a symbol of her power. It was a place of tradition and, more importantly, respect.

Gerry shifted almost imperceptibly. He was under orders to be silent, but as the boy’s primary caretaker he had the right to be up to speed on his assignments. Personally, Ms. Pips felt they should have cut the cord a long time ago, but she saw too much use in their closeness to tear them apart. Nicholas had so few weaknesses; it paid to have one of the few things he cared about directly under her control. Aside from which, Gerry was her top employee, and in this business it was inexcusable to not take care of those who showed loyalty and dedication. If all Gerry wanted was to watch over his charge, then Ms. Pips would need a good reason to refuse him.

Besides, it wouldn’t matter for much longer anyway.

“I thought you’d like to know we got your book list for the coming year in the mail today,” Ms. Pips said after an appropriately intimidating amount of silence had passed. Nicholas wore an expression of interest without giving away any shred of what was going on in his head. That lesson, at least, he’d learned well. “Along with a letter expressing the school’s happiness that you’ve decided to continue your education with them. “

“I suppose Dean Blaine's objections were overruled then,” Nicholas assessed.

“Fearsome as Supers are, they always pale in comparison to lawsuits,” Ms. Pips replied. “So you’re back in Lander, even though you’ve remained close-mouthed on exactly why it is you are so insistent to return.”

“Be fair, the entire reason I had my memory fogged over was to hide some valuable information. It stands to reason that Nick wouldn’t have included it in his end of semester reports,” Nicholas countered. Decoding the massive files that he’d written during his breaks was relatively easy; it had been his mind that created the code in the first place, after all. Sorting out the context though, that had been more difficult. He still hadn’t pieced together what it was he’d thought he was on to, though he suspected Nick had purposely excluded key clues from the final report as well as having the bits of previous reports destroyed. Nicholas trusted it was for good reason. After all, his own brain and its scheming were the only things in this world he really could trust.

“Yes, Nick certainly did seem to feel he had a lot to hide. But, as is clear to all of us, Nick isn’t here anymore. Your cover character was effectively wiped out by your mental alteration. So why bother trying to solve his mystery? Why should I let you return to your little game with yourself when there’s real work to be done here?”

Nicholas leaned forward and allowed himself a light smile. They were to the heart of the matter now.

“I can give you three reasons. Firstly, we both know I need a degree for our long-term plans, and Lander is perfectly respectable institution to have on a diploma. Secondly, Nick made connections and built rapport with some very strong people, people who have an excellent chance of becoming influential and powerful in the future. Having friends in high places, especially ones who owe us favors, is a backbone of our enterprise. By going back I can expand and deepen those relationships.”

“I doubt the dean is planning to let you pal around with your old friends,” Ms. Pips pointed out.

“Don’t worry, if the files are even close to accurate then they’ll come to me. These people are stupidly loyal, though I suppose that term was a bit redundant, wasn’t it?”

Gerry did not twitch, he did not shuffle in place, he did not let his expression change. He did nothing to show the splinter of heartbreak that stabbed at him upon hearing Nicholas’s words. It wasn’t just the collection of sound from the young man’s mouth, it was the ruthlessness in his eyes. Gerry had seen those eyes soften over the past two years, but no sign of such sentimentality remained in the seated boy before him.

“I think you said you had three reasons,” Ms. Pips reminded him.

“Globe,” Nicholas said, spreading his hands. “The man is quite an enigma, so little known is about him or what caused him to kill his team member. The one fact that is concretely agreed upon is that he is powerful. Tremendously so. He is a man who can bend other Heroes to his will, and we know one thing he cares very deeply for. Add in that Nick’s records indicate he thought he was on the trail on unraveling the mystery of Globe’s fall, and it all sums up to the potential at gaining sway over one of the strongest Supers in generations.”

“Quite a longshot,” Ms. Pips chided him.

“Extraordinarily so. But, as I said, there are also good reasons to go. If one can throw a few chips on a longshot while also working a safe bet, and there is little extra cost, then doesn’t it make sense to give it a whirl?”

Ms. Pips drummed her fingers against the wooden top of her desk. For over ten minutes, the rhythmic motion of her digits was the only sound that filled the room. She stared at the boy across the table, gauging him carefully. When she finally spoke, it was with confidence that she’d seen every angle he was working and could twist each to her own designs.

“I’ll give you another year. We’ll see what you can do with it.”

“Thank you,” Nicholas said.

“However, I’m not certain you aren’t doing all this just to satisfy your own curiosity, so I’m sending along some extra insurance.”

Had Nicholas been Nick, he would have been wearing his sunglasses, and Ms. Pips wouldn’t have noticed the subtle tic of his eyes as he avoided looking at Gerry. Yeah right, he wished. She pulled a pair of pages from a folder on her desk and slid them across the well-waxed wooden surface. Nicholas intercepted them before they careened off the edge. A small frown formed at the corner of his mouth.

“Those two have been enrolled in Lander as well. They’ll be keeping tabs on you and making sure I stay in the loop. Memorize everything on that sheet, you’ll be expected to help sell their covers.”

“Eliza I don’t mind, but did you need to send her guard dog too?”

“Yes, I did.” Ms. Pips pulled another sheet from her folder and sent it over. She didn’t wait for Nicholas to catch it before continuing. “We got a heads up on this last week. I decided to wait until we knew if you were allowed to go before telling you about it.”

If the frown at the first two sheets had been noticeable, this one may as well have had giant neon signs pointing to it.

“Nathaniel Evers has registered at Lander,” Nicholas said slowly.

“Indeed. I’m sure your location was protected while you were in the HCP, but now that you are a regular student they were able to track you down. That’s the other reason you’re going to have company.”

Nicholas snorted. “I think I can handle Nathaniel.”

“Maybe so, but I doubt he’s gone to all the trouble of going to California just to admire you from afar. Our Family has big plans for you, that much is common knowledge. Out there, away from our seat of power, you’re far more vulnerable.”

“Careful, you’re starting to sound worried.”

“I am very worried. The Evers have been growing bolder as of late, the McCrakens are sniffing around the edge of our territory, and my supposed great asset wants to go dick around in California on some wild goose chase left to him by a wiped cover identity. I worry for our Family, as is my duty.”

“Then let me do my duty as an employee and take some of that worry off your shoulders. I assure you, Nathaniel will not be a problem. Not for me, not for us.”

“You sound confident.”

“Of course I’m confident. Nathaniel has never successfully bested me, not even when I was a Powered and he was a Super. Anything he brings at me I’m sure I can handle. Not to mention, even if he does manage to put together some surprise I’m not prepared for, I can always show him one of my trump cards.” Nicholas allowed a genuine smile to take the place of the frown that had previously soured his expression. “And I can promise you, no matter how far-fetched Nathaniel may believe my resources, the last thing he’ll be anticipating me having is friends.”

On that account, both Gerry and Ms. Pips could certainly agree, though doing so filled them with quite contrasting emotions.

 *              *              *

The soft crackle of the fire was barely audible over Vince’s loud snores. They could have been muffled, or muted entirely, but Globe found he had no real desire to silence them. It was a comforting reminder of happier days, days when he didn’t have to knock his son out before he could be around him.

“Tonight the night you finally cave and wake him up?” George asked. He’d nearly finished gorging himself on the food Globe brought, replenishing the steadily growing number of calories it took to spar with Vince each day. Staying in his robotic form would stave off hunger, not eliminate the need for it. All energy has to come from somewhere, and his was no different.

Globe sighed softly and looked up at the sky. The stars were staggering out here, so far from any man made light sources. Yet another reminder of the second life he’d cast away. What was he on now? His third? He wondered how many more there would be before the saga of Globe finally came to a close.

“Of course not,” he eventually replied. “When they grill Vince on his summer whereabouts I can’t be anywhere in his memory. Spending a few months trying to bring a fugitive to justice is defensible, if not admirable. If they catch any wind of me, everything changes. I can’t risk that.”

“They’ll know he wanted to see you,” George pointed out.

“I’m his father; of course he wants to see me. What matters is whether I come to him or not.”

“It would have been a lot simpler to just leave him alone.”

“After all these weeks you’re still arguing with me? You know he needed help getting his abilities under control. Nick Campbell’s stunt bought him a year, but unless he learns to replicate that power on his own it won’t matter. Not to mention, he needed some practice with an opponent not easily damaged.”

“I just think we have bigger fish to fry,” George said.

“Let me worry about that. Right now our efforts are on moving without being detected. That reminds me, we’re due for a refresh.” Globe closed his eyes for a moment. The air around them all shimmered slightly, an almost imperceptible alteration to the area's natural magnetic field. It would shift back eventually, but until it did no Super would be able to discern their location. It was one Globe’s many tactics in his extensive bag of tricks, a bag that even George had yet to see the bottom of.

“Thanks, don’t want any unexpected guests showing up,” George said. “I got my fill of prison food already.”

Globe’s eyes reopened. “I dearly wish I could promise you that you’d never have to go back there. Unfortunately-”

“I know what I signed up for,” George interrupted. “All of us do. You worry about getting the job done. That’s all that matters to us anymore. Until then, I’ll keep following orders. Even if the orders are beating the hell out of your kid daily. Did you heal him yet?”

“Got all his broken bones and bigger injuries,” Globe replied. “Left him plenty of fatigue.”

“Good. I’ll give your boy this: there is not a single drop of Quit in him. If he manages to survive the whole summer he’ll be a tough little bastard.”

Globe smiled, the firelight rendering it more than a little disconcerting.

“He’ll survive. Don’t you doubt that. The only thing I’m worried about is him actually beating you. I was a touch concerned he’d replicate his tactic of draining you down to human form again.”

“He’s tried a few times, but it’s not quite so easy without a telekinetic holding me down. Since he has to touch me, I just knock him in the head and screw up his concentration whenever he gives it a go. Your boy has a useful ability, no question, but it still has some fundamental weaknesses. Only absorbing one energy at a time being the second most prevalent among them.”

“I think it’s a good thing that his ability is imperfect,” Globe replied. “Too much power is a burden in itself. A sense of invincibility is even worse. If Vince truly believed himself the most powerful Super in the world he would never know a moment’s peace. His entire life would be consumed by mission after mission, terrified that his not going would mean a weaker Hero failed or died.”

“Or he could turn into a real asshole,” George pointed out.

“I suppose that is also a possibility,” Globe conceded. “But I think the first is more likely.”

“You’re the expert,” George conceded. Conversation concluded, he began stuffing his face with food once more, preparing for the coming day’s battle.

Chapter 1

It was strange being back on campus after a summer away. Hershel trekked down the winding sidewalk that would, eventually, encircle all of Lander. Branches would split off periodically, taking him to any destination one might please, but the main path wrapped around the whole campus, serving as both a guide and a divider from the outside world. It was comforting to trace the familiar cement walkway; it reminded him that no matter how much had gone awry last year, at least the school was still somewhat constant.

A quick turn took him down one of the many splits, putting him on track to arrive at Melbrook in a few moments. He could have had his mother drop him off closer, but traffic was already reaching levels of utter insanity as wistful parents deposited eager students, ready to resume, or begin, their independent lives. Besides, Hershel was making a point of taking the more physically taxing option whenever he could. Small actions though they might be, a leaky faucet can still flood a house if given enough time. The roller bag behind him bounced unevenly over the dividers. There wasn’t much in it, a few garments and some souvenirs from his summer; the majority of his belongings had never been moved from his Melbrook dorm. Why bother? It had been heavily implied that he’d still be returning. Even if he hadn’t put on Vince’s showing at the end of the year, Roy had definitely kicked a respectable amount of ass. Since he hadn’t been told not to come back, he was pretty sure they were in the clear. A part of him wondered who hadn’t been so lucky, however that thought was so wrapped up in the empty room waiting for all them at Melbrook that it was too painful to dwell on. Losing Nick was hard. What if someone else they cared about wasn’t returning?

Hershel shook off that line of thought as best he could, focusing instead on maneuvering his way through the Melbrook front door. It look a little more coordinating than normal, since he had to deal with his cargo, but within moments he had passed through the hallway and made it into the common room. There was just enough time to take a deep breath of the familiar scents before a female voice grabbed his attention.


“Hey Alice. Guess you and Mary beat me.”

“We absolutely did, but that is so not the most interesting story at the moment.” Alice turned and yelled past the open door she’d been walking through, into the girl’s lounge. “Mary! Come see this!”

A slight blush crept into Hershel’s cheeks. He’d expected some reaction, the change was appreciable, however this seemed a bit much. Mary popped her head out of the door, her eyes widening slightly as they caught sight of her boyfriend for the first time in months.


“Yeah, it’s me,” he assured her.

“You look great,” she said, stepping out and greeting him more affectionately with a hug. “I mean, you always looked good to me, but this is a heck of change.”

Hershel’s formerly pudgy form looked as though it had collapsed in itself. His belt-overlapping stomach now tapered into his pants neatly, pants which were clearly a size or two smaller than they had been. His face had thinned noticeably, accentuating cheekbones that, while still not prominent, were now certainly discernible. He even appeared to have put on a bit of muscle here and there, though it was still not prominent. Still far from lean, and certainly still out of shape by HCP standards, it was clear Hershel had put in a summer of incredible effort to make such an improvement.

“Thanks,” he said, shuffling on his feet a bit awkwardly. Hershel wasn’t used to having people look at him with such admiration; that was something only Roy had really experienced. “Is Vince here yet?”

“Vince will be along in a few hours,” Mr. Numbers said, stepping into the room from the kitchen. It was a rare occasion, for Mr. Transport was nowhere to be seen rather than at his partner’s side. “He is currently meeting with Dean Blaine and some professors for an important discussion.”

“Wow, you guys really aren’t even letting him get settled before the grilling starts, are you?” Alice asked.

“In this case, it was Vince who requested the meeting,” Mr. Numbers corrected her. “He had a very unusual summer, and has professed a desire to be upfront with the faculty on all such matters.”

“And let me guess, you’re not going to tell us anymore than that,” Hershel ventured.

“Correct. It will be up to the committee to decide if Vince’s summer is unclassified, and then up to Vince to decide if he even wants to share it. I trust all of you had more normal vacations?”

“Normal is a relative term with this group,” Mary said. “But I didn’t do anything that I think bears a special meeting.”

“Ditto,” Hershel agreed.

“I was with Mary, so her answer counts for both of us,” Alice chimed in.

“Excellent. In that case let us move to new business. As you know, your first day of junior year begins tomorrow. They will let you know which of your classmates failed to make the cut and return, but I have been allowed to give you one tidbit of information beforehand. Aside from Nick, everyone from Team One has advanced.”

The students felt a strange combination of relief and stress surge through them simultaneously. It was good to know Camille and Alex were still with them; however, they all had friends on other teams. Knowing two more slots were filled forced them to start running the numbers yet again for who else could remain.

“Also on the subject of teammates, I’m sure you are all aware that Melbrook’s five-person capacity has dropped to an occupancy of four,” Mr. Numbers continued. “While I can appreciate how significant the loss of Nick Campbell was for all of you, Mr. Transport felt leaving his room empty would only serve as a constant reminder of what had been lost. To that end, we are pursuing the option of allowing another of your classmates to take up residency here.”

“I thought the whole point of this facility was to keep us separate from the rest of the students,” Hershel pointed out. “‘Contained’ was the word someone used.”

“That it was; however, this project is evolving, and some of the higher ups have begun to think that segregating you from the general populace was impeding the relevancy of the data.”

“The data?” Alice asked.

“We’re prototypes,” Mary reminded her. “They’re testing us to see if this procedure is viable. Not just if it works, but if there any side-effects they might not have anticipated.”

“Well said,” Mr. Numbers agreed.

“I don’t know how I feel about someone else moving into Nick’s room,” Alice said.

“I’m actually on board with it,” Hershel countered. “No one will, or really ever could, take Nick’s place. Having someone live with us won’t change that. It will, at least hopefully, keep us from dwelling on his absence constantly. I miss him too, but setting aside his old room as a shrine isn’t going to bring him back.”

“I guess so,” Alice begrudgingly admitted. “Who gets it, anyway? Do we have a vote?”

“If we succeed in getting permission, then you will be certainly be consulted before a decision is made,” Mr. Numbers told her. “Though the pool might be a small one. We will need someone willing to sign the proper waivers, and who has an actual desire to bunk with all you, given your unfortunate reputation.”

“Classy way to phrase that,” Alice said. With Nick gone, she felt someone had to take over at least a part of the sarcasm duty.

“Thank you,” Mr. Numbers said, either ignoring the barb or entirely ignorant of it.

Chapter 2

“-and then I woke up, sitting on a bench over near the Psychology department’s building,” Vince concluded. “My bag was next to me. I don’t know how long I was there before I came around. As soon I realized where I was, I came to see you. That’s pretty much all of it.”

Dean Blaine nodded, his eyes flicking to the other people in the room. All of the professors were in attendance, as was Mr. Transport, sitting by his charge’s side. There was also a man with shoulder length dark hair, one Dean Blaine would have much rather left out of this interview. Ralph Chapman was a member of the board that oversaw all Hero Certification Programs at colleges across the nation, and he had been handpicked to spearhead the search into Vince’s past looking for information on Globe. He was also an unbearable ass. Still, the investigation was happening whether Dean Blaine liked it or not, and he wouldn’t do Vince any favors by impeding the man facilitating it. All that would come from such action was getting himself cut from the loop and leaving Vince truly on his own.

“Are you certain, that’s all?” Ralph asked, his tone probing but not accusatory. “No other details about Globe, or what he’s planning, or where he is?”

Vince shook his head. “I never got to see him or talk to him, I never beat George. I went to sleep expecting another day of fighting. Honestly, I didn’t even know how much time had passed, I completely lost track of the days out there.”

“What about this place where he trained you? Could you find it if you saw it again?”

“Maybe. I don’t know much about geography; are there a lot of flat featureless areas in deserts?”

“I think that’s a no,” Mr. Transport supplied helpfully. His years with Mr. Numbers had taught him a thing or two about reading people, and he already knew he didn’t like the outsider among them, pleasant smile be damned. He also knew better than to be openly defiant. This was a slow game, one that would be played over many months. Rash action aided no one.

“I see,” Ralph said. “One last question. You say that George promised to turn himself in if you defeated him, and that you were free to quit and come home at any time. Why not just give up and alert the authorities?”

“Because George should be in jail. I had the opportunity to make that happen, so I took it. Plus I wanted to see my father.”

“Your father,” Ralph repeated. “Globe, currently the most hunted criminal in the world, that’s the man you wanted to see.”

“Yes,” Vince said immediately.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me you had aspirations of bringing him to justice as well.”

“Not really. I just wanted to see my father. I miss him.”

“Vince, do you realize what you’re saying? This is a wanted villain we’re talking about, an accused murderer.”

“If tomorrow your father robbed a bank, would that stop you from loving him?” Vince replied.

“It might if he killed a man in the process.”

“Then I feel sorry for you. You must have a pretty crappy father if he’s that easy to stop caring about.”

“I think we’ve taken this line of questioning far enough,” Dean Blaine interrupted, working hard to hide the smirk that was manifesting at the sight of Ralph’s reddening features. “Was there anything else you needed to ask Vince directly?”

“No,” Ralph said after a momentary pause. “That’s fine. Thank you.”

“Vince, Mr. Transport will see you to your dorm. He’ll also bring up to speed on a few things you need to know. We’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” Vince replied, rising from his seat. Mr. Transport followed suit and the two exited the room. They were scarcely out the door before Ralph whipped his attention over to Professor Stone.

“So, what was he lying about?”

“Nothing,” Professor Stone barely kept herself from snapping. The older woman had plenty of practice in minding her tongue; however, she also had long passed the point where she felt needlessly compelled to tolerate other people’s rude bullshit. “His thoughts matched his words in every regard. The recount was as honest and accurate as he could give.”

“Impressive. I’d expected no less from the son of Globe,” Ralph muttered. “Or perhaps you’re merely not an adept enough telepath to pick up on his deception.”

Professor Stone opened her mouth to tell him to shove it up his ass, but Professor Pendleton proved quicker on the verbal draw.

“Are you a fucking idiot?”

Ralph glared at the lean man, Professor Pendleton’s own expression one of presumably mock confusion. Professor Pendleton leaned on the conference table, head pressing against one his lengthy fingers as he stared right back at the man making this situation so very uncomfortable.

“I beg your pardon? I must have misheard you.”

“I asked if you’re a fucking idiot,” Professor Pendleton repeated. “Do you know how many Heroes live long enough to retire? Or how many of that percentage are actively combat types? Let alone how many are considered skilled and smart enough to take a position teaching in the HCP. Here’s a hint: not very many. Yet the woman sitting in front you did all of that, and has been educating other Supers to do the same for decades. And you think to question her abilities? That makes me wonder if you’re a goddamned moron.”

“You certainly have a curiously high opinion of HCP professors, given that they allowed a convict to become one,” Ralph shot back.

“A convict who was active and constantly pursued for well over a year before being caught,” Professor Pendleton countered. “Immoral, unethical, illegal, all of those words can be used to describe my activities, but the fact remains that I was really good at what I did. And I’ve got nothing on Professor Stone.”

“Very well,” Ralph said. He turned back to Professor Stone, but there was no question that his malice was still lingering on Professor Pendleton. “My apologies for doubting. So everything Vince told was true, as he knew it?”

“Correct,” Professor Stone confirmed.

“Then what remains next is to determine what Globe hoped to accomplish by having the boy battle endlessly for months on end.”

“Actually, that’s the easy part,” Dean Blaine corrected him. “It was training. We can speculate on the why all we want, but there’s no other way to interpret his activities. Any HCP graduate will tell you the same.”

Ralph snorted. “Seems like a waste of time. How much could this George fellow possibly have taught Vince in a couple of months?”

Had Ralph been born with telepathy, he’d have heard a resounding chorus of thoughts wondering just how big a dumbfuck he could possibly be. Professor Stone had to cough into her hand to keep from laughing.

Chapter 3

Nicholas Campbell tossed the final empty box into his apartment complex’s dumpster with a curious sense of satisfaction. The moving company had done most of the real work, what little there was with moving into a furnished apartment, but he still felt as though he’d accomplished something by emptying the few boxes of possessions he’d brought with him. They’d been stored in closets and chests as appropriate, leaving a home that was far too organized to pass as the domicile of a regular college junior. He’d have to muck up the place before having anyone over, such was the onus of blending in. At least his new persona wasn’t trying to fly below the radar in a program filled with superhuman teens and recent post-teens. All he had to do was convince those around him he was living a regular college life. Well, almost everyone.

He’d barely gotten the door closed before a light series of knocks echoed from the other side. Momentarily Nicholas considered locking the door and ignoring it, but pursuing that option would cause him more headache than it was worth. Had it just been the two people he knew were standing outside to contend with then there would have been no issue. Unfortunately, they were not alone; they carried a directive from Ms. Pips, and that meant even without being there she was still telling him that these employees were to be treated with respect. Respect was a very important thing in their world, almost as important as money.

“Yo,” Eliza greeted as Nicholas pulled open the door, throwing up a peace sign and walking in without invitation. She’d lost the biker gear and thrown on jeans and plaid top unbuttoned and tied in the middle. It made her look like a slutty farmhand.

A strange twitch rippled through Nicholas’s mind as he felt like he knew someone who would approve, but then came up empty on who. Right, it was probably Roy; he affected a southern persona, according to the notes. These twitches were a cause of confusion for Nicholas, his brain kept reaching for information in a place it was no longer allowed to access, then having to reconcile from data he’d only read. It made for a slower thinking process, which Nicholas considered unacceptable.

“Afternoon,” said Jerome, walking in a bit more tactfully. Despite what one might expect from the name, Jerome was clearly of Asian heritage, though Nicholas had never been able to quite figure out exactly which locale. No one knew his real name, except perhaps Ms. Pips, which was effectively the same as no one knowing. He’d been caught stealing food from the buffets when he was ten, but ambition, and a useful ability, persuaded The Family to offer him work rather than take the crime out on his flesh. Jerome must have appreciated how rare this opportunity was; the man was beyond reproach in his dedication. He was also proper and polite, which annoyed Nicholas to no end.

“You may as well come in too,” Nicholas sighed, swinging the door open wider to accommodate Jerome’s mighty frame. Whatever his genetic ancestry, it was definitely one that favored large builds and to which muscle came easily. “I doubt I’ll be getting rid of her anytime soon.”

“Why thank you, I’d love a beer,” Eliza called from the couch. She was looking through his bookshelf and had already managed to destroy its alphabetic arrangement. Oh well, he would have had to do that himself eventually.

“So sorry to disappoint, but I haven’t had the chance to swing by the store.”

“You sure? Check your fridge.”

Nicholas did just that, also looking in the shelves and the cabinets, confirming what he’d already suspected. All were full, stuffed with food and supplies enough to last a week or so. He’d only been down at the dumpsters for seven minutes, tops. This was pretty impressive work.

He tossed Eliza a beer, helping himself to a gin on the rocks. That much, at least, he’d put in the cabinets himself. Jerome got tossed a beer as well, though he politely set it on the table. Jerome didn’t drink, so it would ultimately end up in Eliza’s stomach, but propriety demanded Nicholas make him the offer as a host.

“Not bad,” Nicholas said, settling down in a chair that needed severe ergonomic overhauling to be comfortable. “Are those going to dissipate in three days?”

“No, you got the originals,” Eliza told him. “Though I did duplicate a few of the better items for us.”

“I expected as much.” Eliza was a Super, one with a very useful talent that made her The Family’s best counterfeiter. She could create duplicates of any non-living object she held. These copies were effectively real; they could be taken apart, would pass any examination, and were molecule for molecule identical to the original. The only difference is that hers would dissipate after seventy-two hours, or when she wanted it gone, whichever came first. “Ms. Pips give you a key?”

“Yeah, but I picked it anyway. You need a better lock, I cracked it in under twenty seconds.”

Nicholas frowned. For the price of the rent, he’d expected at least somewhat decent security. Evidently this place thought being a few blocks from campus made it worth the exorbitant cost.

“I’ll look into it. Any word on Nathaniel yet?” These two had arrived and moved in a few apartments down a week earlier, their assignment to keep watch and see if they could find where the orange-eyed fuck was holing up over the semester.

“Nothing so far,” Jerome said. “We don’t think he’ll show until classes actually start, and even then he might come late.”

“We doubt he gives two wet fucks about his G.P.A. or perfect attendance,” Eliza added.

“Right. At any rate, the Evers family has ample holdings in the area, including a few hotels, so it is possible he could move into any one of them without notice, and we don’t have the resources to watch each one.”

“Good, that would be a waste of time,” Nicholas said. “He isn’t going to break into my house in the middle of the night, or if he does, it won’t be to attack me. They could take a shot at me in Vegas if they just wanted me dead. Even our family’s reputation doesn’t stop bullets.”

“So you don’t think he plans to kill you?” Jerome asked.

“Oh no, I’m positive he plans to kill me, but that’s an outcome, not a plan. Nathaniel and I have been having these matches since were kids. Matches that he, incidentally, always loses. Nathaniel wants me dead; however, he wants it to happen in a way that doesn’t start a war. Even more than that, Nathaniel wants to beat me. That’s the only reason for him to take this route. He can’t let me die without at least one mark in his Win column, so he’ll undoubtedly engage us in some drawn out game of wits and subterfuge.”

“Sounds like a pain in the ass,” Eliza muttered. “I guess there’s no other way to deal with him though.”

“Of course there is,” Nicholas replied, taking a sip of his drink. “I don’t owe him anything, certainly not entertainment when I have enough on my plate. I have no intention of playing whatever games he comes up with.”

“So, then what’s the plan?” Jerome asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Nicholas shot back. “When he comes to confront me in some idiotic manner, I figure out the game he is trying to play, then I do what I’ve always done best. I cheat.”

Chapter 4

The underground section of Lander, the place where only those who were currently enrolled in the Hero Certification Program could access, was bustling as the juniors filed through. The freshmen had arrived and taken their initial ranking exams yesterday. The entry hall seemed thick with black uniforms and young, uncertain faces.

“Were there this many of us during the first year?” Alice asked.

“Probably back in the beginning,” Mary replied. “Hard to believe though, given that only of twenty of us are left.”

The juniors were filtering down the lifts slowly, a splash of gray amidst the sea of black. Aside from alterations to accommodate growth spurts, each still had the same uniform from their sophomore year. Those who made it to senior year would earn the right to don a white one. No such uniforms were currently visible, they would have their orientation on the following day. This one was devoted to sophomore team selections in the morning and whatever activity awaited the migrating juniors once they arrived.

It took some time to traverse the thick hallways of freshmen, but eventually all of the juniors had made it to the gym. Dean Blaine waited for them to fall into a line patiently, allowing for a certain amount of gawking as everyone tried to figure out who was missing. Professor Pendleton, Professor Fletcher, and Professor Stone all stood his right. Professor Hill, Professor Cole, and Professor Baker were to his left. A man that most of the students didn’t recognize hung out near the rear of the gym. In contrast to the professors, he was exceedingly normal looking, dressed in a polo and cream colored slacks that would have looked more at home on a golf-course than in a heavily fortified training facility. Once the last student arrived, Dean Blaine began to speak.

“Julia Shaw. Agatha Mason. Tiffani Hunt. Stella Hawkins. Nick Campbell. Michael Clark. Hector Morrison. Gilbert Reid.”

At first the students were confused as he rattled off names of classmates, however as each recognized the name of a friend they knew about, a sense of uncomfortable understanding seeped in.

“Those are the students that are not with us this year. Those are friends of yours, people you bonded with and cared about. Those are powerful, skilled warriors who, for the most part, upheld the principles that a Hero is meant to stand for. They are gone, and the odds of them coming back are strikingly minimal.”

Dean Blaine stepped forward and surveyed the faces of the students before him. The sadness was nearly palpable. A shared dream united people, gave them a familial sentiment toward one another. The cost was that when one had that dream die, it pained all who cared for them.

“I know that’s hard for you to hear. It isn’t easy for me to say, either. I cared for all of them as I care for you. Losing our companions is a bitter part of this process, one that I have the unfortunate role of telling you will only get worse as this class shrinks. But trust me when I say that as much as you dislike this, it is infinitely worse for those not currently wearing a uniform. I don’t say that to sadden you further, I just want you to know that it can be worse, and encourage each of you to try your hardest not to experience that side of the equation.”

Reaching the end of the line, Dean Blaine turned around and began walking back.

“Now that the past has been spoken of, let’s move to the future. Your year ahead, specifically. First order of business, in light of last year’s… unplanned excitement, we didn’t manage to close things out properly. As a result, we never collected the information on which of your courses you wished to drop and which you hoped to stay in. Given the hecticness of everything and this gap on our part, we’ve decided that everyone who has made it to this year may keep whichever two classes they like. When I finish you will speak to your professors and let each one know whether you intend to drop or keep their course. At the end of this year you will meet with your two remaining professors and decide which course will become your major. I urge you to take this seriously; as your designation will greatly influence the training you receive as well the expectations of you upon graduation.”

Dean Blaine arrived back at his starting point, then motioned to his educators. “They are excellent assets, you will never again have so much knowledge in so many different areas freely available to you. Make a wise selection. That said, there are three other matters to discuss. Firstly, I’m sure you are all wondering about the updated rankings. They will be posted tomorrow before the beginnings of your first classes. Until then we will answer no questions regarding them. Secondly, as you all recall last year was focused on learning to work in a team, how to allocate resources effectively, and how to use each member to their full potential. That was key training for your future careers as Heroes. This year we will focus on a less pleasant but equally, if not more so, important aspect. You will be learning to take on multiple enemies at the same time. The nature of this conflict will vary based on your courses, so once more I caution you to choose with forethought. We’ll go over the details for each as the first trial grows closer, however I think those of you in more battle oriented majors can draw a few informed conclusions.”

Here the dean paused his speech and motioned to the man at the back at the gym. He came forward with a casual gait, nothing to suggest he felt nervous despite an entire class worth of attention focused on him. The man gave the class a warm smile, then turned to the dean and waited to be introduced.

“Our last matter of business is one relating to actual business. We understand that college is financially taxing for many students and their families, and that being is this program has prevented a lot of you from being able to earn money at a job like regular students. Now that you have all made it to third year, the odds of staying in this town for the remainder of college improve significantly, so as a courtesy we set up a partnership with several local businesses to give part-time jobs to those who want them. These will be owners that know what you are and the demands on your time, and have agreed to accommodate those issues. The gentleman beside me is Kent Mears, the liaison who coordinates between you eager students and the kind employers. Anyone interested in a job can speak to him in a few moments. For those who do, I urge you to do your best at any job you get, remember that these require business owners to work around our program and a poor employee may make them less likely to offer HCP students any future positions.”

A smooth step moved Dean Blaine back in line with his professors. He saw all the students waiting patiently and allowed a slight smile across his face. They had come so far from this day two years ago and there was still so much ahead of them.

“Okay students, please begin.”

Chapter 5

The gym immediately filled with the distinct hum of chatter as the students spread out. Some made a beeline for their professors, others talked over the decision with friends, Dean Blaine’s remarks clearly inspiring them to doubt their original choice. Only a few headed for Kent Mears, though the fact that one of them was Chad Taylor did not escape notice by most in the room. It didn’t draw much curiosity though, if anyone could handle a job on top of the demands of the HCP, it was Chad.

 *              *              *

Roy finished letting Professor Fletcher know that he would definitely be pursuing Close Combat in the coming year, then looked around the room for his next target. There was a mini-mob around Professor Stone, which sort of made sense. Focus was a useful discipline for any Super, it centered on calming your mind and drawing out more of your abilities, so they tended to toss anyone without a clear third skill into it. As a result, it was a pretty full course, so ample students had to tell her if they were keeping or dropping it. Roy’s eyes wandered over to Professor Cole, who somehow managed to look bored despite the layers of clothing and mummified bandages concealing her face. Not many people seemed to be competing to talk to the Weapons instructor, and Roy could take a decent guess why. He suspected the course’s already small number would shrink significantly after today.

Not being one for lines, Roy walked over to Professor Cole. He threw a hand up in a lazy greeting and gave her a smile. She might have returned it; there was definitely some movement under her face-wrappings.

“Let me guess, you want to drop my class,” she said once he got close to her.

“I guess you noticed my lack of enthusiasm during all those drills last year,” Roy replied.

“It’s hard to stand out at not caring, but you made it happen. Congratulations, I guess. So you’re keeping, what, Close Combat and Focus?”

Roy nodded. “Let’s be real though, we all know I’m majoring in Close Combat, this was just a question of who got the axe first.”

“So you drop the one more closely related to fighting, rather than the one about a bunch of mental mumbo jumbo that won’t do you a dick whip of good,” Professor Cole said.

“Learning to think on my feet has actually done me a lot of good.”

“I’m sure it did, but you’re nearing the end of what you’ll get out of it. Once you’ve learned to fight with your head there’s only so much Focus improvement a person with a purely physical power can do. You should be training your body, learning new skills to help you give you options in battle.”

“I’m a bare-handed fighter, what do you think I’m going to get out of a Weapons course?”

“For starters, if nothing else it will teach you how to deal with other Supers who do use weapons. For another, you shouldn’t be a bare-handed fighter. If you had listened to anything I said last year you’d understand that a weapon’s primary purpose is to magnify your strength, to up the level where you can compete, something I’d thought would interest a person like you.”

Roy let a sarcastic retort die on his tongue. Those were actually good points, and a few months ago they’d have been wasted on him. However, after Vince’s year-end shitstorm and the summer spent under tutelage, Roy’s ego had finally started accepting that fact that if he wanted to reach the finish line it would mean taking every advantage he could get. Heroes were top tier, and you didn’t reach that summit by turning down things that might give you an edge.

“Maybe you’re right,” he conceded. “I guess since I’m going Close Combat anyway I don’t risk much by taking another year of Weapons instead of Focus.”

Professor Cole blinked her eyes, one of the few visible parts of her, in evident surprise. Clearly she hadn’t been expecting her arguments to work; she’d just been making them out of habit. Within seconds they were back to normal, but Roy knew what he’d seen in that brief instant.

“So glad you’ve deigned to stick around. Try not to get in the way of the students trying to actually learn.”

Roy flashed his smarmiest possible grin.

“No promises.”

 *              *              *

“Thank you, Alice, no need to say anything, I accept your desire to drop my course without objection,” Professor Pendleton told her.

“I didn’t say I was dropping your class. I literally just walked up to you,” Alice protested. She’d spoken briefly with Professor Hill, who already knew she’d want to continue her Control lessons, and had then walked over to the dark-haired Subtlety teacher, only to meet his odd greeting.

“I know, you didn’t need to say it. Busy day, just thought I’d speed things along.”

“Okay, well you’re wrong. I’m keeping Subtlety, that’s what I came over to tell you.”

Professor Pendleton arched an eyebrow in the practiced manner that only a man who has spent over a decade in prison with little else to do is capable of. “Are you sure that’s wise? Given what you learned about your powers last year, Control and Ranged Combat would offer you a much more useful skill sets.”

“I’m keeping Control, but Ranged Combat is redundant in a few areas. Subtlety is unique. I learned a whole lot last year.”

“I should remind you that you won’t have a teammate to cheat off this time, though,” Professor Pendleton said. “Even if you excel in Control, a poor assessment from your other course could hinder your chances of moving on. With that in mind, are you absolutely certain you want to keep my course for another year?”

Alice felt a strange pressure in the side of her head, like there was a swelling going on under her temples. Her eyes narrowed and it took conscious effort not to raise her voice or clench her hands into fists.

“I’m positive. Or do I need to remind you that I passed your tailing exam all by myself, as well as keeping passing grades on most of the written work. I don’t know what your issue is, but it’s obvious you don’t want me in the class, and I don’t think you ever did.”

“You’re right,” Professor Pendleton agreed. “You don’t belong in Subtlety.”

“Well, tough shit, because the dean just said we could keep any course we wanted and I’m keeping yours. See you in class.” With a polished turn she walked off, making a beeline to Professor Baker to cement her choice and drop Ranged Combat. She only hoped she’d manage to get her temper and blood pressure down by the time she was able to talk to the crimson haired woman.

Behind her, Professor Pendleton struggled to keep the emotions off his face. At the same time, he tried to puzzle out whether the more dominant feeling he was suppressing was disappointment or pride.

Chapter 6

Having finished speaking with his teachers, Thomas headed out into the hall, a half-formed idea of grabbing an early dinner bouncing about in his head. When he saw the familiar silhouette already lurking there, that idea quickly dissipated. He’d known this was coming; such things were as inevitable as the rising of the tide.

“Good day, Vince,” he greeted, preferring to get this conversation started so it could be over more quickly.

“Hey, Thomas,” Vince called back. His eyes kept glancing at the ground, his feet shuffling constantly. It was hard for Thomas to picture this man as the same powerful beast who’d forced him to retreat last year. It was what it was, though, and standing around wouldn’t change the fact that it had happened.

“Vince, I know why you are waiting for me, and we can skip it. I am not mad at you.”

Vince’s eyes leapt up from the ground to check the expression on what he hoped was still his friend’s face.

“You aren’t?”

“We know what we are here for. Our training, this process, they’ve never sugar-coated it. Forging friendships is great, but when we are told to fight, we must do so with every ounce of strength we possess. That is what you did, and had the tables been turned I would come at you just as hard.”

“Oh. That’s not what I came to apologize for. I just…what I did to you. Draining you. It feels incredibly wrong, like I crossed the line on a personal level,” Vince explained. “I tore something out of you. That can’t be right.”

Thomas felt a sliver of tension in his gut twist slightly. He’d worked very hard not to think about that part. In mere moments he’d been made powerless, the gift that had been with him since childhood suddenly absent.

“I won’t lie to you, I dearly hated that experience, but that isn’t the same thing as hating you for doing it. You were trying to win, and you used the skill set you had. Besides, even if I was upset, it wouldn’t make sense to hold the grudge against you. What you did that day weren’t truly your actions.”

“Yes, they were.” The shuffling stopped and the insecurity melted away. Social parameters were far from Vince’s forte, taking responsibility, on the other hand, was something he was far more comfortable with. “Nick might have set up the scenario, but I was still me. I own those actions, and if you’re mad about them I’m the one who needs to make things right.”

Sometimes Thomas found himself tempted to think he was the only one in the program besides Chad taking it seriously. Beach weekends, drinking, house parties, none of it seemed like the actions of people who comprehended the amount of responsibilities that would ultimately rest on a Hero’s shoulders. At that moment, however, it was abundantly clear that even if Vince didn’t appreciate all of what lay before him, he certainly took his time here seriously.

“Then they were,” Thomas agreed. “But there was still no lasting harm done. My energy replenished back to full in a day, and I learned a valuable lesson about underestimating my opponent. Actually, if memory serves, this is the second time you’ve given me such an education. Though I doubt anyone will make that mistake after last year’s final match.”

“Honestly, I’m just glad people are still talking to me. I saw a recording of myself and I wouldn’t have blamed any of you for staying away.”

“This is not a place where great power is feared just because it exists,” Thomas reminded him. “The scariest part of that entire event was your attitude and demeanor. You seemed to act as if you truly held no regard for the lives of those around you.”

“You aren’t wrong,” Vince admitted.

“I confess, I have wanted to ask you this for some time now. Knowing you for the past two years, I can’t even imagine what it would take to drive you to that point. What was the vision Nick had Rich place in your mind?”

“It is kind of fuzzy in some parts. I know that I saw all of you as monsters, though I think somehow I still recognized enough to know what your abilities were.”

“So you were trying stay alive amidst an attack from monsters? I suppose I can see how that would force you into a corner,” Thomas said.

Vince shook his head. “It was more than that. The depository box looked like someone I loved, someone who’d been beaten bloody to an inch from death, and who the monsters were coming back for. That’s why I wouldn’t let any of you get near it.”

Thomas briefly considered asking just who it was Vince had seen, then thought better of it. He’d been as candid as he could in the other parts. If the identity had been skipped, then it was likely on purpose, and now was hardly the time to go prying into Vince’s personal life. He’d have to make sure never to tell Violet though; if she knew he’d had the chance to do recon on Vince’s love life for Camille, and hadn’t taken it, she’d never let him live it down.

“That sounds like a terrifying ordeal,” Thomas said at last.

“I’ve had better days,” Vince agreed, daring to flash a small smile for the first time in their conversation.

“You know, despite your insistence that your actions were your own, the fact remains that your head was invaded, you were subjected to illusions of a frightening nature, and you were forced into a situation that could have easily led to your expulsion through no fault of your own. It would not be a stretch to say that you were the real victim in last year’s events.”

“I guess you could see it that way,” Vince admitted. “But it overlooks a very key fact.”

“Which is?”

“I’m still here. And without Nick and his crazy plan, I sincerely doubt I would be saying that. So no, I don’t think I’m a victim in what happened. I’m the guy who got handed the luckiest break of us all.”

“It is your choice how to see it,” Thomas said. “And I must say, in truth, I respect you for the one you have made. I was thinking of getting something to eat, would you care to join me?”

“There is nothing I’d rather do.”

Chapter 7

Nicholas Campbell’s first day was a far cry from what the HCP students were experiencing. No shattering revelations, no future-determining decisions; really the greatest challenge he’d faced was finding something remotely palatable in the dorm cafeteria come lunch time. He could have raced home to grab a sandwich, however he’d built his schedule in such a way that his Tuesdays and Thursdays left little to no free time, giving him an abundance of it on the other three weekdays. It was a move many college students were familiar with, though most of them struggled with it a good bit more than Nicholas had to. His classes were, for the most part, some variation of math or business related to his major, subject matter he’d been intimately familiar with since he was old enough to sit and watch someone deal cards.

There was one exception in his line-up, a class he’d taken ostensibly to satisfy a science credit, but truthfully had been chosen primarily out of curiosity. It was the type of course no member of the HCP would dare be seen in, despite the relevance of its subject matter. After all, if you were looking for Supers, wouldn’t you start in a class that centered on them?

“Good afternoon,” greeted the professor, a slight statured man with thinning brown hair. “My name is Professor Lee, and this is Theoretical Physiology of Variant Homo Sapiens. My TAs are walking around with a syllabus and I’ve started a roll sheet on the first row. Pass it along, please. I realize many professors at our institutions don’t bother taking attendance, but I am not one of them. Showing up is part of the curriculum, and I expect you to fulfill it just as you would any paper or test.”

There was ample squirming through the sizable room as many of the students hoping for a blow-off class were disappointed. The room was a smaller-than-average lecture hall with tiered seating, students only filling a little over half the seats. Due to either subject matter or perceived difficulty, this had never been a class with a waiting list for entry.

“Now, for those of you I lost with all that fancy terminology, this is a course dedicated to the discussion of what we currently know about the humans commonly referred to as Supers, specifically the difference in their anatomy. There is no text book, and there is notably limited required reading, because despite Supers having been among us for over fifty years we still have very little cumulative knowledge about what makes them different.”

A hand went up near the front. Nicholas expected the professor to ignore it, but evidently this happened often enough for him to have accepted it as part of the class. The older man pointed to the student, signaling him to speak.

“I thought Supers were the same as us, genetically. That’s why no one has ever been able to artificially create one.”

“You’re not wrong,” Professor Lee said. “But you also aren’t right. The ‘same as us’ is a misnomer in itself. If everyone had the exact same genetic code then things like DNA testing wouldn’t work. We have a general code we all fall into, Supers and Powereds included, but within that spectrum of similarity there are also countless differences that contribute to things like your hair color, which hand is dominant, various diseases, and the ability to lift a truck overhead. We know what does a lot of those things, but no one has figured out the variation that causes Supers to exist.”

The professor paused to see if anyone else needed clarification, however either they all got it or his first explanation had been too intimidating to inspire more curiosity. He swung by the podium and grabbed a drink of water, then continued.

“As to why there is so little reading on this course, I don’t want you all to get the idea that no one has explored this subject matter. Quite the opposite actually. There are endless terabytes of data out there on the physical makeup of Supers. The problem is that the research is largely conducted by private corporations with no inclination to share, and even what is done in the public sector is subject to serious government censorship.”

Another brave student found the gumption to raise her hand. After a nod from Professor Lee she went ahead.

“Why would they do that? Isn’t this something that everyone would be interested in?”

“They don’t share for the same reason that The Manhattan Project didn’t send Germany regular updates on what they were doing. Right now, as we speak, a great race is taking place in labs across the world. You, and I, and everyone in this room, unless they are Super themselves, wake up every day with the knowledge that there are people out there who can do things we never will. No amount of effort or moxy will allow me to levitate off this floor under my own willpower. Some of you might be at peace with that, but the mass of humanity is not. As a species it is not in our nature to acclimate to being second best. So, imagine that tomorrow some company comes out with a new chemical compound that could alter you, give you abilities you never had before. What would you pay to be better than human?”

The class grew silent as each student looked inside themselves and realized they would indeed pay a tremendous amount to be one of the few in the world with extraordinary powers.

“And that’s just one aspect of it,” Professor Lee continued. “Imagine being able to control the abilities given. You could create a private security firm of a few thousand that was capable of besting any army in the world. What if they were to locate the difference between Powereds and Supers? How many unfortunate souls do you think would trade their life savings to go from worse than normal to better? No, the reason research is so hard to come by in this field is that, until the code is cracked, the scientific community is on what might be the greatest treasure hunt in all of known history. Still, we do have a few smatterings of knowledge; enough to make sure you all leave this class smarter than you entered it, at least.”

Professor Lee picked up a syllabus and began going over it with the class, but up in the top left row one student was barely paying attention. The professor could scarcely have chosen better words to seize the attention of Nicholas Campbell than “treasure hunt,” and right now that brain of his was caught up in all the unseen possibilities of what he knew and so few others didn’t: one company was closer than anyone else to finding that chest of intellectual doubloons.

Chapter 8

Alice was the last to get back to the dorm on their first day of school. Her foreign language course had filled up faster than expected, so she’d been forced to grab a late class or put if off until next semester. It would be nice if HCP students were given some sort of priority in registration, but that would make it too easy for every teacher to know who in their class was secretly a Super. Aside from those bound by the HCP’s secret identity rule, lots of Alice’s kind chose to live out the open. However, it wasn’t unheard of for Supers to be treated with some discrimination, either out of fear, jealousy, or good ole-fashioned prejudice. Powereds might be looked down upon, but there was no real point in going out of one’s way to shit on them. Life had already done a spectacular job of that.

As soon as Alice walked in the door, she knew something was off. For one thing, everyone didn’t usually make a point of gathering in common room without the television on. For another, Mr. Transport and Mr. Numbers scarcely ever joined them in the evening, at least not for prolonged periods. Even without those, she still would have known this situation was out of the ordinary. Dean Blaine standing in the center of the room made that abundantly clear, as did his guest.

“Good evening,” Dean Blaine greeted. “Please, take a seat and make yourself comfortable.”

Somewhere in the pit of her stomach Alice felt a stone of fear manifest. This was how she’d always imagined it would go. Gather them together, make Dean Blaine neutralize their powers, and have Mr. Transport send them home. No muss, no fuss, no more freaks in the HCP.

“For anyone who doesn’t remember, the gentleman beside me is named Kent Mears,” Dean Blaine continued.

“Right, he’s the job guy,” Vince recalled.

“Employment Liaison is the more official title, but at least you got the gist,” Dean Blaine said. “Mr. Mears is here because while, for most students, the option to work a job during college is optional, I’m afraid that for you four it is not.”

“Let me guess, someone out there wants to see just how much stress we can handle without cracking,” Hershel surmised.

Dean Blaine gave him a nod. “Partly, yes. Partly it is to ensure that you can interact with regular humans as well as fellow Supers. These jobs put you back into the real world, a place where you have to be discreet with your abilities, and more importantly, a place where you are not surrounded by equals.”

“Not surrounded by equals? Didn’t we get enough practice at that when we were Powereds?” Alice asked.

“It’s not the same,” Vince told her. “We were weaker than everyone else; we had problems that made us less functional. Now we can do more than regular people, and sometimes feeling like you’re better than other people makes you treat them like they’re crap.”

“Vince hit the nail on the head,” Dean Blaine agreed, barely concealing his surprise at the silver-haired student’s insight. It was easy to forget that, despite his failings in most social regards, Vince had a good idea of how people behaved in regards to strength and power. “Every other student in the HCP has spent their life knowing they were, technically speaking, greater in some way than nearly every other person they met. They’ve had to temper their egos and learn to suppress that sentiment to function in society. None of you have had to deal with that; you went from being Powered to being in a place where you were surrounded by fellow Supers. Except for class and a few outings, you haven’t had extended dealings with the outside world. A point has been raised that if we don’t give you some experience, it could lead to disaster once you are done with the HCP, regardless of whether it is through failure or graduation.”

“Not to mention it gives people one more field to observe us in, and to watch for failure,” Mary added in.

“I won’t lie to you, that is true too. But I wouldn’t have agreed to this stipulation if I didn’t believe there was genuine merit in it for all of you,” Dean Blaine said.

“I want to jump in and say that I understand this isn’t exactly a normal situation, and that’s quite a statement given what I do for a living,” Kent Mears said, stepping forward from the corner where he’d been standing. “Blaine has explained to me that you four are working under special circumstances, so I’m going to do my darndest to place you in jobs that’s won’t be overly taxing or shove you too far out of your comfort zones. Unfortunately, it’s been clearly dictated to me that all occupations need to carry a social component, so I can’t stick anyone away to do data entry, but I still aim to make this as painless for you folks as possible.”

“Thank you,” Vince said, rising from the couch. “I’m sure we’ll all appreciate whatever help you can give. So, Mr. Mears, what do you need from us?”

“A few documents, a scan of your driver’s licenses, and a chance to talk with each of you one on one. I want to get a sense of who you are and what you’re good at so that I can find positions best suited to you. Once I float your resumes you’ll probably need to come in for an interview with the owners, and they’ll let you know if you’ve got a gig or not.”

“I should point out that while Mr. Mears always has enough job openings to accommodate the junior and senior class, many of them are at the same establishments, so the odds of you working with fellow HCP members are very high,” Dean Blaine added.

“That shouldn’t be too bad,” Vince said. “I think we’re on good terms with most of our class.”

No one had the heart to point out that Vince was still gauging their acceptance looking at the time before he’d wrapped himself in flame and torn a swath of destruction through last year’s final match. Things might still be okay, it was certainly possible, but there was also a very real chance that his escapade had placed a large target on their collective backs.

After all, a Powered becoming Super was hard for most HCP students to swallow. A Powered becoming stronger than them…that was a problem on a whole other level.

Chapter 9

Roger Brown skimmed over the application in front of him. It was light, not that he’d expected a wealth of experience, though it did have more than he usually saw in these applicants. This kid had at least worked a part-time job in high school, which was something. Unfortunately, it had been at a pet store, which wasn’t exactly the same set of skills needed in the establishment Roger owned. The Six-Shooter was a western themed bar and dance club near the edge of town, several miles from Lander. Unlike many of the nearby bars, The Six-Shooter didn’t put up with fake I.D.’s or other such shenanigans. Roger ran a club, which was sleazy by definition, but he liked his sleazy club to be clean, safe, and free of harassment from local authorities.

The single sheet of paper made a light rustle as Roger set it on his desk. He turned his attention to the kid, no, the young man sitting in front of him. Roger was predisposed to thinking of his employees as kids, but that wasn’t a good description of the male currently looking awkward in the silence of their interview. He was tall and blond, with medium sized shoulders and an obviously muscular build. Even if Roger didn’t know Chad Taylor had powers, he would still have been sure this younger male could kick his ass. Chad was handsome too, high cheekbones and a strong jaw. That was a check in his favor: looks made sales and tips go up in any service job.

“I notice you’ve never had any waiting experience before,” Roger said, the first words spoken since their initial greeting.

“That is correct,” Chad confirmed.

“Normally that’s not such a big deal, picking up waiting tables is pretty easy as long as you’ve got the head for it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pain in the ass and the customers can be awful, it’s just not a difficult skill to learn. The problem here is that you’re applying for a bartending position.”

Chad nodded, his face curiously impassive. Roger wondered what this guy’s ability was. Technically it was illegal to ask if someone was a Super, just like you couldn’t ask their age or religion, but since Roger went out of his way to specifically hire them, he considered it more of just bad manners to probe.

“What made you think this would be a good fit?”

“Angela DeSoto was quite adamant that it was the right position for me,” Chad replied. “I asked for her advice since she’s been working since her own junior year, and she immediately insisted I apply here as a bartender. No other options were suggested. I trust Angela’s advice, so I followed it.”

Roger gave a nod of his own. Angela was one of his best shot girls: sexy, sassy, and able to put the fear of Lucifer into any patron who got handsy. She had come in earlier with a glowing recommendation for Chad, however she’d somehow left out his overall lack of experience.

“Look, let me level with you. Bartending well takes a great memory for recalling drink mixes, excellent organization for getting everyone served, and at least decent dexterity for pouring. Charm is nice too, but as a male bartender people will expect you to be efficient more than flirty. We both know you aren’t exactly a regular Joe, so you tell me: are those skills you think you’ve got?”

Chad reached across the desk and plucked four pens from the coffee mug where Roger stored his writing utensils. He lobbed the first one in the air, then followed suit with the others, one by one. As each descended he moved it along from hand to hand, until he was juggling all four pens.

“A Royal Flush is one part Crown, one part cranberry, and a half part peach schnapps, amounts adjusted based on if it is a shot or a drink. A Vegas bomb is Crown, peach schnapps, and Red Bull. A Cosmopolitan is vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice, and a squeeze of lime.”

Chad went on for a minute and a half before Roger raised his hand and signaled him to stop. Chad complied, catching all the pens in one quick motion and carefully placing them back in the cup.

“Since we’ve established you’ve never bartended before, how do you know all that? Heavy drinker?”

“I very rarely ever imbibe alcohol. I read a bartender’s bible last night in preparation for this interview.”

“Right. So, photographic memory then.”

“Yes, sir.” Chad knew the proper term was eidetic,but he was aware enough of social conventions to at least not correct a potential employer mid-interview.

“That could come in handy,” Roger admitted. “And I guess there’s no doubting your dexterity. Organization I guess we can delay for now. You’re clearly strong, so I guess there’s no worry about you being able to haul beer from the back. Now, this might be a dumb question, however I know not all of you HCP kids are fighters, so I still need to ask. We keep bouncers here, good ones, but occasionally a customer will get rowdy with my staff. Are you able to handle yourself until the bouncers get to you?”

Chad found it surprisingly difficult to suppress his urge to smile.

 *              *              *

There were a lot of things Angela liked about her job. The tips were great, getting to take drinks with customers was fun, and the late hours never conflicted with her training. She even liked how the mandatory outfits made her feel sexy, even if the plaid half-shirt didn’t always insulate her from the AC well, or the tiny Daisy-Duke shorts had a tendency to ride up her ass by the end of the night. The one thing she really hadn’t liked was how boring all the men she worked with were. Sure they were muscular, and some of them even good looking, but all of them were so invariably weak of gumption. That was fine, she supposed, the world didn’t need a glut of conquerors tearing it apart, but she found she couldn’t enjoy the company of regular folks. Maybe it was the HCP’s fault for surrounding her with elite competitors. More likely it was her grandfather’s fault, but then again she found the trade-off for what he’d taught her to be more than worth it. No, the simple truth was that Angela was a warrior, and the only men she’d ever found appealing had been like her.

“You’re here early,” said a shorter girl with bright red hair and a set of dimples framing her smile. “Usually you don’t show up until right before your shift.”

“And a hello to you too, Cora,” Angela replied. “I’m here to congratulate my friend when his interview is done. He’s going to take over one of the bartending spots.”

“Oh wow, that’s great. Are you sure he’ll get it though? Roger is really picky about his bartenders.”

Angela answered her question with a smile that would set the hearts of foolish men on fire and fill the souls of wiser ones with a sense of inescapable dread.

“Trust me. As of today, Chad works here.”

Chapter 10

The once neat and tidy apartment that Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport shared at the back of Melbrook was now cluttered with boxes stuffed to their brims full of files and papers. These, at least, were organized carefully, many labeled with the date of first review, and of any subsequent reviews that occurred afterward. The files and pages were similarly marked. Each bore an identical number, all in the same handwriting.

Mr. Numbers made a few motions with his pen and stuffed yet another file into a box that currently bore no date. He reached for the next one, only to discover nothing remained undated. His bones crackled as he rose, lifting the box and writing numbers on it, then selecting a new unmarked one from the pile. Off went the lid and out came the first file. He’d been at this all summer, and a little bit before, thus far filling up and emptying the room twice already. The others were doing their own investigations, however this was the part that only he could execute. Lander had dozens of security systems, safeguards on top of safeguards, which made it an incredibly safe place to be. The downside was that when something did go wrong, it meant there was a truckload (literally, it had taken a truck to move all this paper) of data to sort through looking for abnormalities. Normally they could use someone with technology gifts like the Murray twins, but in this case the number of people the group could trust was far smaller than the staff and students.

Before he was gone, Nick had called their attention to the fact that Globe somehow knew Vince had freaked out and been put under while he was in the HCP area. That meant he was getting information about the school. His ability wouldn’t allow such actions outside of his field, so either he had a Super with a spying gift or he’d found a way to snoop on them through more mundane means. The Super aspect was possible, but unlikely. HCP schools were built with every known protection against things Supers could do, and upgraded quarterly. Add in the fact that Dean Blaine’s presence would be sure to make all observation dodgy at best, and it just wasn’t all that likely they had a Super who could see everyone’s actions.

That was why Mr. Numbers was slogging through all this data. He was searching any blips of irregularity that might indicate Globe or one of his minions had hacked their way into the security system. That, at least, was something that was plausible. Hard as hell, but plausible. Mr. Numbers genuinely hoped he found something too, because locating a flaw in the security was by far the preferable option. The other way Globe might be getting information was more reliable, more executable, and much harder to uncover.

The other way Globe could still be getting fed information about what was happening in the HCP was if someone in the program was still working with him.

 *              *              *

Jill finished unpacking her last box alone. Normally she liked to make a bigger deal about the final moment of a move, of when she could good and rightfully say she lived somewhere new. If she’d asked the others, they would have joined her, or at least Will would have. They didn’t begrudge her this room, quite the contrary actually. She’d taken over the missing part of the rent, which is why they were able to keep their house. They felt no anger when they saw her drifting through the halls, only a slight pang of sadness. For her part, Jill felt a bit morbid, as though she had cannibalized Stella’s room. After all, she was only here because the steel-shifting student wasn’t.

It had been hard to believe at first. How could Stella not make the cut? Her power was solid, her skill undeniable, hell even the way she’d asked questions was aggressive. She was a fighter, and a damn good one. Jill probably could have beaten her, but only because Will was always keeping her stocked with new gizmos and upgraded systems. And he was still here. That was a real brain-scrambler in its own right. She loved her brother dearly, but in a real fight Stella would mop the floor with him.

Jill took out a hammer and surveyed the wall, deciding where to hang some pictures. They didn’t need to worry about holes in the wall; Will had already built a doodad that filled them so perfectly they were impossible for the landlord to detect. He was useful, Jill had to give him that. Ultimately, she supposed, that had been Stella’s failing. Stella was strong, but far from the strongest, she was tough, however she wasn’t near the toughest, and in terms of skill she came up short compared to the best among them. Stella had never given more than a passing shit about her other courses. All she’d focused on was Close Combat, and at the end of the day that was an area where she was good. Good, not great.

Violet was about on par with her, however her ability let her do more than just punch things hard. She could float, change an object’s density, she was even trying to lower her own enough to pass through things. Really, everyone in Close Combat who did well had varied talents. Vince could do the energy thing, Shane’s shadow manipulation had endless uses, and Chad was fucking Chad. Who knew what he couldn’t do. The only person who had the same limited skill set as Stella was Roy.

His continuation was subject of plenty of whispered debate among the less accepting of their class, however Jill didn’t entertain such silly ideas. There was no conspiracy to keep the Powereds in the HCP; the difference between Roy and Stella was one of power. They had the same basic skills, yes, but Roy was doubtlessly the stronger of the two. He’d trained with Chad for half a year, there were rumors he’d even gotten a few hits on him. Not to mention, when Roy sparred with Violet and Stella they’d both later admitted his raw physical capability was higher than theirs. No, Roy wasn’t here because he had a varied set of skills, he just had one set that he did extremely well.

Jill idly wondered how long that would keep him in. Maybe it was the better strategy. Not that she had such an option. If she wanted to make it to the end then she had to cultivate a whole myriad of talents and battle options. She needed to excel in multiple fields, that was the only way she would stand on stage and hear Dean Blaine announce her as a Hero.

A few rapid blows set the nail in the wall, then Jill carefully hung the framed photo and straightened it. The picture was of a family beach trip they’d taken in high school. She was beaming at the camera, giving a smile she always tried and failed to recreate in new pictures. Will looked sullen, though that was likely because of the sunburn already spreading across his spindly frame. Strange to see him now, after two years of HCP gym even his scrawny body had packed on toned muscle. Behind them both was their father, grinning broadly and looking slightly away; he’d been worried the auto picture function had failed and was looking for some sign it was still going to go off.

She appraised her handiwork and set down the hammer. Now she was officially home.

Chapter 11

Unlike freshman year, the new rankings were not posted on a giant board for the entire HCP to see. This time they were written on a chalkboard; easy to miss if one wasn’t looking for them, however every student filtering into the gym certainly took notice of them. Some of the changes, or lack thereof, weren’t that surprising. Chad was still on top, of course. Since this was the first co-ed ranking they’d gotten, Mary was now number two overall, bumping Shane down to three. All of that was well within everyone’s expectations. The next rank, however, was a bit more surprising.

“I’m number four?” Vince said, staring at the board while the other students bustled around him.

“Were you expecting to be on top? You put on a good show but the others still have far better overall records than you,” Alice pointed out. She was glad to have the attention off of her own rank, which had leapt from near the bottom to eleventh in the class. Since it was based on a single match where she showed her power, it seemed to her a bit excessive.

“No, I mean I can’t believe I’m that high,” Vince replied. “I don’t have that many official wins. Definitely not as many as some of the other people on here.”

“Tell me about it,” Roy, the number five rank, grumbled. “Some of us have been busting our ass for two years and haven’t moved up a single spot.”

“Considering how much changed, I think staying in the top five is a real accomplishment,” Mary told him. “As for you, Vince, I think they weight the year-end matches more heavily than our overall record when determining these ranks. The whole point of these things is to see where we are now, not where we were when the program started.”

“That is my understanding as well,” Thomas chimed in. He was taking his new rank, seventh in the class, with his usual taciturn demeanor. If not for the episode with Vince, he would have felt the rankings unfair; however, the act of running away had wounded his pride so much that he was thankful to still be in the top ten at all.

“I think that’s long enough for everyone to have seen their ranks,” Dean Blaine announced to the junior year class, a not-so-subtle prompt that it was time to get the real work started. The students moved to the usual starting line, whispering with curiosity over why the dean was in attendance. Usually only one of the combat professors oversaw their physical training, Professor Fletcher being the most common, though Professor Cole showed up quite a bit as well. Their curiosity was short-lived, as once they were arranged Dean Blaine began speaking once more.

“Now that you’ve all seen your standings, I wanted to have a brief discussion with you about exactly what the ranks mean at this point in your HCP career. Those are an assessment of your overall combat potential, what you can do in a physical altercation based on what we’ve seen you do so far. Will Murray, please step forward.”

Will took a quick hop forward immediately. In this gym, obedience was automatic. That was one of the lasting lessons George had imprinted on them all.

“I’m sure you saw the board. What is your current rank, Mr. Murray?”

“Nineteenth in the class,” Will replied. If he held any shame about being one from the bottom, it wasn’t evident on his narrow face.

“That it is. Given that we only take fifteen students in our senior course, would that lead you to believe you’re on the shit list and likely to be cut?”

“It seems a logical assumption,” Will admitted.

“It does seem that way, doesn’t it,” Dean Blaine agreed. “Mr. Murray, you are, currently, the student with the top grades in Subtlety. Professor Pendleton sees a tremendous amount of potential in your ability, but more importantly he thinks you have the ingenuity and resourcefulness to be a very effective Hero that works in the Subtlety field. You are far from the shit list. You are, in fact, one of the top contenders for graduation. Step back in line, please.”

Will complied, somehow keeping the grin that was tugging at his cheeks under control.

“These are combat rankings, nothing more, nothing less,” Dean Blaine continued. “We do them because fighting is an undeniable part of what Heroes must do. Strength, speed, resistance to damage: all of these are essential for many of the functions a Hero fulfills. Many functions, but not all of them. Professor Pendleton’s ability gives him excellent defense but minimal offense in combat. My own power does nothing to stop general means of incapacitation or injury. Yet we are both graduates of a class renowned for the caliber of Hero it produced. We are not exceptions in that grouping, we are counted among them. So, if all of that is true, why even bother with the ranking system? That’s what some of you are surely wondering.”

Though no one nodded overtly, several faces wore a sentiment of agreement to the dean’s words.

“Because for some of you, this is the only path forward. Roy Daniels, for example, has no talent for anything other than combat, at least not on a Super level. For him, that ranking is very important. All his training, his energy, and his time need to go toward getting it as high as it will go. For Alex Griffen, he could excel in both combat and recon missions. For Will Murray, the ranking as a whole is far less relevant. You all know your abilities better than anyone else. You know where your strengths lie. The rankings have their place in our system, but do not take them as a gospel list of where you stand in ultimate usefulness. Figure out what gives you the best chance of moving forward, and focus on that. Talk to your professors, everyone is here to help you find the right path. But now is the time to start making those commitments. Your final two years will go faster than you imagine, and setting the wrong goals early on can leave you with no opportunity to correct yourself. Something to keep in mind when you select your ultimate major at the end of the year.”

Dean Blaine finished his speech and headed out of the room, leaving behind a group of students far less certain of their overall standing than they had been minutes earlier.

Which, truth be told, was exactly the point.

Chapter 12

Mary was surprised to find herself called into Professor Stone’s office after the first day of Focus had concluded. The upside to having a pair of telepaths in proximity was that there was no need to send notes or give a message in front of the rest of the class. Mary had long ago grown accustomed to listening to her professor’s thoughts while she taught; it was not only considered proper, it was part of her training. So it was that as the rest of the students filtered out the door, off to their next course of the day, Mary walked over to Professor Stone’s desk and took a seat in her usual place. They’d had several after-class conferences over the last year, usually to discuss some area Professor Stone felt she should change tactics or improve on, and Mary had no reason to suspect this would be anything different.

“I want to know,” Professor Stone began, taking her own seat behind her desk, “Why it is you’ve been neglecting your training?”

Mary inched backward in surprise. Nothing in the older woman’s thoughts had betrayed this sentiment, but then again she was likely very adept at controlling what rose to the surface of her mind.

“I haven’t been,” she said after a moment. “I do the concentration exercises, the listening exercises, and the precision exercises, all just like you instructed me to. I’ve improved my level of delicacy with telekinesis by quite a bit, and I still make sure to keep up with telepathy.”

“Yes, Mary, you’re very diligent in working with your advanced mind abilities. At least, the standard ones. Perhaps I should have been clearer, I want to know why you haven’t been trying to get a better skill level with your dream-walking talent. You’ve yet to come to me to discuss it, and I’ve never picked up any thoughts about you experimenting with it, or even musing on how to get better.”

“To be truthful, my plate was already pretty full trying to keep my team nudging along and making sure my own skills improved. The dream thing seemed rather unimportant by comparison,” Mary admitted.”

“That is…fair,” Professor Stone said, her tone somewhere between a grumpy sigh and stage whisper. “This program does put a heavier emphasis on the abilities that produce more tangible results, especially in the first few years. I’ve never quite agreed with that strategy; however it has proven to be overall effective. Still, I’m sure you were paying attention to the dean’s speech today, yes?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Mary replied immediately.

“Then you know that there are considerations made beyond raw damaging power when we select who will graduate. Yes, with your strength you could qualify going that route, but it would be a waste not to use your time here to explore this very rare gift you’ve been given.”

“Is dream-walking really that rare?”

“Incredibly so,” Professor Stone said immediately. “Dream-walking is what we refer to as a deep-mind ability. Telepaths like you and I are considered to have a shallow-mind, or upper-mind, ability. We skim the surface of a person’s thoughts. We see only what’s going through their head at a single moment, and even then a trained person can control what gets into our view. Some of the best telepaths can go a little bit deeper, sensing what is dwelling beneath the surface, but those thoughts aren’t as well organized, and even if one can see them it doesn’t mean that person can correctly interpret them.”

“I think I follow,” Mary said. “So, since when I dream-walked I was able to go into Nick and Vince’s subconscious, I was accessing a part of their brain that most telepaths can’t get at.”

“Precisely. My own skill to view a willing subject’s memories is another example of a deep-mind ability. We’re breaking through the surface and interacting with the core of what composes a person’s very consciousness.”

“If deep-mind abilities are that rare, how do they wipe memories at the other HCP schools? Do you travel to them at the end of the year?”

Professor Stone’s expression clouded, the genial look she wore during conferences giving way to the hardened eyes of someone uncomfortable with the situation. “Beg pardon?”

“I know you’re the one who wipes people’s minds when they fail out,” Mary replied, her own eyes not quite, but nearly as, unyielding. “I’m not saying it’s wrong, and I’m not trying to take you to task over doing it to my friend, but you’re the one I have the most to learn from at this school and I thought it was time to put all our cards on the table.”

Professor Stone let out a slow breath as she perused her student’s mind. This was a conversation she’d manage to have thankfully few times during her tenure at Lander, but it was one she definitely never looked forward to. At least Mary seemed to be telling the truth; the girl was holding back judgment since she saw the necessity for such precautions.

“I only have to travel on occasion. There are two other Supers who can do what I do, or at least a close enough approximation of it,” Professor Stone said after a few moments had passed. “Much like how a chartable percentage of elemental controllers have the ability to emulate or turn into their element, approximately one in ten Supers who possess the advanced mind power will also have some form of deep-mind ability. Of those, about twenty percent’s deep-mind ability will engage the memory in some form or fashion. Dream-walking manifests in less than five percent of those with deep-mind abilities.”

“I see. That’s why you want me to work on mine,” Mary surmised. “But, I feel like I should point this out, so far that power is really limited. I’ve never walked into a genuine dream. I was only able to do it when Rich put someone under, and then only when I was touching them and had been put under myself.”

“Yes, it does have a lot of limitations, so far,” Professor Stone agreed. “Yet just as you didn’t gain telekinesis and immediately throw a two-ton boulder, so must this talent be worked on and honed to be more useful.”

“Great, so how do I start?”

“The same way all training begins,” Professor Stone informed her. “Lots and lots of repetition.”

Chapter 13

Weapons class was starting off differently than Roy had expected. During their first year of it Professor Cole had focused on learning about a tremendous amount of weaponry, both ancient and modern, as well as their strengths, weaknesses, and purposes. Some were meant to incapacitate, others to kill. Some were structured in a way that increased the power of the wielder’s blows, while others counted on a thin edge and dexterity to be effective. Some were electric stun batons or pepper spray. It was a foundation of comprehensive knowledge, so that by the time the first year ended any student could identify a sword or morningstar by name, style, and proper way to be held.

Second year began with Professor Cole having them arrange themselves in a wide circle and then standing in the center of it. She wore her usual vestment of cloth wrappings and layered clothes, an overdressed mummy with visible eyes and the occasional tufts of hair. The difference was this time her large sword was not in its sheath, instead it was clutched in one of her hands. Several of her bandages wrapped around it up to the hilt as she clutched the sword with seemingly little effort. It made more than a few students wonder if her power was enhanced strength.

“I am not a coy woman,” Professor Cole announced, causing a few students to jump involuntarily. It was easy to forget the power in her voice, how it was strong yet delicate all at once. “Many of your other classes will keep you in the dark as to what the test events will be, until they draw near. They’ll want you guessing, want you to prepare for multiple scenarios, want you to push your versatility to its limits. I don’t care about any of that. I’m telling you today what your tests, all of them, will be.”

She twirled her blade absent-mindedly. Will noticed the tip always came down at the exact same distance from the floor. Even if her action was effortless, it was still incredibly precise.

“Did you ever wonder how both George and Professor Fletcher were able to fight you combat folks as a group? Seems like a strange skill for two men in very different fields to have acquired. The reason is that both of them have spent time in the real world, and out there taking on a group is almost more common than going one on one. Gangs existed before Supers, and they’ve rolled out the welcome mats to our kind now that they know about us. It’s why Heroes work in teams so frequently. But sometimes, shit happens, and you’ll have to handle multiple enemies on your own. That’s what this year is about. This is where you get the training to put five criminals on the ground instead of letting them beat the hell out of you.”

The blade was still twirling, still staying in the same path without as much as a millimeter of deviation.

“For your first test, you’ll be facing three classmates of my choosing. Second test will be five classmates. Last test will be you against everyone who is still here. Yes, still here. I won’t kick you out of the program; however, every year a couple of people always come to me and ask if they can drop my course early. Turns out once the weapons become real they lose their nerve. And make no mistakes people, we will be using real weaponry. The street thug you go against isn’t going to use a dulled knife, so I don’t want you trained against one. People will be hurt, however I will make certain no one is killed. That is my promise to you, and it is the only one I’ll be making. Other than that, you’re on your own. I want you to get hurt during these sessions, because I want you to feel the consequences of not respecting an opponent’s weapon.”

The sword halted with no warning. One moment it was still steadily in motion, the next it was still.

“All of an opponent’s weapons. Everyone please look at the third button from the top on your uniform coats.”

The students did as they were instructed. Nestled dead center in the mass of each button was a small silver needle that hadn’t been there when the coats were put on. Upon removal some realized that the needles were balanced and weighted, specifically designed for throwing.

“Misdirection is an important skill in fighting groups,” Professor Cole informed them. “Control your opponent’s vision and you can control what they don’t see, which is infinitely more important than what they do. Keep that in mind. I know several of you aren’t the type with physical gifts,” her eyes lingered on Will and Britney just a few moments longer than either would have preferred, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t defend yourself. Battle is about so much more than who punches harder. Each one of you has the capability of getting through, if not passing these tests. If you didn’t, then I wouldn’t have allowed you in my course to begin with. Now, the first step for each of you is choosing your preferred weapon. You’ll be using several different kinds throughout the year, but this will be your home base, the one that you apply all the things you learn to. We’ll spend the next week making sure each of you finds a good fit. After that, we start learning how to use them.”

She gestured to the racks of weaponry that lined the cement wall of her large classroom, indicating it was time to start seeing they could find a good match. Most of the students followed her implied orders, however one lingered behind.

“Is there a problem, Mr. Murray?”

“There is. I don’t think I’m going to find the right weapon for me in the classroom stock,” he replied. “I have no physical augments, nor do I have a talent that would allow me to approximate them like my sister does.”

“Is this your way of asking if you can drop the course already?”

“Very much the opposite,” Will said. “I think the only chance I have here is to design a weapon customized for me specifically. My body, my natural movements, my capabilities. I wanted to ask if that was against the rules.”

“No,” Professor Cole confirmed. “The rules here are that if you can create it, then you can use it. It’s why we’ve let you bring all your high-tech inventions into fights, while everyone else is restricted to nothing more advanced than a taser.”

“You’ve allowed Jill to bring in my works as well,” Will pointed out.

“Cultivating resources is a Hero skill too. Jill got them from a fellow HCP student, so as far as we’re concerned she procured them under her own power. I’m sure that was your roundabout way of seeing if you could make something for her too.”

“Perhaps a bit,” Will admitted. “However, in this case, my own needs are first priority. Jill can get by with what she’s got. I seem to only have a week to craft a tool that will give me a fighting chance.”

“Do you need more time?”

“No, that should be plenty, though I may consult you for your expertise. Personally, I think it should prove quite the rewarding project.”

Chapter 14

“Again, we both really appreciate this,” Vince said, repeating his thanks for what Camille guessed was the fourth time.

“It’s no big deal. This address is only fifteen minutes from campus anyway,” she replied, trying to soothe him. The overflowing gratitude was likely due to jittery nerves. Vince might be able to face down a horde of angry Supers without so much as a twitch; however, social situations he was unfamiliar with still put him a bit on edge. In that regard, Camille could certainly relate.

She saw the street she was looking for and turned the wheel to the side. Kent Mears had gotten all of the Melbrook group interviews on the same day, no doubt assuming they would carpool. What he hadn’t realized was that sending Alice and Roy to one location, while Vince and Mary went to another, left the latter pair without transport. If not for Camille’s sedan, free time, and willingness to help, they would have been in quite a pickle.

“Did he tell you anything about the place?”

“Only that it was a restaurant,” Mary answered from the car’s back seat. “He said it was somewhere that my eyes and Vince’s hair wouldn’t stand out.”

Camille couldn’t picture many businesses where that was true. Though it was fashionable to emulate the strange physical characteristics some Supers, like Vince and Mary, were born with, it was still frowned upon in a professional setting. Much like nose rings or tattoos, there was definitely a crowd that appreciated them, however that crowd was rarely staffing the human resources department at major corporations. Mary would be able to get by if no one looked too closely at her eyes, however if Vince wanted a non-Hero career after college he was going to have to get used to the idea of shaving his head or wearing a lot of hats.

One last turn put them in a half filled parking lot with a sizable building in the center. The color scheme was garish, to say the least, and a large neon sign announced the establishment’s name proudly for all to see. Through the windows they could see a woman in a bright blue and yellow outfit showing a family of four into a booth, then setting down menus in front of them.

“Supper with Supers,” Vince said slowly, reading the words off the glowing sign and taking in the colorful business where he was scheduled to interview.

“Well, you guys definitely won’t stand out,” Camille said, trying to point out a silver lining. It was not terribly effective.

 *              *              *

“That is… not a whole lot of clothing,” Alice said, eyeing the uniform critically.

“No it is not,” Angela agreed. “Which is why it gets us such generous tips.”

Alice had been surprised to find Angela already working at the place where she was set to interview, but it made sense. There could only be so many businesses that had agreed to take in HCP students, so some overlap was unavoidable. Alice had been sitting by herself, since Roy was interviewing first, when the fellow blonde had recognized her and come over to chat. It seemed Angela genuinely enjoyed working here, and was adamant that Alice apply for a position as a fellow shot girl, a prospect she’d initially found appealing until she took in exactly what the uniform consisted of.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to start as a waitress?” Alice asked. “What do they wear?”

“Jeans and a low-cut top, though they can also go with shorts if they want. The plaid half-shirts are all us though. Makes sure the customers know they can buy booze right off us, not ask for more lemons or napkins or any of that bullcrap. Trust me, shot girl is much more fun than waitress. They have closing duties and cleaning and all that. Us? We are agents of alcohol delivery, nothing more. We flirt, we get guys to buy more rounds, and we take a few shots ourselves if the customers feel generous.”

“How often do they feel generous?”

“Often enough that I carry an empty beer bottle for spitting some shots into.”

“I think I saw that in a movie,” Alice recalled.

“It’s a trick that’s been around for ages. Trust me, you’ll want to carry an empty.” Angela paused and looked her fellow Super up and down critically. “Actually, with your chest and waist, you might want to carry two.”

Alice noticed the discussion had somehow maneuvered from whether or not she even wanted the job to what she should know before starting it. Some might have thought Angela was manipulating the conversation to lead her to a conclusion, but the truth was much simpler than that: Angela had already decided what the outcome would be, and the idea that she could be wrong hadn’t honestly occurred to her. Alice decided to steer the topic of conversation back to something that didn’t require her to walk around half naked.

“How can you keep this up senior year? I sort of assumed things would be…busier.” Discussing the HCP in public, even when they seemed alone, was always handled with careful words choices and vagueness.

“Oh it is, but you’ve got to make time for other things or you go nuts,” Angela replied. “Besides, I’m still top of the class, so graduation is looking imminent. My biggest worry is lining up an internship, and even that’s not too stressful thanks to some connections.”


“Yeah. Blaine should have told you all about it back in freshman year.”

“I think he mentioned something, but never explained it.”

“Oh, well he’ll do that before the end of this year, don’t worry,” Angela assured her. “I can’t go too much into it right now, obviously, but you know how after doctors finish med school they still have to work under the supervision of more experienced doctors before they’re trusted on their own?”

“I actually didn’t know that,” Alice admitted.

“And now you do,” Angela said with a smile. “Anyway, same basic premise.”

There were an abundance of questions Alice wanted to ask, but she didn’t. Partially because this wasn’t a safe place to talk about HCP business more than they had, but more because at that moment the owner and Roy emerged from his office and he motioned for her to come over.

“Remember,” Angela encouraged as Alice walked across the bar, “You want to be a shot girl!”

Chapter 15

Brenda, the general manager of Supper with Supers, could be faulted on many fronts, but lack of enthusiasm was not one of them. She’d greeted Vince, Mary, and Camille at the door, and immediately pulled all of them into her office, either ignoring or not hearing Camille’s protests that she would wait outside.

“As you can see, we have licensing arrangements to allow our employees to wear the costumes of many famous Heroes,” Brenda said, gesturing to the wall lined with staff photos, all of them in some sort of costume. “However, for the most part our staff wear generic ones, designs we have ample stock of. It makes accommodating different sizes much easier. For those who have been here more than six months, we allow them to design their own outfit and name, if they want to be unique. Of course we retain all rights to those designs, so not many of our HCP workers take us up on that opportunity.”

“So, it’s just a restaurant where people wear costumes? Vince asked.

“It is a theme, dear boy. We transport the customers to a world of high-paced action, where capes and costumes are everyday occurrences. The point is to submerge them in the culture, to turn a simple meal into a memorable experience.”

“It seems lovely,” Mary said, defaulting to politeness since she had no idea what else to say.

“Thank you very much. I’m quite proud of it, and we have a great reputation for fun and delicious food. Now, I’ve got two openings for wait staff,” Brenda said, checking her folder. “And I can squeeze one of you in as a host.”

Camille debated speaking up once more; however by now it seemed obvious her protests were not making any dents in Brenda’s enthusiasm. Plus, if she were honest with herself, the idea of working with Vince wasn’t totally unappealing to her.

“The waiting jobs require more social interaction. You have to chat with the table, remember orders, that sort of thing. Host duty will revolve around charting the wait times and making sure to seat customers in a rotation that lets the waiters serve them best.”

“I think Vince and I should be the wait staff,” Mary suggested. Camille threw her fellow small statured girl a glance and received a not too sly wink in response. There were definite benefits to having a friend who was a telepath. “Knowing Camille’s sense of organization and sweet demeanor I think she would excel at the hosting position.”

“She does seem downright adorable,” Brenda agreed. “Any objections to that, Camille? Don’t worry, you still get to wear one of our amazing costumes!”

“Sounds…great,” Camille said weakly. She was immediately beginning to regret going along this far, however if it been hard to back out before then doing it now was well beyond the realm of impossibility.

“Fantastic. Now that leaves you two as servers. The training process is a little more arduous for those positions, but I’ve never had an HCP student who couldn’t hack it. Running food and pre-bussing is much less stressful than fighting or robot battle or whatever it is you folks do in there.”

“I did have a question, ma’am,” Vince said, raising his hand tentatively.

“Go right ahead.” Brenda gave him a warm smile of reassurance when she spoke, the type that can only be conjured by master politicians and the truly sincere.

“I get that the costumes will let us blend in somewhat, but how does that help with things like my hair or Mary’s eyes?”

“A very fair question,” Brenda replied. “The answer is two-fold, actually. For one thing, many of our wait staff like to employ the sort of look you two have naturally. This is one of the few establishments in town where bright green spiky hair or make-up to look like a salamander make you more likely to get a job, rather than less. The other aspect is that for those employees we have who don’t favor such affectation in their personal lives, we offer a wide variety of wigs, contacts, and make-up all for your use. Since people come to work in costume, a policy I’ll have to insist you adhere to as well, as long as you don’t spend time with them outside of work, they won’t know your look isn’t just part of the uniform. Even if you do see them beyond these restaurant walls, you can always claim you dye your hair.”

“Thank you, that does make me feel more at ease,” Vince said. His opinion of both Kent Mears and Brenda were rising steadily. This really was the perfect place to stash Supers like him and Mary. Some of the others were quite noticeable when they used their powers, but at least they could blend in when they needed to.

“Perfectly natural. So, when would you be able to start?”

“Don’t we need to be tested or something?” Mary asked. Even she’d expected the hiring process to be a bit more arduous than showing up and answering a few questions.

“In normal process, yes you would, however I’ve had nothing but positive experiences hiring from the HCP pool in the past. Rather than make you jump through the hoops, I’d prefer to give you the benefit of the doubt. Obviously if we run into attitude problems or you can’t handle the work, I’m afraid you won’t be able to stay here, but otherwise I don’t see any reason not to push forward,” Brenda explained.

“I guess we can start whenever you’d like us too,” Vince said, once the reality of impending work had set in.

“Great, first I’ll need you to fill out some paperwork, get copies of your schedules so I don’t put you on shift during HCP courses, and of course we’ll need to do your fittings.”

“Our fittings?” Camille asked. “Don’t we just put on a costume?”

“Oh heavens no, these things are full-body suits. You don’t want one that hasn’t been hemmed and trimmed in the right places or you’ll be tripping over loose fabric. Don’t worry though, we’ve got a wide selection and I’ll make sure each and every one of you looks eye-catching."
Brenda couldn’t have chosen a phrase to better alarm Camille.

Chapter 16

Her team wasn’t really her team anymore. Mary had difficulty with that realization, yet the longer she mulled it around, the more she realized how it couldn’t be quite denied. It wasn’t just because the team dynamic had been dissolved at the end of sophomore year. They’d been a group long before that had even been a part of their education. It wasn’t losing Nick either, though that damn sure hadn’t helped things.

No, the problem was one of focus. They’d once had a shared goal: keeping their secret and making it through the program for as long as they could. Even after they’d been outed, they’d been the collective of freaks and needed to stick together. It had galvanized them, given them the teamwork they needed to overcome opponents with years more experience than they possessed. Then, somehow, they’d lost it.

Vince still trained relentlessly, but at least one part of his mind was always on his father and the criminal actions he’d taken. Alice dwelled endlessly on the mystery of her mother. Hershel and Roy were focused on the goal of graduating the HCP, but they thought of themselves as a duo rather than a piece of the group. She heard all this swimming about their thoughts, along with the occasional pang of sadness for their lost comrade, one who it was only a matter of time until someone realized had returned to campus. When that happened it would likely only splinter their focus more. On top of that, the addition of these jobs wasn't going to help the situation one bit.

Mary’s own mind drifted back to freshman year, when they’d been left on the mountain. At the time she’d thought it overkill, but in retrospect it hadn’t been a bad idea. They’d bonded, they’d come to rely on one another, and they’d had their first taste of functioning as a team. She wondered if she could talk Mr. Transport into doing it again. No, even if she could, that wouldn’t be much of a challenge anymore. Alice could float them all up with ease and Vince would keep them toasty as she did it. Even her own control had evolved to where she could hold and lift a normal person’s body without accidently crushing them. Strange to think what had been an nearly insurmountable task only two years ago would now be little more than an inconvenient few minutes. Assuming they worked together, of course.

With a groan Mary set her head on her desk. She’d been best at moving them along personally, helping each one find their own strengths and talents. Wrangling Roy’s ego, pushing Vince through his fear of himself, helping Alice stop seeing herself as useless, this was stuff she could handle. Nick had been the one who could move them as a group. He saw the way people fit together, how to use them as a unit and how to tighten the cogs so that it more efficiently. Mary’s chess skills had advanced to where she could utilize each piece for the whole of a greater strategy, but that didn’t mean she knew how to impart in them a sense of unity.

They needed a goal, or a trial, or something to push them back into a solid mass. Right now they were drifting apart, turning into four people working to graduate instead of one team. That might work for everyone else, but they were different. The others couldn’t hear the barbs, the angry thoughts percolating in some of the other student’s minds, but she could. As far as much of the student body was concerned, they weren’t welcome here.

And if Mary didn’t think of something soon, she doubted they’d be here for a whole lot longer.

 *              *              *

Mary wasn’t wrong about Hershel and Roy’s dedication; at that very moment Roy was underground in the HCP gym pushing hard to find his new limit. Only a year ago the concept had terrified him. Not of running out of strength during a lift, but of hitting the sort of wall where no matter the effort his muscles refused to make progress. That had been when he thought such things were permanent. Now he knew better. Now he understood it was his way of tossing the ball back into Hershel’s court.

In a way it had become a game between them: could Hershel ratchet up Roy’s potential before Roy hit the wall. It drove them both to train hard, each brother trying to stay one step ahead of the other, to avoid plateaus and continue growing. And they were growing, that was ridiculously evident. Roy’s strength had risen exponentially and his endurance had nearly kept pace. Even his reaction speeds were improving, though at a slower rate. Hershel had taken up sparring over the summer, the genuine combat experience helping push up Roy’s potential just as effectively as Hershel’s exercise.

It was a testament to the construction of Lander’s workout equipment that the weight bench didn’t shudder as Roy set down the bar after his final rep. No, there was no question of his strength anymore, even if there were still miles to go. The real hurdle facing him was skill. Despite Owen’s belief that their kind only existed to hit and get hit, Roy saw value in learning to punch and dodge more effectively. He had a feeling they weren’t going to move him up the ranks unless he was able to actually land his blows, and Roy absolutely intended to move up the ranks.

Mary had been right about their dedication, but not about their goals. Hershel was focused on graduation, that much was true, but Roy’s eyes were set on another prize. He’d come here with an undeserved ego and been put in his place. He understood now just how far behind the lead of the pack he’d been. But that didn’t mean his pride wasn’t still there. Roy wanted to be on top, he wanted to be the King, to use Nick’s old analogy. This time he didn’t want to claim to be the best from misplaced idiocy though. He intended to earn it.

Roy was aiming for one thing and one thing only: Beating Chad.

Chapter 17

As he checked his schedule and walked down the hall, scanning for the appropriate room number, Vince was definitely confused. It was Friday, and everyone else was done with HCP classes for the week. He, on the other hand, had a single remaining item on the printed paper clutched in his fingers. “General Discussion” was all that it said, that and a room number Vince was certain he hadn’t been in before. If not for the subterranean location, he would have assumed it was some lab that went with one of his usual classes he’d forgotten about. The fact that it was underground, however, and that no one else seemed to have it on their own schedules, made him wary.

Vince finally located the room; it was only about half a hallway down from the infirmary where he’d woken up so frequently last year. The door was open, so he was spared the awkwardness of knocking. Instead he stepped through and took in the surroundings.

Immediately it was clear this wasn’t a classroom. Though the walls were thick concrete like all HCP rooms, it was too small to accommodate more than a few people at once. Besides that, there were personal knick-knacks and a large central desk that gave away this room’s function as an office. The curious part was that the woman sitting behind it was so unfamiliar to Vince. After two years in the HCP, he believed he had met all of the teaching staff, yet the salt-and-pepper-haired woman, with dark framed glasses, currently sitting at the desk before him was utterly foreign to his memory.

“Hello?” Vince said tentatively. The woman looked up from her desk and greeted him with a warmer smile than he’d been anticipating from her professional appearance.

“Vince, right on time. Please, shut the door and take a seat,” she instructed, gesturing to a large cushioned chair that would have looked more at home in someone’s living room than in an office. Vince complied automatically, pulling the door closed and settling into the indicated chair. It was even more comfortable than it looked.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why you’re here,” the woman said once he was situated.

“Yes, ma’am,” Vince confirmed. “No one else seemed to have this class.”

“That’s because this isn’t a class, per se,” she told him. “I think it’s best if I start from the top. To begin with, my name is Dr. Moran, and I’m the head physician here at Lander.”

“I didn’t even know we had a head physician,” Vince admitted.

“That’s because most of my work is overseeing the healers in taking care of you students. Healing is a discipline that one can only improve at through practice, so except in very extreme situations I leave all the patching up work to the students who need the experience. Of course, in years where we have no healers in any of the classes I take a more active role, but right now we have many skilled Supers with healing talents in attendance.”

“My friend, Camille, is a healer,” Vince supplied, still unsure of what he was supposed to say.

“And a wonderful one at that. Camille is one of the most skilled students I’ve ever had the chance to work with,” Dr. Moran told him. “However, we aren’t here to discuss that kind of healing. Vince, in addition to being a Super with a healing ability, I am also an M.D. who has done fellowships in Internal Medicine and Psychiatry. I even ran my own practice before coming to Lander. I’m telling you this to assure you that you are in safe, experienced, and professional hands.”

“I don’t really understand what you’re talking about,” Vince said.

“You were informed that your continued attendance at Lander would come with special requirements, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“This is one of those requirements. You and I are going to sit here for an hour, once a week, and talk. The goal is to make sure that you’re handling everything that’s been thrown at you well, plus to provide help if you need it,” Dr. Moran told him.

“Oh. So you’re making sure I’m not crazy,” Vince surmised, understanding finally kicking in. “Awesome.”

“If you choose to see it that way, then I can’t stop you,” Dr. Moran said, setting her hands down on her desk. “What you get from therapy rests more on your attitude than anything I have the ability to say. But Vince, if I may be so bold, I think you would benefit from having someone to talk things through with.”

“I’d rather if that someone wasn’t working for Ralph Chapman,” Vince said defiantly.

Dr. Moran’s smile darkened just for an instant. “I do not work for Ralph Chapman. He did want to bring in his own personnel for this task, but he was unable to find someone more qualified than I. And let me assure you, Vince, standard confidentiality applies. Unless I suspect you are about to become a danger to yourself or others, everything said in this room will remain between the two of us.”

“That’s not so bad, I guess.” Vince paused for a moment as he contemplated this new information. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I should have assumed you were working for Mr. Chapman so suddenly. This whole situation of being constantly screened just has me a little worried.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Dr. Moran said. “In your situation, a little bit of suspicion is not only excusable, it’s healthy.”

“Still, I don’t know why I need to be in therapy.”

“Vince, I believe a good relationship between doctor and patient is built on trust, so I’ll be honest with you. Yes, part of it is to determine if your mental state is healthy enough to continue in the HCP. But I’ve read your files extensively, and I sincerely doubt I’m going to find you unfit for this program. As to what you could gain out of it, I can cite two incidents that make my case for me. One, when you learned about Globe’s reemergence you inadvertently began releasing fire until you were sealed away. Two, when Nick Campbell convinced you someone you loved was in danger you reacted with the kind of murderous rage one would hardly expect to see in a person of your demeanor.”

“Those were extreme situations,” Vince defended.

“It is in extreme situations that our true natures can be seen,” Dr. Moran countered. “You are a kind, respectful, very loyal young man. But it seems evident to me that there are emotions inside that you are not dealing with. Anger, fear, frustration, and that’s all just what I could get from those two examples. I’m sure you could tell me far more.”

“I keep myself under control.”

“Except when you don’t,” Dr. Moran said. “It seems to me that a Super with such perpetual fears of losing control of his power would be more inclined to address the one avenue where he’s lost that control multiple times.”

“That…is a good point,” Vince said, his own rebuttal failing before it could leave his mouth. She was right, even if no one had made a big deal out of it, he’d still gone overboard both those times. Maybe he did need to address some of the things inside himself he’d purposely left unattended. Which, it dawned on him, was exactly the conclusion she wanted him to reach.

“You are really good at this,” Vince said.

“Of course I am. That’s why I’m at Lander.”

Chapter 18

“It’s certainly unique, I’ll give you that,” Professor Cole said as she examined the curious instrument in her hands. It was about three-quarters the length of a normal staff, with a curve slightly off center for no discernible reason. The first end held a silver-colored blade, one Professor Cole highly doubted was any metal she’d be familiar with. The other had a small protrusion of what looked like geode crystal, but again, probably was something very different. The crystal did seem to be giving off a slight blue glow, which Professor Cole found to be worth noting. Along the shaft of the weapon were various switches and what appeared to be compartment hatches, though she was unable to get them to open on a first try.

She and the designer were in the hall outside of her classroom a few minutes before Weapons class was due to start. Will had tracked her down to get his weapon vetted in private, which, given the apparent complexity of it, made ample sense to Professor Cole.

“I designed it to be augmentable,” Will informed her as the cloth wrapped hand ran carefully along the length of his weapon. “I presume there’s no objection to that?”

“No, as long as you can design the modifications then you’re free to make them. Though we don’t often see the need for such things, it would, in principle, be no different than choosing different bullets for a gun.” Professor Cole handed Will back his strange weapon, noting the way he gripped it along the curve and held it with the blade halfway raised. Odd though it was, she was experienced enough to glean ample information just from the way an unfamiliar weapon was handled. “Tell me about the tips.”

“The blade is mostly just a blade, though I tinkered with the metal’s composition and set it to run a variable electrical current.”

“Shock and slice, huh?”

“Yes, ma’am. Our fight with Professor Fletcher last year made it clear to me that electricity is probably the most common weakness among Supers. Likely because it interferes with the nervous system, which many of us rely on to utilize our abilities. Since I needed a martial option, I saw no reason not to rig it in a way that imparted maximum stopping power.”

“Smart call. Tell me about the other end,” Professor Cole instructed him.

“Variable by design. Currently it is set so that upon contact with the epidermis it causes a tremendous amount of agitation.”

“If you touch people’s skin, it makes them really itchy?” Professor Cole was about to chide him on the silliness of that, however she paused for a moment before speaking. Will had done an impressive job in a few short days; she highly doubted he would have slapped a silly gag on his weapon. “How itchy?”

“Roughly enough that it would cause insanity if it were not temporary. I designed it as a mechanism to stop those with enhanced endurance, since their ability renders them immune to most pain I could impart.”

“I like it,” Professor Cole complemented. “It’s an inventive workaround. Though I should point out that some of them will be immune to that too.”

“I suspected as much. That’s why I made it augmentable, so that as new ideas manifest I can implement them.”

“That was forward thinking of you. Okay, I see no objection to your weapon, with one caveat.”


“You need to get all augmentations approved by me before you’re allowed to use them on fellow students. There’s a fine line between effective neutralization and unnecessary cruelty, and I’ll be the one making that determination.”

“That seems very fair,” Will replied.

“Even if it wasn’t, we’d still be doing it,” Professor Cole told him. “Now come on, everyone else is already inside.”

Will moved a few steps ahead of her, walking in and joining the other students in the concrete space set aside for Weapons training. Professor Cole entered moments later, her eyes taking in the neat row of Supers, many of whom were already holding their choice of weaponry.

“Glad to see so many of you took the assignment seriously,” she announced as she took her usual spot in front of them. “Today we’ll start by you showing me what weapon you’ve selected. I may ask you some questions about why it was chosen, so I hope you all put genuine thought into it. If you didn’t… well a year is a long time to make sure a student regrets something, and I have ample practice at it.”

The students gave no reaction. It was not because they doubted her capability to make them regret lack of forethought, rather it was because each had come into this class already knowing the consequences if they didn’t take the assignment seriously. The HCP was not a place that forgave laziness or incompetence. After two years even the most stubborn among them had learned that.

“No questions? Then let’s get started. Violet Sullivan, since you’re at the far end, bring me your weapon choice.”

Violet complied immediately, stepping up and handing the professor a cumbersome hunk of jingling metal.

“A spiked chain? Aren’t you more of an up close brawler type?”

“I am, that’s why I picked this,” Violet explained. “Last year’s fight with Alice showed me my need for something with range. Since I can change the density of objects this seemed like it could be useful with practice. Make it heavy for blows but light for building up momentum.”

“Well-reasoned,” Professor Cole said, handing back the weapon with as little jingling as was possible. “Approved.”

The professor continued to call up students from the line, not needing any explanation for Britney’s rapier or Rich’s staff. When she got to Roy Daniels, however, her voice grew stern while examining the weapon he’d handed her.

“A metal baseball bat? I don’t think I even stocked one of those here.”

“You don’t,” Roy told her. “I bought it at a sporting goods store.”

“Did you now? I must assume you have a dazzling reason for this choice of yours then.”

“Sort of. I’ve never really been much of a weapon user, obviously, so I don’t know how to correctly wield any of this crap. I probably won’t have time to learn it worth a shit either. I’m a brawler, it’s what I do. But I wanted to try, so I chose something similar to what Hershel uses in his LARP games. Even if it's second-hand, I have at least a little bit of knowledge on how to wield that. It seemed like my best bet.”

Professor Cole remained silent as she handed back the hunk of aluminum. Roy accepted it with equal lack of words. Both stood silently for several moments, until Professor Cole finally made up her mind.

“That won’t hold up in real battle. It’s not made to take on quality weaponry. But, as surprised as I am to admit it, you clearly put a good bit of thought into that choice. It’s logical too, and in a curious way a simple blunt instrument fits your fighting style. Take that back to the store; I’ll have a sturdy one commissioned. It will weigh a bit more, but I suspect that won’t be an issue for you.”

“No, it won’t,” Roy concurred.

“Then your weapon is approved, conceptually, at least.”

Chapter 19

The door to Dean Blaine’s office slammed open without so much as a knock. He glanced up, his face impassive, while his hand pressed against a switch beneath his desk that would simultaneously fill the area of tear gas, detonate a concussion blast, and send an electrical current through every living being within fifty feet of the office. When dealing with Supers, emergency procedure tended toward the overkill, so much so that Dean Blaine would be caught in his own defense measures if he used them. He’d requested it be that way; holes in security only gave the cunning a place to slip through.

As it turned out, this was unnecessary. The man coming through the door was Mr. Numbers, though a far less composed Mr. Numbers than Dean Blaine was accustomed to seeing. He was unshaven for at least a day, and his suit hadn’t been pressed in some time. Briefly Dean Blaine wondered if the task had been too much and had driven his calculating brain over the precipice of madness. Then he noticed the sheets of paper clutched tightly in Mr. Numbers’ hand, and it all came together.

“You found something?”

“I did,” Mr. Numbers replied. Mr. Transport followed a few steps behind, more put together than his partner, which was a curiosity in itself. The duo sat down immediately and Dean Blaine paused the conversation long enough to pour them both some waters. He then got up and shut the door firmly, afterward flipping the light switch a curious number of times. Only when this was done did he retake his own seat.

“All recording devices and cameras are off. I’ve expanded my negation field so that our minds should be unreadable. This room is specially insulated and equipped to make it impossible to hear through, even with augmented senses. In our world it is impossible to say if anything is truly secure, however this is as private as I can possibly make our conversation. So, did you find a hole in security?”

“No,” Mr. Numbers said. “So far as I can tell your internal systems still haven’t been compromised. What I found was something that made me think it is time to shift the focus of the investigation.”

“Oh?” Dean Blaine tried hard to hold onto his detachment. There were precious few options outside of having been hacked, and none of them were positive.

Mr. Numbers slid the pages across the desk. “Despite months of scouring information, I’ve yet to see a single sign that someone has entered any part of the Lander system without authorization. However, in my reviews I did notice something peculiar. On the day of Mary and Hershel’s kidnapping, there was an authorized access and a large download of information. The user was George Russell.”

“Not to be a doubter, but all of the teachers here access the system and the data stored within on a regular basis. Helping our students often requires sorting through massive amounts of historical information, searching for past students who have faced similar personal obstacles or had the same type of power and what tactics worked best for them. I’ll give you it is curious, however I fail to see what conclusion it could lead to.”

“There’ s something more,” Mr. Transport told him.

“Yes, yes there is. Two things, really. One, the part of system this data came from is not connected to any pathway or archive I’ve seen so far. I’m assuming you have a few chunks of data not meant for just anyone, even professors, to see?”

“There are certain pieces of information which are considered too dangerous to be given out freely. Board approval for access is required,” Dean Blaine admitted. “Even I’m not privy to all the information on those servers. The only time I accessed one was back in my Hero days when a former student turned villain was threatening a town with a doomsday device. He’d created something similar in his time here, and looking at the schematics aided me in finding a way to defuse it. That’s the sort of information kept on those files. Too useful to destroy, too dangerous to spread.”

“Well, George found a way in, and he took a big-ass chunk of it,” Mr. Numbers replied.

“That data is heavily encrypted. Even if he downloaded it, he won’t be able to read it,” Dean Blaine assured his guests.

“Encryption can be cracked,” Mr. Transport reminded him.

“We utilize an incredibly complex one. It would take centuries to break, if ever.”

“Complex by whose standards? Because I can do computations in my head seven times faster than the best computer built so far. Then again, that Murray kid hasn’t taken a swing at it yet, so maybe I’ll lose my record before I die. Or maybe some Super out there has the gift of looking at a scrambled code and reading it like a daily newspaper.”

“Point taken. We can’t dismiss anything as impossible,” Dean Blaine yielded. “But while I grant you, this does finally give us a stepping off place on their motive, I fail to see how it informs us about our leak in security.”

“Because George made the download at eleven that night. Or rather, he connected at eleven and finished his business at one the next morning. Seems it took him some time to access what he was looking for,” Mr. Numbers explained. “And we know with certainty that is…”

“Impossible,” Dean Blaine finished, comprehension dawning at last. “Because at that time he was already involved in a kidnapping.”

“Correct,” Mr. Numbers confirmed.

“And we were using Mrs. Tracking at the time, so if he were using a teleporter to hop back and forth between locations we’d have known about it,” Mr. Transport added.

“Which can only mean someone else was using his credentials. Someone he would have had to give them to, our security is top-notch. Someone who was here, using a terminal in the school while our entire staff was in an uproar over a pair of suddenly missing students,” Dean Blaine laid it out.

“The whole thing was a shell game,” Mr. Transport said simply. “While we were chasing George and Persephone, someone was here doing the real job.”

“Hence why I feel I can stop looking for a hole in the security system,” Mr. Numbers said. “What we have here is not a hole, it’s a mole.”