“These are what we call blank masks,” Professor Stone said. The ear of every student around her was perked and paying attention. No one needed to be told how crucial each bit of information they were getting was. They were walking the finest line they’d ever been on; if they wanted hope at a career after this night was through, then they were going to need every advantage they could get.
The professor held up a gray, neutral mask that left only the eyes, underside of the nose, and mouth exposed. She turned it around, showing a slightly open section in the back where those with longer hair could push it through. Demonstration done, she handed the mask to the person nearest to her, then grabbed two more and commenced passing them out.
“Why do you have these on hand?” Violet asked, handing masks off in the conveyor belt of a line they’d formed.
“While HCP students are not authorized to take action during situations like these, evacuations have had to occur in the past. We found it better to have a way to conceal identities in the event our entire student body had to suddenly flee aboveground. I never expected to have to use them like this, though.”
“I don’t think anyone could have seen this coming,” Selena muttered. She was near the back, and at last, a mask came into her hands. It was heavier than she’d expected. Dense, strong, and tough. Selena could only imagine the weight it would carry once it was actually on her face.
“Listen up, everyone,” Professor Stone said. “When you leave this room and go to the lifts, you are temporarily authorized as emergency responders. That means you are allowed to get the people up there to safety, and use your powers as you see fit in the process. You are not, however, allowed to engage our enemies unless it is in the capacity of self-defense. Don’t take the fact that we let you get your weapons as license to run free. I don’t know why Mr. Chapman found it in his heart to give you the emergency responder authorization, but do not try and test the limits of his kindness. Get up, get people to safety, and stay clear of engagement. The entire top floor of the HCP will be designated as a safe house for students, so bring as many as you can get.”
Professor Stone looked around the room, marveling at the change that had come over her kids just by donning those gray, featureless masks. Sometimes, it was easy to forget why she’d gone into teaching after retiring as Emerald Hydra. There was paperwork, politics, and so much more hand-holding than she was accustomed to dealing with. But as she looked at those masked faces and saw the determined eyes shining underneath, Esme Stone remembered exactly why she’d chosen this path, and she couldn’t imagine having gone down a different one.
“Keeping in mind what I said about self-defense, also realize that you’re running around in HCP uniforms and masks. You’ll be targets, and if someone tries to kill you, then I damn sure expect you to handle that threat. Consider yourselves declawed, not neutered. And one more thing before you go: you are going to be the only people who can activate those lifts. The professors will be topside, handing the problem in an official Hero capacity, so down here will be sparsely defended. If you can’t transport a group here without letting one of your enemies in as well, then don’t activate the lift.”
“What about any students we’ve gathered?” Thomas asked.
“Get them clear if you can, but they can’t be saved at the risk of endangering everyone else we put down here,” Professor Stone instructed.
“You want us to just let them die?” The shock in Jill’s voice said more about what she thought of the order than her words ever could.
“I want you to protect the greatest number of lives possible. Sometimes, that means making the hard choices for the greater good. It’s an awful, shitty thing to thrust on you kids, but it’s also part and parcel of what comes with being a Hero. You want to save everyone? Then you better have power on par with a god’s, because that’s about what it takes. For the rest of us, we save as many as we can, and find ways to cope with the guilt over the rest.”
To her surprise, there were no more objections, only hard stares and grim nods. They’d made peace with what was ahead of them, or at least thought they had. No one could really know what it was like until they were actually in the field, making those decisions.
“All right, everyone, this is about as prepared as you can be. Break into groups, get up those lifts, and go save this campus.”
* * *
“In the absence of the ability to escalate situational information up the chain of command, I am enacting rule nineteen of the DVA’s Emergency Hero Charter. As of right now, I am the highest-ranked official in the chain, and as such, all repercussions for our use of force will fall on my shoulders. Any objections?”
Dean Blaine looked around his office and was met with only agreement, and perhaps a bit of simmering rage. As he spoke, he stripped off his work clothes until he was down to only shorts and a tank-top. No one in the room was alarmed by the undressing. They knew perfectly well what was coming, and if anything, were a bit anxious to bear witness. He pressed a button under his desk, and a section of his office’s rear wall slid away. Behind it was a black suit, heavily fortified and stocked with gadgetry from every tech-genius Blaine had worked with through the years. Mundane weapons might be a threat to him normally, but that’s what armor had been invented for, after all.
“Since everyone is on board, I am officially escalating this situation. There is no limit on lethal force once a target is confirmed. These people came here to kill; it’s only proper we meet them with the same resolve.”
“As a DVA representative, I support that escalation,” Chapman said. “So long as protecting the students comes first.”
“That, thanks to you, is what our kids are doing,” Dean Blaine replied. He began to step into his suit, piece by piece. It was still heavy, and still took strength to move in, strength that Blaine Jefferies had in spades. “They’ll treat the symptoms, while we handle the source of the disease. Everyone has their coms?”
Again, his team nodded, watching as he disappeared into his armor.
“Good. They’re run through the local network, which means we can keep in contact. If that fails for any reason, Emerald Hydra will coordinate communication. Impact, I want you up high, giving us the lay of the land while providing cover fire. Any issues?”
Professor Baker shook her head, sending copper strands of hair swirling around the green mask she’d donned.
“Seamstress, you’re on crowd control. Cut down as many of the mundane ones as you can. Wisp, I want you to find out where the Supers blocking our comms and teleportation are. If you can get the location of the dome projector too, that would be useful, but consider them second priority.”
Professor Cole gave a thumbs up to signal her agreement, but Sean Pendleton actually spoke up. “I know lethal force is authorized, but if I have to do in-depth information extraction. . .”
“These motherfuckers have come to our home, murdered innocent people, and are trying to target our kids. Do what you have to do. I’ll deal with the fallout after.” Blaine had finished putting on nearly all of his black suit. The only piece that remained was the helmet with a small, white oval painted near the top.
“Good. Black Hole, I want you backing up Emerald Hydra. She’s going to be scouring minds for any information on where Wisp’s targets are, where more bombs might be, or what they’ve got planned. She’ll be vulnerable while doing all that searching, so make sure she’s looked after. If she gets anything, she’ll relay it to Wisp, or . . . I suppose Mr. Volt will have to do for Professor Fletcher’s call sign. At any rate, he’s using his speed to search for more bombs. Once Emerald Hydra wraps that job, start hunting every enemy Super she can identify. Does anyone have any questions before we go?”
Only Ralph Chapman spoke up, an act which, ordinarily, would have garnered mocking and rolled eyes from the others in the room. Tonight, however, he’d acted with the good of the people in the forefront. They still didn’t care for the man, but he’d earned at least a single night of respect.
“Blaine, do we have any sort of estimation on when the Heroes will arrive?”
“No clue if, or when, any outside help is coming. But I can tell you this much: the Heroes will be there in less than two minutes.” Blaine slipped the last piece of his costume, his suit, his armor, over his head and latched it into place.
“And it’s not ‘Blaine’ anymore. Tonight, call me Zero.”