Prologue: Part 1

                Coughs, and the sound of shuffling papers, filled the room as Blaine Jefferies sat patiently staring at the row of people looking down at him. This was not a hearing, per se, and the five people assembled wore no black robes, but there was no misunderstanding about the circumstances in anyone present. These people were his judges, and what they determined in this room would shape the remainder of Blaine’s life, to say nothing of the Lander Hero Certification Program.

                “Dean Blaine Jefferies.” Senator Malcolm was the one who spoke, of course. As the chairman for the Department of Variant Human Affairs, he was  at the top of the chain for the government program. Short of presidential involvement, Senator Malcolm’s word was law, and no sitting president would touch this mess with a thousand foot pole. “This task force has reviewed the witness statements, forensic evidence, meager surveillance footage, and affidavits. We have discussed at length what failings can be determined from the incident at Lander, as well as if those failings are within the system or the staff. Is there anything else you’d like to submit for consideration before we share our findings with you?”

                Blaine’s hand tightened at the word “incident” and he shoved it below the small table before him lest they see his reaction. What had happened at Lander was not an incident in the slightest, it was a tragedy and an attack on the world he’d dedicated his life to. What Blaine wanted more than anything was to be out there kicking down the Sons of Progress’s doors, tearing Crispin’s location out of his subordinates by force. But there were other Heroes who could do that job, some better than he. This was something only Blaine could do.

                “No, sir, I do not. Everything I could submit or say has been presented. There is nothing new to add, so I am ready to hear your findings.” Blaine had faced death countless times, yet as the senator leaned forward and began to read from the paper in his wrinkled hands Blaine still felt a wave of fear try to drag him into despair. He wasn’t afraid for his own career or position; all Blaine cared about was protecting his staff and students from the fallout. If he could be the only casualty, Blaine would consider it an unmitigated triumph.

                “The attack by the Sons of Progress on Lander’s campus highlighted many weaknesses and failures in the HCP campus defense protocol,” Senator Malcolm began. “Given the fact that Supers with new, unexpected abilities are constantly surfacing, we’ve always known that no area could be completely designated as unassailable. Thus, when the protocol fails, it falls upon the Heroes that an HCP keeps on staff to react in ways no mere system could. Your reaction failed to capture the man leading the attacks, put uncertified students into a combat situation, and cost one of them her life.”

                Senator Malcolm paused, taking a sip of water from a nearby glass and moving on to the next page in his hands. It was a tense, heavy silence as the elderly man found what he was looking for in the document. Blaine had been on the other side of authority enough to mark the pageantry for what it was. They were keeping him dangling, reminding him that for all the power he might possess, they were the ones in control.

                “However, the actions you took also saved more civilian lives than we were able to accurately determine, though the best estimates put it in the hundreds. Your students were technically empowered to act as emergency responders, so we cannot fault you for using them as such. And, you did manage to bring down the enhanced Supers employed by the Sons of Progress without losing a single Hero. There is good and bad on both sides of the scale; often so interwoven it’s impossible to tell how things would have fallen if you’d taken different actions.”

                Setting the papers down, Senator Malcolm look at the legendary Hero with stern, yet uncertain, eyes. “Let me level with you here, Blaine. This is a fuck-up. The Hero world just took one on the chin. Most people want to burn you at the stake for it, lay all the blame on your shoulders and come up with a laundry list of mistakes you made to explain away how an HCP college could suffer such an attack. Your junior wasn’t the only life lost, and there are families out there howling for blood. The only thing that’s stopping me from making the easy choice is this: we talked to the deans and staff of every other HCP, and none of them could tell us a better way to handle the situation. Methods differed since they have their own staff, but at the end of the day everyone backed you.”

                Blaine felt awash in a rush of gratitude for his fellow deans and professors. The spirit of competition between the HCP colleges was no secret, but the bond of fellow Heroes went far deeper than that. What meant the most was that Blaine knew if they did see a better way, they’d have told the DVA. They’d have had too, right now new procedures and protocols to better protect the students were being drafted. Keeping them safe came before anything else.

                “Since I’m not inclined to punish a man for doing nothing wrong, I can’t say that torching you for this sits right with me. More than that though, right now things are harsh out there. With Crispin still at large there’s no telling when, or if, another attack might come. Robbing Lander of one its greatest Heroes and most experienced educators when it needs you most… no, if I let that happen then I’ve become the one who destroyed it. This task force finds that, given the threats you were facing, the actions of you and your staff were well-considered and justified. There is no human fault, and as such no punishments for any of you. Honestly, I’d offer commendations, but that wouldn’t sit well if it got leaked.”

                “Thank you, senator.” Blaine rose from his chair slowly, only half-certain that what he heard was real. He kept waiting for guards to rush him, taking him by surprise and dragging him off to a cell somewhere. “I have to ask though; you said the public needed a scapegoat. I don’t disagree with that assessment, and as much as I’d hate to be it, I can’t sit idle if I know someone else is taking my place.”

                “Sit or stand, it’s all the same to me.” Senator Malcolm took another sip of water before facing Lander’s dean. “The error was in the protocol that failed to account for powers we should have seen coming. As the DVA chairman, the buck for that stops with me. In a few weeks, I’ll be stepping down from my post with apologies. The public can have someone to blame, and I’ll be free to spend more time with my grandchildren.”

                “Senator… you love your post.” Senator Malcolm had fought and clawed his way into his position decades ago, and had rebuffed all attempts by others to take it for themselves. He was a tough old man, but he tried to balance the difficulties Heroes faced with the duty owned to the public. While far from universally loved, he was highly respected, which in the Hero world mattered far more.

                “I do,” Senator Malcolm agreed. “But age is catching up with me. Sooner or later they’re going to shove me out of here, and I don’t have the energy to fight like I used to. Better to go out on my own terms, I think. Make it count for something. I’m sure I don’t have to explain that sentiment to you.”

                “No, sir, you don’t.” Lowering his head, Dean Blaine turned from the five people watching him and strode down the short walkway to the door. With his position secure, it was time to turn his attention toward all the tasks that only a dean could handle.

                There was much to be done before the new school year’s beginning.

Prologue: Part 2

                “Another three have fallen, sir.” Sherman laid the file down in front of Crispin, who snatched it up and began to read. “The Sons of Progress are being ripped apart far more effectively than we anticipated. Somehow, they’ve run down nearly every one of our leadership staff.”

                “It’s not ‘somehow’ Sherman, it was the money. It’s always the money. Part of why I never sully my hands with the stuff. Necessary evil though it may be, in this world it’s too sticky. It seems Nathaniel Evers did not have as secure of sources as he led us to believe.” Crispin lowered the file with a heavy sigh. “But we always knew that would be a risk of working with such an amateur. Other members can be promoted to leadership, and our ranks have swelled thanks to prestige of showing Lander’s weakness. When the dust settles, I think we shall look back on this venture as a net gain.”

                Sherman merely nodded as Crispin reached into his desk and pulled out a laptop. A physical Ethernet cord was plugged into the side and ran to the wall, one drawback to the fact that the small concrete room they were in blocked every kind of remote signal known to man and Super. It was inconvenient for taking calls or staying in touch, but it had the upside of keeping Crispin completely concealed from all the angry Supers searching for him. The tech-genius Supers, especially when given a bit of enhancement, were truly capable of crafting marvelous wonders.

                “There’s something else I’d like for you to look into, Sherman. I’ve been picking up some chatter here and there since we poked the Lander beehive. It seems that their HCP might be a bit different from the others, with an extra-special secret all its own. This might be nothing but rumor and hearsay, but the way it’s being so expertly squashed makes me a bit curious.”

                “Of course, what should I be digging for?” Sherman had followed Crispin for years now; he had complete faith in the man’s hunches and intuition. If Crispin told Sherman to eat a bullet, he’d have trusted it was important to cause and not given it a single second thought.

                “Quite the strange rumor, actually. It seems a bit far-fetched to me, I can’t believe even the DVA and its cronies would be able to keep such a secret. However, if it is true, this represent an opportunity unlike any other we’ve come across. This could, in fact, finally turn the tides fully in our favor. Sherman, do you know off hand how many more Powereds there are than Supers?”

                “It’s hard to get a precise estimate, since many of both groups hide their abilities, but the most educated estimates would say there are two to three times more Powereds than Supers,” Sherman said, pulling up the data from his most recent briefing. This was a skill, not an ability, and one he worked on daily to keep sharp.

                “That’s what I found too,” Crispin agreed. “Now, imagine how the world would change if the Sons of Progress could turn all those Powereds into Supers. Our poor, suffering brothers and sisters would be filled with gratitude to the ones who set them free, not to mention ready for revenge at the world that looked down on them.”

                “It would be quite the boon,” Sherman said. “But no one has ever found a way to turn Powereds into Supers.”

                “Yes, that’s what I thought too.” Crispin turned his laptop around and showed Sherman the screen, a small message board on an out-of-the-way site deep in the internet’s catacombs. “Commit this to memory; it will likely be purged within a day or so. This is what I want you to dig up, Sherman. Find out if they really have cracked the secret. And then, tell me how we can steal it.”

                Sherman nodded as his eyes quickly scanned the screen. “I’ll get right on it, sir.”

*             *             *

                “Sniper.” Roy shoved Vince off the bench where he’d been eating, knocking the silver-haired Super to the dirt below. Vince stared at him, momentarily dazed, then closer his eyes and let out a frustrated grunt.


                “You’ll get there. It’s not supposed to be easy in the first place.” Roy leaned down and offered his hand, which Vince gladly accepted. He easily pulled the smaller man up from the ground, then took the open seat next to him and set down his own meal.

                Sunlight poured down on them as they ate the cold sandwiches at the communal bench and picnic table. Aside from the ones training with whatever Hero or Super had shown up for the week, there wasn’t really a schedule anyone had to adhere to. Hank had given them a set amount of tasks to complete each day, so long as they stuck to those they were free to use the rest of their time as they saw fit. This wasn’t Lander, after all. Here, they determined what the best way to better themselves was.

                “Is Shane still sparring with Hank?” Vince asked as he dusted himself off.

                “Last I checked. That guy seems pretty thrilled to have someone he can fight without hurting. Can’t say I blame him for it, either.” Roy tore into his ham and turkey sandwich with gusto, despite it being chilled from a morning spent wilting in a cooler. “You’ve got the afternoon shift booked, right?”

                “Yeah. I like an invincible target as well. How about you?”

                “Resistance training with Alice. She worked on stopping power last time Titan visited, and now I can barely reach her. All that sparring with Mary probably helps a lot too.”

                Thomas walked over as the discussion continued, quietly scooping a sandwich of his own from the white ice chest filled full of the things. As he headed to the table, he took a quick detour, grabbed Vince by the shoulder, and shoved him off the bench once more.

                “Sniper,” Thomas announced.

                “Crap!” Vince hurried to his feet and did his best to dust off the well-worn clothes he was training in, but it was a losing battle. On the upside, at least his lunch wasn’t going to get any colder, no matter how much time he spent on his back.

Prologue: Part 3

                The old man walked carefully between the headstones, making his way through the graveyard softly as the mid-day summer sun burned overhead. He didn’t search as he walked; this was a journey as familiar to him as the path home. If anyone was watching, they might have noticed he was a bit spry for one so advanced in years, but, as is often the case in cemetery, everyone present had more pressing matters on their minds.

                He arrived at the headstone to find someone already standing there, a beautiful woman with sharp features and short blonde hair. Seeing her, he let out a long breath, then walked over and stood next to her, staring down at the name on the headstone.

                “You shouldn’t be here,” he muttered at last.

                “I was going to say the same to you,” Clarissa replied. “There is still a manhunt out, even if the Sons of Progress momentarily stole the spotlight.”

                “I needed to come. After everything that happened… I just feel a bit lost.”

                Clarissa reached out and took the old man’s arm, wrapping her own around it. “You did everything you could.”

                “No, Shims. That’s the problem. I could have done, I should be doing, so much more.” The image of the old man rippled, then disappeared. Clarissa was familiar enough with Globe’s power to know when he was stretching an illusion. If anyone else looked in, they’d still see the old man and beautiful woman mourning at a grave. Only she could see his real face, and the grief etched on it.

                “I could have saved so many of them. I could have stopped the Sons of Progress dead in their tracks. But I didn’t. Because if Globe came to the rescue, that truly would have killed Lander. All because the world sees me as a monster. If only… I just can’t bear the weight of many more deaths. I’m so tired, Shims. So many years spent like this, so many people I could have saved, lost because I was in the shadows. I can’t take much more.”

                “You won’t have to.” She pulled him close and wrapped her arms around him, wishing she could squeeze him hard enough to make him see himself the way all the others did. “George is close. Maybe months, maybe weeks, but he’s close. We’ll find the lab, and when we do you’ll have all the proof you need.”

                “And what a joyous day that will be.” His voice was hollow as he stared down at the marble marker in front of them. “Some days, I still think I can reach him. That there’s a thing I could say or do to bring him back from whatever abyss he’s fallen into. I know it’s crazy though. Chuck is gone, at least the version of him that could be saved. At least he sends flowers, though.”

                The world-renowned villain nodded to the tasteful bouquet set just in front of the tombstone. It had been delivered earlier that day, a date that matched the final one on the headstone. A fresh bouquet came every year, as did ones to only two other gravestones Charles Adair ensured were properly decorated on their respective anniversaries.

                “What do you think Jack would say if he could see the way things went?” Clarissa asked.

                “If he were around, I doubt they ever would have gotten this far in the first place. But if he could see them now, he’d probably tell me I was trying to take on too much. ‘Supers aren’t gods’ was one of his favorite ways to remind me that even I had limits. Then again, maybe he’d say I was on the right path. He always did try to make sure I understood that duty came with power.”

                “Sounds like either way, he’d think you were doing what was right.” Clarissa released her embrace and went back to holding his arm, supporting Globe in the ways even he didn’t know he needed.

                “I hope so. I really do. I’ve set this course and I’ll see it through no matter what. All I can do now is pray that it will turn out to be for the best.”

                Slowly, Globe turned away and began to walk back down the cemetery path, Clarissa still gently holding his arms. Behind them, a gust of wind caught the fresh bouquet, blowing a few delicate petals against the headstone marking the grave of Detective Jack Reynolds.

*             *             *

                Nick sat atop the remains of what had once been a water tower, watching his friends as they trained, ate, and scurried about. He’d found the place on his second week at their makeshift summer camp, and since then he’d scarcely let a day pass without climbing up to think for at least a few minutes. It kept things in perspective, reminded him that while training in the dirt with the others was fine, it was his responsibility to keep an eye on the big picture.

                Things outside their little camp were bad, worse than the others knew. Getting them away from all forms of media had been a smart call, none of them needed to hear the sorts of accusations being bandied about regarding Lander. At least Dean Blaine would still be around; hearing that news had lifted a tremendous weight from Nick’s shoulders. Of course, Lander, along with every other HCP campus, would likely be crawling with the DVA now, and perhaps for good reason. Being taken off-guard was one thing, any opponent with sufficient time, money, and planning could overwhelm even the best defenses. But not learning from it, failing to tighten security in the wake of what had happened, now that truly would have a mistake to lay at the HCP’s door.

                They’d have to deal with all of that soon enough, summer was already winding down. Only a little while left to live in this sprawling, dusty oasis. Then they had to go back. Months of healing might be undone simply by walking on campus. That much, unfortunately, Nick couldn’t help with. It was up to each of them to decide if they were willing to walk back into that world, now that they really understood what it entailed.

                And it was Nick’s job to watch over the ones who stayed, whether they wanted it or not.

Prologue: Part 4

                Mr. Numbers ducked a shower of sparks flying from the nearby crew, hopping so close to Mr. Transport that he nearly bowled the taller man over. Mr. Transport took the cue and swung wide, giving Mr. Numbers enough room to steer clear of the men working tirelessly on the lift system.

                “Do we know where they’ll be going yet?” Mr. Transport asked.

                “I’m sure someone does,” Mr. Numbers replied. “The only thing I’ve been told is that the exits had to be moved. At least, all the ones that were used to bring down civilians.”

                “I imagine it will still be quite difficult for the students to slip away, now that their classmates know the system they’re using to vanish from plain sight.” Mr. Transport flipped through the pages stacked on his clipboard carefully. “No helping it, though. Not unless Lander is willing to spring for full-time teleporter.”

                “Even then, there’s no way to coordinate with so many student’s schedules,” Mr. Numbers pointed out. “But don’t be surprised if they try and get you to fill in on occasion.”

                “Sadly, I fear that’s already begun. I’ll have to make sure and start turning them down more. The last thing we need is for them to depend on me while we’re on assignment.”

                The two men, still wearing their usual suits, continued down the hallway of Lander’s underground, carefully avoiding more contractors from the Department of Variant Human Affairs. On top of re-directing the lifts, they were also incorporating emergency escape routes to various points on and off campus. Similar renovations were occurring at the other four HCP campuses, as no one wanted to be caught in a situation where they were pinned down again. Mr. Numbers had even heard rumblings that the backup security designed to test if a campus had been cut off from communication was having it’s time lowered from every hour to every fifteen minutes. No one was taking any chances with the HCP, or the Heroes it produced, looking vulnerable again.

                Once had done enough damage.

                “Any news on the dorm situation?” Mr. Numbers asked.

                “The school board was set to pass the new regulations quietly, but it seems a student activist group brought the issue out into the public eye. Heaven only knows how they found out about it over summer.” While Heaven might have known, Mr. Transport had no doubt how they’d found out. He’d been the one to send the e-mails and place a few careful fliers, not that any of it would trace back to him. “Looks like they’re rallying the students who live in town over summer and refusing the let the issue go uncontested.”

                “Good. After we finish today’s meetings, let’s swing by and see if there’s anything we can help with. Discreetly, of course.”

                “Of course,” Mr. Transport agreed.

                Turning a corner, they arrived at the door to Dean Blaine’s office. Inside was the rest of Lander’s teaching staff, as well as a few representatives from the DVA. These lackeys were at least the silent type, here to observe and report, not interfere. Both men considered them a pleasant alternative to dealing with Ralph Chapman, though neither said it out loud.

                After his help last year, Lander’s most bothersome DVA agent had earned a small, begrudging, kernel of everyone’s respect. It didn’t mean they enjoyed him, but it did halt them from being quite so vocal with their dislike.

*             *             *

                “Senator Malcolm, if I may-”

                “Ralph, your arguments have been heard, logged, and noted,” the senator snapped, turning to face the younger politician head on. “Now I may only have a short time left as the DVA’s acting chair, but I’m still in charge, and I say the exemption is allowed.”

                Around him, the room of agents, assistants, and general help watched silently from their seats at the conference table. The gentle whirr of an old projector hummed as it struggled to keep the image up on the drawn-down white screen. Everyone waited to see if Ralph Chapman would let the matter pass, or keeping pestering like he had on so many others.

                “I just worry that it sets a precedent,” Ralph began once more. He’d barely gotten the words out before Senator Malcolm replied, his voice no longer as controlled or cultivated.

                “You’re god-damned right it sets a precedent, and I’m glad it does. If some crazy sons of bitches storm an HCP campus, killing civilians and targeting our students, then they get to have a break on the cuts. Or is it your opinion that after being attacked by madmen and burying one of their own, we should have forced the students to take their final exams?”

                Senator Malcolm turned his gaze from Ralph to the stenographer who was dutifully typing notes as well as recording the session. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that this meeting was on public record, and anything said in it could be used freely in the future. Senator Malcolm was on his way out, he could swear and take stands as much as he liked. Ralph Chapman, on the other hand, still had ambition. His words mattered, to his future self if no one else. And coming down hard on people who’d gone through a tragedy was a risky stance to take, Super or not.

                “No, sir,” Ralph said at last. “I was just advocating some extra testing at the start of term to get their numbers in compliance with the other programs. If people think Lander is getting special treatment, it’s only going to hurt them in the long-term.”

                “The graduating number is still the same, and at the end of this year all the classes will be cut back down to regulation size. Given what Lander’s been through, I’m not going to ask more of them than we do from the others.” Senator Malcolm looked down at the papers in front of him and carefully checked a few figures.

                “Besides, with the way we’re getting hammered out there, classes being too large might be the opposite of our problem.”

Prologue: Part 5

                Her blonde hair was matted to her skull, the twin terrors of effort and heat covering the long strands in copious sweat. Alice shoved a section back, making sure she had a clear line of vision, and focused on the boulder. It began to wobble, then plummeted several feet down before its descent slowed to an eventual stop. Taking a deep breath, Alice turned the area’s gravity up even higher, and it began to wobble once more.

                Seated around fifty yards away, Mary was also staring at the same boulder. Unlike Alice, however, her job was to try and make the thing rise as high as she could. They’d been undertaking this same exercise since the first week of summer, Hank pitting them against each other to create a resistance workout. At first, Mary had easily been able to negate Alice’s gravitational warping, but with every passing the day the fight got a little harder. Now, with summer drawing to a close, the matches went on for tens of minutes. They both knew they’d grown in power, through without something outside the camp to test themselves against; neither was certain of by how much. The others were no help either, as Hank had them on their own training regiments that were getting exceptional results.

                Five more minutes passed before Mary was finally able to pull the boulder so high it seemed to be past the water tower, the marker they’d set for a telekinetic victory. Letting out a long sigh, she lowered it back to the ground while Alice rose from her seat, floating up from the ground rather than bothering to get up under her own power. The blonde walked over, meeting Mary just as the rock settled.

                “Thought I had you that time.”

                “You say that like you haven’t already won several of these,” Mary pointed out.

                Alice met her friend’s accurate memory with a shrug and a mischievous smile. “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to rack up a few more. Besides, you’re way ahead of me in terms of overall score.”

                “As one of our professors would no doubt say: where we were when we started is irrelevant, only where we’ve reached matters.” Mary hauled herself off the ground, using her actual arms and legs, and began heading back toward the cabins. Hank had made it clear that they needed to rest between bouts, at least ten minutes, and that rehydrating was always crucial. Going to fetch some water would fix both issues.

                “I feel like that’s an easier philosophy to embrace when you’re the one in the lead,” Alice said, falling into step next to her friend. “You up for two more of these before we start working on finesse?”

                “Let’s do one and I’ll see how I feel. Plus we need to see if Alex is free.” Mary scanned the area for Alex’s thoughts as they walked, quickly locating him amidst the relatively small number of other minds. Compared to life on Lander, this was like sitting in a quiet room listening to a refrigerator hum. Alex was training with Roy and Chad, a fact which was hardly surprising. Since they arrived, he’d been focusing almost exclusively on mastering his ability in melee confines. Alex had even declined joining them in the boulder matches. It was curious, given how hard he’d tried to catch Mary in terms of power before, but after what Alex went through he was entitled to a certain amount of curious behavior.

                “If he’s not, we should see if Violet is up for some aerial work,” Alice suggested. “I hate to admit it, but she’s nearly as good of a flier now as I was when I first got to Lander. The sparring has gotten downright decent.”

                “She’ll probably be with Thomas, but it’s worth a shot,” Mary agreed.

                From nearby, the crackle of electricity and blasts of exploding flame could be heard. Vince, no doubt training with Hank again. Mary had been a bit skeptical about their trainer’s claim that his shield could stop any attack, but after months of easily taking everything they could dish out without so much as a scratch, his words had turned out to be true. Everyone took turns working with him, having their progress and form checked, but Vince and Shane seemed to grab every available moment the man had when they could. Finally being able to attack without restraint must have been freeing for them in ways she could only imagine. It would be good for them, too. Knowing their limits would make them all the more effective combatants. Mary had only gotten a few stray thoughts about the state of Lander, but she was keenly aware that they’d need to be very strong if they wanted to make it through the next year.

                A set of knuckles rapping lightly on her skull pulled Mary’s mind away from the world of thoughts and speculation, bringing it back to the matter of the blonde woman knocking on her forehead.

                “Hellooooo. Mary? You in there?”

                “Where else would I be?”

                “Dunno. You were definitely drifting off though.” Alice finally ceased her light attack, though the gaze in her eyes had turned uncharacteristically serious. “Anything you might want to share with me?”

                “No news about the school, if that’s what you’re wondering. Aside from the fact that Dean Blaine and the staff are coming back, but I told you that weeks ago.”

                “And yet I can’t help but get the feeling that you’re still holding out on me.”

                “People are having their own fears and concerns, and I’m overhearing them, however I wouldn’t call protecting their private worries ‘holding out’ on you.”

                “Which I would agree with, assuming that’s all it is.” A mild sliver of accusation slithered through Alice’s words, but she looked back at the cabins they were heading toward and let the matter drop.

                Mary did her best to keep a neutral expression as Alice’s wheedling ended. The truth of the matter was that her friend was right; there were things Mary was keeping to herself. Most of them were just what she’d claimed: personal fears and thoughts of the others that she had no right to share. But some of it was a touch scarier, bits she’d gotten from Nick about how the world was taking the events at Lander.

                And the deepest secret she had, the one Mary hoped the hardest no one would see, was a worry that belonged solely to her. Sooner or later, she would have to tell Alice and the others. But not yet.

                Not while there was still so much work to do.

Prologue: Part 6

                “You know, normally I bill by the hour. Do you even want to guess how much this mystery guest of yours running late should cost?” Hallow leaned back in the stiff, government-issue chair. Senator Malcolm’s office was a moderately sized one, but he’d never taken the chance to spruce it up much during his tenure. Some thought it was because he spent so little time in it that he saw no point, while others believed he preferred his guests to be uncomfortable. Very rarely were people called to Senator Malcom’s office for positive reasons.

                “Sure, go ahead and tell me. Then we can discuss how many flight plans that plane of yours is going to have turned down by the FAA, the tax records I think the IRS needs to do a full audit on, and every other petty inconvenience I can foist upon you.” Senator Malcolm smiled from his own, far more comfortable, chair, spreading his arms out across the wide desk. “I’ve got two days left, Hallow, but I’ve also got more people here who owe me favors than you can count.”

                “Here’s hoping your replacement is a little less free with abusing his power,” Hallow muttered, half under his breath.

                “What ever happened to you, anyway? I read up on your files, you used to be one hell of a Hero. Selfless, giving, devoted to your team. How did that guy turn into the greedy, self-involved jackass I see before me?” Senator Malcom didn’t seem accusatory, despite the harshness of his words; he more came off as curious. The man had been dealing with Supers and Heroes for a long time; he’d mastered the gently grandfatherly persona to grill them with.

                Sadly, Hallow didn’t get the chance to answer, as a sharp knock came from the door. Without waiting for permission, it opened to reveal an old man, at least a decade ahead of Senator Malcolm, with a large cane. He moved in and shut the door behind him, taking care to turn the lock as he did. Only when the entrance was secure did he actually face the senator, and his attitude was anything but gentle.

                “Alright, I made the damn trip here, last minute I might add, so tell what the hell is so important that I had to fly all the way to D.C.” The man moved with more speed than his age and the cane would indicate, helping himself to the other free chair in the room, directly next to Hallow. If he was bothered by its lack of comfort, he didn’t show it, which made Hallow feel a touch insecure about how annoyed he’d let himself be by the minor detail.

                “Graham, I’d like you to meet Hallow; Hallow, this is Graham DeSoto,” Senator Malcolm pulled a piece of paper from one of the drawers on his desk and slid it across to Hallow. “As you may recall, you’ve signed a non-disclosure for all work done for the DVA. I just want to remind you of that, because trust me when I say that if a single word of today’s meeting leaves the room, I’ll do a lot more than give you a few small problems. You will be leveled, all that money and opulence you’re so fond of traded for a cell. You’d still get to wear white though, so that’s something.”

                Despite the warning, Hallow merely rolled his eyes. “I’ve done DVA work before, you can skip the threats. Even I know there are some mistakes money won’t buy me out of.”

                “That’s nice and all for you, but it still doesn’t tell me why the hell I had to fly out here,” Graham interrupted.

                “Well, partly you’re here for my going away party,” Senator Malcolm replied. “Seemed only fitting, since you were so instrumental in helping set up the DVA back when things first began. Want you to be here for my ending. And I decided to give you a little present while I was at, just something to say thanks for all those years you spent helping us, and me. The man next to you is a healer unlike the world has ever seen. He’s so powerful that he can actually heal the damage from the cell degeneration of growing older. One touch, plus a bit of effort, and you can be back in your prime again.”

                Graham raised both of his gray, bushy eyebrows, staring back and forth between the senator and Hallow for several long, silent seconds.

                “This feels less like a gift that it does like you trying to get me back into the field.”

                “We can’t force you, you helped draft the very legislation that makes compelling a Super into Hero service illegal, but we damned sure would do everything we could to convince you to put the mask back on.” Senator Malcolm looked out his window, onto the sprawling green ground being bathed in sunlight. “Things are bad right now, Graham. Dangerous. Hard. That attack on Lander kicked up a lot of unrest, gave the wrong sort of people too much hope. Folks need to be reminded of why they believe in Heroes, of the trust they have in them. The return of Captain Starlight would put a lot of people’s minds at ease, mine among them.”

                Hallow, for all his casual and practiced nonchalance, nearly tipped all the way back and fell from his chair. Captain Starlight, the Captain Starlight? The original Hero, the first publicly acknowledged Super, the one who had paved the groundwork for all of those who came after. That he was still alive was shocking enough, but to discover the old man sitting across from Hallow was the most famous Super to ever don the mantle of Hero… it was all he could do not to grab paper from Senator Malcom’s desk and ask for an autograph.

                “The chance to be young again?” Graham DeSoto looked at Hallow with renewed interest, then tipped his head back as if he were picturing how it would feel to have his strong, powerful body once again under his command. “It’s a kind gesture, and I truly appreciate it, but I’m going to have take a hard pass on that one.”

                “If you’re worried about getting back in the swing of things-”

                “I’m not worried about jack shit,” Graham said, cutting off the senator. “If I took this offer I’d be knocking people on their heads and kicking up a storm in no time. I’ve spent my whole life either fighting or teaching others to fight, getting rusty was never an option. But, as much as I could do, I’m not going to. The time of Captain Starlight has passed, my own granddaughter helped me see that. There is always going to be trouble, always going to be danger circling the tenuous peace we’ve built between humans and Supers. It’s up to this generation of Heroes to keep it safe, just as all those who came before them did. It’s not my place to fix things. All I can do is pass on what I’ve learned and put my trust in the Heroes of today.”

                “Guess that’s about as firm of a no as I’m going to get.” Senator Malcolm shook his head, though his disappointment was more the sake of form than genuine. “I knew it was a longshot from the start, but you can’t blame me for trying. Hallow, I’m sorry to have wasted your time.”

                “Now hang on a minute, I said I didn’t want to go all the way back to my prime. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to squeeze a few more years out of this old body.” Graham smiled, looking down at his cane. “I’ve hated this goddamn thing since the day I picked it up. Besides, I think I’d like to see how my grandkids fare. Something tells me they’ll have a few proud moments I’m going to want to be there for. Can you do that, Hallow? Can you just take me down a couple of decades?”

                “Sir, it would be an honor.”

                “Well, not a total bust then,” Senator Malcolm said. “And you know, if you ever want to share all that experience you’ve got with more than just the ones who come to you for training, we can always use another teacher in the HCP.”

                “Teaching, huh?” Graham paused, clearly rolling the idea around in brain. “Maybe, I suppose that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, though to be honest I sort of had something else in mind.”

                “Do I even want to know?” Senator Malcom asked.

                In response, Graham gave a wide grin as Hallow reached over and rested his fingers gently on the older man’s hand. A light glow began to spread from the point of impact, enveloping Graham DeSoto only moments after he gave his reply.

                “I thought I might try my hand at politics.”

Chapter 1

                Campus was nearly deserted as Vince stood outside Melbrook, watching the sun journeying higher into the morning sky. Always an early riser, his time at camp had made sleep an even more infrequent activity than it already was. Chad and Hershel had both gone for their morning run, darting off into a campus where one could scarcely see any proof of the chaos that had transpired mere months before.

                Every bombed and burned building was completely rebuilt, so thoroughly that, unless one was looking, it was hard to spot the differences. This wasn’t the first time large-scale damage had occurred as the result of a Super battle, and the DVA, or more accurately the Supers they employed, knew how to handle clean-up quickly when there was proper motivation. Just looking at it, Vince would never have been able to tell that this was a place that had been brutally attacked in the night. Lander had been wiped of its scars, now the only ones remaining lingered in its students.

                 Few of those students had arrived yet, as classes weren’t yet set to start for a few days, but those who had didn’t move with quite the same level of apathy about their surroundings. Eyes darted, nerves tensed, and any loud sound was cause for a sudden burst of adrenaline. Some handled it better than others, and the worse were those who’d actually been present for the fight. As many as had been on campus, it still represented a small percentage of Lander’s total students. Though, that was less true now.

                Enrollment at Lander had dropped significantly, as Mr. Numbers told them last night when they arrived. All HCP schools were seeing downward trends, but Lander had been by far hit the hardest. Former students were too scared to return, and relatively few new applicants wanted to come to the school now most famous for being attacked by madmen. Vince didn’t blame any of them; if he’d been looking at the world through their eyes he might very well have made the same choice. Being a Super in the world of Heroes was terrifying enough; he couldn’t fathom what it would be like to step into as a human.

                Still, at least the campus was peaceful, and soon it would liven up even more. They’d come back from camp a touch earlier than needed, wanting a few days to settle in to a world that was both familiar and completely foreign. Tomorrow would be the day when most students started arriving, as well as the day of orientation for those in the HCP. No one knew what it would, what it could, possibly entail after everything that had happened, though Vince was betting it wouldn’t be the usual meet and greet. They might have to go right into testing, since last year’s finals had been pre-empted. It would be rough, but fair. And after a summer of hard training, part of Vince was slightly curious about where his skills now stood in relation to the rest of the class.

                Several buildings over, Vince could make out a pair of students with a paper map clutched in their hands, weaving about between buildings as they navigated the unfamiliar landscape. It was hard to imagine that only a few years before, that had been him. Well, him and Nick, stumbling about trying to find a cafeteria that Vince could now shut his eyes and still walk to. They looked so young though, had he been like that when he first got to Lander? Probably. Heck, he was probably worse, a life on the road followed by months in a hospital bed that he could barely remember. It was amazing they’d ever let him into the HCP in the first place, let alone that he’d managed to last a week.

                Vince smiled at the thought that perhaps the kids he was watching would be down there tomorrow, wearing black uniforms and looking terrified about the prospect of fighting one another. They had come to campus early, after all, and anything was possible. One never knew the coincidences that might happen on a campus full of Supers. Even on his first day, he’d seen Sasha in the cafeteria, noticing her even before he knew they were both in the program.

                The thought of his lost friend conjured a dull ache in the depths of Vince’s heart. Their time away had done little to numb the pain of losing one of their own, but it had given him the chance to find a measure of peace with it. Thoughts of her corpse no longer filled him with the that slow, burning rage which had taken hold that night. Now, he largely only felt sadness, and that was, he imagined, as it was supposed to be.

                In the end, Sasha was gone, but the rest of them still had much to do before their journeys were over. Vince turned his gaze from the searching students to the sun still rising higher over Lander. One year left to go. One year to prove he deserved to wear the title of Hero. One year to learn, to struggle, to survive, and to hopefully make his way to graduation. If the other three were any indication, things would only be harder this time around. To his surprise, Vince found himself glad at that realization. He wanted it to be harder, to be tougher, to push him to and past every limit he had. After seeing what was living outside the protective shell of the HCP, Vince needed to be educated, to become as strong as he was capable of being.

                Next time he was in the field, when the stakes were real, he wouldn’t falter. He would be prepared, be trained, and be strong enough to keep a level head. There would be no mistakes. He would be powerful enough to do what was necessary, and controlled enough to do nothing more. Vince wanted every bit of training Lander could throw at him, every bruise and cut and pain it could impart, so long as it made him stronger. He’d seen what the Hero world was like, and Vince was determined to be ready.

                Next time, there would be no funerals after the battle.

Chapter 2

                Dean Blaine walked slowly down the concrete hallways, examining every nook and scratch in the remodeled corridors. It was the last day before his students would return, and he was determined to oversee every inch of the place where they would be educated. Deep down, he knew that this was merely a way to keep his mind distracted, and to quell the need for control that had been blooming in his chest since the attack, but he kept at it anyway. Better this than peering over his staff’s shoulders, making them just as nervous as he was. Besides, there was something to be said for a detailed inspection, regardless of what motivated it.

                “If you’re wondering, yes, you do look like you’ve lost your mind.” Professor Pendleton had approached silently in the way only Subtlety Heroes could, and was clearly watching his boss, his friend, stare at the walls.

                “Minds were made to be lost,” Dean Blaine replied. “It’s how Heroes stay sane.”

                “And now you’re quoting Dean Merrick, so I know you’ve really gone around the bend.”

                Dean Blaine chuckled slightly and turned away from the wall. “The longer I do this job, the more I understand why that curmudgeon was as surly as he was. Especially given the handful our class turned out to be. If I had to deal with another Victor and you, I’d likely lock myself in my office with a full bottle of scotch nightly.”

                “Which, for all we know, Dean Merrick did,” Professor Pendleton pointed out. “And don’t go leaving your name out of that statement. You raised hell on more than one occasion yourself.”

                “I suppose I might have allowed a bit of youthful exuberance to run wild.” A smile flitted across Dean Blaine’s face, dissolving almost as soon as it appeared. “What I wouldn’t give to worry about nothing more than students and pranks.”

                “Who says that’s all Merrick had to worry about?” Professor Pendleton walked silently over and carefully put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Things were rough back then too. That’s our world. That’s the life. It’s never perfect, or safe, or peaceful, but it’s the dean’s job to let the students feel that way. At least while they’re here. Truthfully, I can’t imagine why you took on a job like that in the first place.”

                “Why do any of us do anything?” Dean Blaine replied. It was a rhetorical question, one that Sean Pendleton already knew the answer to. Still, he answered all the same, not because he felt the need to prove himself, but because it seemed like Blaine would do well to hear the words spoken aloud.

                “Because we can. Because we have the ability, and sometimes we’re the only ones who do.”

                “Look at that, seems you didn’t entirely sleep through Dean Merrick’s lectures.” Dean Blaine glanced down at his watch, slight creases forming around his eyes. “Speaking of which, I need to finish getting my materials prepped. In light of last year’s events, I’ve added several new discussion points to the syllabus.”

                “For the freshmen or the seniors?”

                “Both, though largely the latter,” Dean Blaine said. “While I would be remiss not to talk about what happened with those entering the program, it’s with those who lived through it that I feel the most pertinent discussions can take place.”

                “At least they’ll learn from it, if nothing else.” Professor Pendleton glanced down the hall, noting a few of the final DVA workers heading to test the lifts. The DVA would have a continued presence at Lander, and every other HCP school, for some time to come. It didn’t exactly fill Sean with warm fuzzys, but he didn’t hate it either. So long as it helped protect the students, he was on board with whatever changes needed to be made. “How’s the freshmen crop looking this year, anyway?”

                “It’s… interesting,” Dean Blaine admitted. “As expected, several of the ones we offered admission to instead chose to accept offers from other HCPs. However, many of our top tier candidates opted to come here instead. In fact, after the events of last May, it seems many of the applicants switched from their originally desired schools to apply here. We’re seen as more dangerous, and while that deters some, it also lures in others.”

                “So we’ve got a freshman class that’s smaller than normal, but also filled with people who are either brave or stupid,” Professor Pendleton surmised.

                “Yes, but also quite strong. Word of students helping turn back the attackers has given many the impression that Lander has the strongest crop around. Some want to be trained here, others want to test themselves against the students we have. Either way, it brought in a few legacies from other schools I’d have never expected to get. Looking at averages, this may be one of the more powerful classes we’ve had in a while. Coupled with the brave and stupid aspects, I imagine I’ll have my hands quite full once the semester begins.”

                “Stronger than the ones we’ve got now?” Professor Pendleton was half-skeptical/half-curious. He’d taught surprisingly powerful Supers in his two years of freedom, but living in the Hero world had shown him how quickly one’s idea of strength could change.

                “Comparing seniors to freshmen is like comparing butterflies to caterpillars. These have potential, which is more than I was letting myself hope for after what our school endured.” A sly tug of a smirk pulled at the edge of Dean Blaine’s lips. “Though I will say Dean Fox sent quite the e-mail when he learned some of his choice picks had come here instead of Korman University. I daresay they’ll be out for blood at Intermurals this year.”

                “Let’s hope not,” Professor Pendleton replied. “At the rate these kids are growing, if they come looking for blood they just might get it.”

                “That is why it’s our job to teach them better.” Dean Blaine began heading back to his office, Professor Pendleton still following a few steps behind. “Don’t you have your own work to do?”

                “Why? My syllabus hasn’t changed. Besides, you mentioned scotch earlier, and this is our last day not officially on duty as teachers…”

                Dean Blaine rolled his eyes, but made no verbal objection to the idea. Having Sean around helped him take his mind off everything else threatening his sense of sanity. One glass of scotch was a relatively small price to pay for such a luxury.

Chapter 3

                “I would like it noted that you two are only here against my formally registered protests.” Despite his unneighborly words, Nick still held the door open as Jerome and Eliza strode through, the latter immediately settling onto his couch while the former stood in the center of the room.

                “Your protests were heard and overruled,” Eliza replied from her sprawled position on the sofa. No sooner had she landed on it than she spread out in a way that made her seem more like she’d been spilled there than sat down intentionally. “The Evers family is making nice, and it seems like the incident is going to pass without reprisal, but you know as well as we do that it could all be a front.”

                “Somehow, I doubt even the Evers are foolish enough to start a war between Familys in the current climate.” Nick shut the door soundly behind him, engaging each lock it had with a few precise flicks of his hand. “The Heroes are stomping down everything that pops up at the moment, the last thing anyone in Vegas needs is attention being drawn to us.”

                “Which is why Ms. Pips only sent us.” Eliza pulled herself up into a half-seat/half-reclined position that Nick was certain could not possibly be comfortable. “Normally in this situation you’d never be allowed to leave, or if you were it would be with at least a dozen people to watch over you.”

                “Or perhaps she thought you two would benefit from being around my intellectual graces,” Nick countered.

                A wry, dangerous look danced across Eliza’s face. “Don’t make me tell Mary you’re being a pompous dick.”

                “Your threats hold no power here.” Both Jerome and Eliza noticed that, despite his objections, Nick did seem to pull himself up a bit straighter at the mention of the telepathic powerhouse. “Anyway, what are you two going to do with yourselves? There’s no Nathaniel to track, no overt threats against my life, and hopefully no more amateur sleuths. Seems like you’ll have an abundance of free time on your hands.”

                “We do have classes,” Jerome interjected.

                “Ms. Pips is making you get that deep under cover?”

                “Actually, she’s making us get degrees,” Eliza said. “Since she’s already paying room and board for us to be out here, she told us she may as well get something to show for it. I’m sure we’ll have to transfer to a college in Vegas after you graduate, but for now we’re Lander students in actuality. I’m going to get an art degree!”

                “I expressed fear we were too old, however she assured us that plenty of people get a late start on their higher education,” Jerome said.

                “She’s not wrong; you’ll be older than most freshmen but nowhere near the most ancient person in any given class.” Nick looked his two cohorts up and down more carefully. It wasn’t something she advertised, but Ms. Pips had actually required many people in the Family to get various degrees. Having subordinates with appropriate qualifications let her fill positions without arousing too much suspicion from outside parties. Even Gerry had a Bachelors in Statistics. Still, it wasn’t something she did often, and generally the ones she sent to college were the ones she had bigger plans for down the line. Given that last year Jerome and Eliza had been watchers, and this year they were students, it was clear Nick hadn’t been the only one to impress Ms. Pips with how things had gone down.

                “Just remember, you’re not eighteen year-olds, so you don’t get to make the usual freshman mistakes. No passing out drunk in the hallway, get inside your apartment like an adult.”

                “Hey, being an adult means I’ll pass out wherever I damn well please,” Eliza shot back.

                “Aside from class, our jobs are similar to last year. We do security sweeps, keep the perimeter secure, and make sure no unexpected threats are able to catch you off-guard.” Jerome, as he often did, pushed the conversation forward, ignoring the sniping between Nick and Eliza. He’d long ago learned it was the only way to get through a discussion in any reasonable length of time.

                “Yeah, after what went down last year I highly doubt anyone who isn’t suicidal is going to be quite so showy,” Nick said. “This whole town is on high-alert, if anyone tried even half the crap Nathaniel did last year they’d have Heroes on them before they could scream. Angry, worried Heroes that are very concerned with keeping the HCP schools safe.”

                “You say that, but there are more threats out there than just the Evers. The Sons of Progress have lost a lot, but their head is still out there somewhere. Plus, now that the world knows HCP campuses can be attacked, there are mutterings in the criminal world about new possibilities.” Eliza’s smirk vanished as she spoke, the severity of the situation more than even she could chuckle through.

                “Perhaps, but I predict there will be at most two attempts to replicate what the Sons of Progress accomplished. After they are handily, and forcefully, crushed, such idiotic notions will quickly dissipate. The Sons were well-prepared and had likely spent years planning that assault, one which even now would no longer work. I’ve been in the belly of the Hero beast, and I assure you they are not to be taken lightly, especially now that they’re on guard. Anyone who comes after an HCP is going to deeply regret it, if they’re unfortunate enough to live that long.”

                Nick pulled back the curtains on his window and gazed out at the Lander campus, still largely empty in the early morning light. It was unspoiled, strangely serene to look upon. This was how Lander was supposed to be. This, not that nightmare Nathaniel had helped conjure upon it. It was his home, as much, if not more so, than Vegas and the casino.

                 “And on the nearly-infinitesimal chance that the Heroes don’t see things through, then I’ll just have to step in.”

Chapter 4

                The uniform hung in her locker just like the ones in all the years previous. In terms of cut, there were slight differences, as her body was still growing and changing from year to year, but these were relatively minor alterations. On the whole, it was indistinguishable from the uniforms she’d donned previously. Except, of course, for its color.

                “I honestly wasn’t sure the day would ever come that I’d wear a white one.” Alice slowly pulled the uniform out of her locker, cradling it as if it were made of glass, instead of incredibly durable woven fibers. HCP uniforms were built to take punishment, a necessity to keep them from being replaced after nearly every class. Around her, the other senior women in the combination showers and changing room were taking out their own uniforms as well. Three years they’d all been working toward this, and now that the moment had arrived no one was entirely sure how to feel about it. All they knew was that the uniforms felt heavier than they’d expected.

                “It’s weird, right?” Violet added. “I mean, since getting here we’ve always looked at the people in the white uniforms as the all-stars, the people who definitely had their shit together. Sort of figured by the time I got my hands on one I’d feel a little more sure of myself.”

                “Perhaps we only saw them as confident due to our own insecurities,” Mary said. “Try and remember how it felt being a freshman. As uncertain as you are about what this year holds, is it even remotely close to that feeling?”

                Britney Ferguson chuckled to herself and she began to remove the uniform jacket from the pants. “Holy shit no. I thought I was going to be out on my ass before the first day was over. Much as I love my power, I was shocked they allowed a girl with just invisibility into the program.”

                “Oh, and having the power to sing made me feel like such an unstoppable champion,” Selena Wilkins added.

                “Sound is more powerful than most people think,” Amber Dixon said quickly. “Besides, you two both kicked ass as soon as the first real test came around, so it was real clear from early on you both belonged here.”

                “Maybe it’s just easier to see the strength in others than what lies in ourselves,” Camille Belden said, her voice much louder than it would have been freshman year. While by no means a pushy or aggressive person, Camille no longer forced herself to fade into the background as she once had. Having come to peace with the fact that her life would be living in the public eye, she’d fought her shyness just as hard as she’d pushed against her physical limitations.

                “Or maybe it’s easier because we’ve all kicked the shit out of each other at one point or another, so we know how strong everyone is,” Jill Murray pointed out. Unlike the others, she had moved away from her locker only seconds after snagging her uniform. It was located next to one that now had no owner, but who in previous years had seen a speedy girl with pink streaks in her hair removing uniforms.

                Sasha’s absence hung heavy through the room, felt by all and commented on by none. They knew she was missing, but they’d all mourned her in their months away. This wasn’t the time for more tears. If they wanted her loss to mean something, this was the time to get back to work.

                “Are we going to be overseeing matches?” The thought slipped out of Alice’s mouth as quickly as it popped into her head, but she didn’t mind. Here, she could speak freely amidst others who also knew what it was to wonder about the path ahead. “You know, since we had seniors watching ours first year?”

                “Dean Blaine will probably address it at the assembly,” Britney replied. “But my guess would be yes. There’s a lot of freshmen, and only so many professors. Plus the newbies don’t get to meet any of the teachers outside Professor Fletcher and Professor Pendleton.”

                “Ah yes, the first year coaches.” Jill tilted her head, thinking back to the horrendous, grueling workouts they’d endured at the start of the HCP. “Is it insensitive to say that I’m a little envious Alice and Mary actually got to punch that son of a bitch?”

                “Just a touch,” Mary replied.

                “From what I’ve seen, Professor Fletcher isn’t any nicer, though he does yell less.” Violet finished slipping on the last piece of her uniform and buckled it into place. It fit her just the same as her gray ones had, yet when wrapped around her it felt completely alien. “Much as it sucks, all that training does get results. Any one of us could smoke a freshman workout now.”

                “Which is why we get harder ones.” Alice buckled her jacket into place and ran a hand down the edges of her pants to smooth them out. “Worse every year. I can hardly wait to see what they’ve got in store for us as seniors.”

                “We’ll probably have to just spend all of gym fighting Sims,” Violet speculated. “Or the professors. Oooh, or Sims and the professors, mutated together into some mechanical monstrosity that can breathe fire and eat powers.”

                “Violet and I may have caught the monster movie marathon that was playing last night,” Jill said, more in reply to the strange looks her housemate was getting than to the actual words Violet spoke.

                Mary finished donning her uniform, then did a quick scan to make sure all the others were done as well. Camille was the last, slipping her boots on hurriedly and buckling them tight against her feet.

                “Whatever it might be, I assume we’ll be getting some hints soon. Time to head out for the first assembly of the year. And remember, keep your heads high and walk with confidence. The freshmen are going to be watching us.”

                The other women nodded, they hadn’t needed the reminder but it was nice to have. After everything that had happened to Lander, it was their job to seem as their seniors had: indomitable bastions of power with no fear or doubt. The younger ones needed to see that, needed to believe they could become that.

                Even if it was a false image, it was still an important one.

Chapter 5

                The freshmen were the final group to arrive, a small sea of black uniforms spilling into the auditorium and spreading across the open seats. To the older students, they looked so young, so worried as they rooted about for open chairs, in spite of the brave faces most of them were trying to wear. No judgement was passed on the HCP’s youngest members, however, because everyone in gray and white uniforms was keenly aware that once upon a time they had been the scared rookies doing their best to look like they belonged.

                Dean Blaine waited patiently behind his podium as they filed in, Professor Fletcher on one side and Professor Pendleton on the other. The rest of the professors were off somewhere, no doubt preparing the day’s plans for after the meeting was over, but the freshmen hadn’t reached the point of dealing with them yet. That would come after proving themselves, and earning the right to learn more than just the basics.

                Only when the final freshman slipped into her seat did Dean Blaine clear his throat, a sound that rippled through the underground auditorium and silenced every other noise it encountered. The new students hadn’t learned this behavior quite yet; they merely followed the lead of the older, more experienced students. For a moment, Dean Blaine let the silence hang thick in the air as he scanned the room, noting all the faces he was keenly familiar with, as well as the ones that were no longer present.

                “Welcome to Lander University’s Hero Certification Program. For those of you who do not know me, I am the dean of this school’s HCP, and you can call me Dean Blaine. The man on my left will be known as Coach Fletcher to you, and the one of the right will be Coach Pendleton. In a few minutes, they will be taking the freshmen to another room and explaining how today’s combat trials are going to work, because yes, you will all be fighting today.”

                A slight swell of whispers rose up from the freshmen, but Dean Blaine simply stared at them impassively until the noise died away.

                “Before that begins, however, I felt it only appropriate that I speak to our entire program as a whole. Many of you are no doubt wondering what this next year holds for Lander, in light of last May’s attacks, and those are very fair questions to have. I shall do my best to answer them, at least the biggest ones, before sending you off to your tasks for the day. The first, and most obvious, issue at hand is that some of you have no doubt noticed that there are more of you here than there should be.”

                The freshmen didn’t speak, though they did turn slightly in their chairs to look up at the older students. Even among those in gray uniforms, there was a bit of swiveling and head-counting. No one in white was surprised by the news, however. Their numbers were already so small; it was easy to tell there were more than fifteen of them.

                “Every year we eliminate students after their exams, promoting only those we believe to be most capable of reaching graduation,” Dean Blaine explained, eyes clearly on the freshmen who hadn’t gotten the talk yet. “But exams were canceled in light of last year’s events, leaving us with no fair way to accurately determine who should be cut. The Department of Variant Human Affairs has acknowledged the extraordinary circumstances Lander faced, and allowed a one year reprieve for class size. This will not impact how many of you pass to next year or graduate, however you will have slightly larger classes for the duration of this year. No one was cut from the HCP, though some of your fellow students have elected to simply not return.”

                Whispers didn’t bubble up this time, but a sense of discontent quickly rose from the older students. Glares hardened as counts were taken, mentally tallying who had run away. In that moment, friendships that would have lasted lifetimes were irrevocably severed.

                “I urge you not to judge too harshly those who chose to leave us,” Dean Blaine said, doing his best despite knowing the words would be futile. “Many lives were lost that night, and while one was in this program, some were doubtlessly friends of those here. Coming back to a place lingering with memories of loss is a difficult task, and some people would prefer to move on with their lives.”

                Dean Blaine paused, appearing to check a paper on the podium but in reality only giving his words time to sink in. Losing friends from the program was hard enough, hating them for leaving would only make letting go tougher on the students who remained.

                “Aside from that alteration, this year will function largely as the previous ones have. You may notice some new faces down here, as the DVA has expanded its presence in an effort to tighten security at all HCP schools. Please treat them courteously, but know that they have nothing to do with the day-to-day program. You’ve all been briefed that many lift locations were moved, and we’ll also be implementing new protocol for when to engage them. Using them to keep civilians safe was the right choice, however there are consequences to every action, and now many on campus know how we get down here. Let’s see, that just leaves… ah yes, the dorm situation.”

                Confused looks spread across many faces of his students. They’d already moved back into their old dorms, at least those who hadn’t gone off campus, and the freshmen were supposed to have gotten settled on the day prior. No one wanted to repeat the process, especially those who’d had the same abode for all their previous years.

                “This does not technically impact any of you, but I felt it pertinent you be aware of it: over the summer, Lander tried to pass a new rule banning any HCP student from residing in the dormitories. The reasoning for this was that our people staying in those dorms put the regular students at risk, as it meant everyone was targeted when the attacks last May occurred. It likely would have passed without issue, save for the fact that the regular students got wind of it and protested tirelessly to keep you in the dorms. They pointed out that having you nearby saved countless lives, and effectively shamed Lander into killing the proposal. As I said before, actions have consequences. Had that rule gone into effect, it would have been vastly easier to determine which students were in the HCP and which were not. We’d have fought it as best we could, but Lander does have certain rights, especially when it comes to housing and safety. What saved you all was the fact that you saved them. Each of you protected one another. This instance, better than anything I will ever be able to teach you, illustrates the relationship humans and Supers are meant to have.”

                Many of his students, mostly the older ones, were nodding along by the end of Dean Blaine’s point. The freshmen didn’t pick up on it quite as quickly, but that was to be expected. They still didn’t understand that they would need protecting too. That realization would only come after their youthful arrogance and belief in their own invincibility was forcefully ripped away. Which, for most of them, was about to occur.

                “That concludes the general points for everyone. Freshmen, please follow the coaches into the next room. Sophomores and Juniors, report to the gym for class selections. Seniors, please stay in your seats. We have more to discuss.”

Chapter 6

                Only after the sound of softly scuffling feet had finally faded did Dean Blaine speak again, his audience now tremendously reduced. His demeanor seemed to relax slightly, the stern authority figure shifting into the overseer they’d all come to know and respect. They were not freshmen; they knew their dean was only human, and likely a very tired one at that.

                “First and foremost, today you will all be helping the rest of the staff and I oversee the freshmen’s initial ranking matches. We carefully pair them off so that accidental deaths are unlikely, but it’s still important to have an experienced watcher just in case things get out of hand. You’ll be given a rundown of each student’s powers, along with some of the immediate stopping systems built into the cells, before each match. I’m sure you all have questions about that, but there will be time to go through it with the other professors, so please hold your questions until then. We have much to cover today.”

                No one made so much as a peep, nor were they surprised by the announcement. After three years in the program, they’d all learned that whatever they saw the older students doing were tasks that would eventually fall to them. Everyone had expected to watch the freshman matches, though the off-handed comment about “stopping systems” did pique a few students’ curiosity. If not for Dean Blaine’s edict, they would have investigated further, but instead they merely stayed silent as he continued.

                “Secondly, today after the matches we’ll be having individual meetings to determine what major you’ll be going forward with. Since only Subtlety was able to have it’s final before the attack, your professors will be using grades and performance throughout the semester to determine whether you qualify for their major or not. If one of you wishes to proceed in a major that you are deemed unfit for, we will hold a private testing session to determine if you are indeed capable. Normally your final would have filled this role, but given the circumstances we have a bit of leeway. Come prepared to choose your Hero path, and to defend that choice if challenged.”

                Again, none of the students were especially surprised. They’d been told since sophomore year that eventually a discipline would need to be selected. Every student still in the auditorium knew the path they planned to follow, even if some were less sure of their choices than others.

                “This next one is more a precaution than an actual announcement, since if I don’t tell you about it then inevitably I’ll have students coming up to me saying there was a mistake on their schedule.” Dean Blaine allowed himself a slight grin at the memory of all the confused seniors who’d tracked him down, certain they were accidently put in a first year course. “You will all be taking the second Ethics of Heroism course this year, and once again I will be your teacher. As important as the first one was to you as you familiarized yourself with the HCP, this one will deal with the world beyond it. Most of our students have no frame of reference for what comes after this, and while that’s not as true for your class, there is still much to discuss and questions to answer.”

                Dean Blaine paused to run through his mental check-list. The final piece of the agenda would steal their focus so thoroughly that nothing said afterward would stay with them. Thus, it was imperative that he get all the lesser announcements handled before he told them about the enormous event looming in their future. There were small things they’d still need to know, minutia that could be handled in a less formal setting. Save for the big announcement, there was nothing else on Dean Blaine’s docket, so he pressed forward, a touch of excitement in his stomach. No matter how many years he presided over the program, this part never stopped being fun.

                “Today’s final topic is one that I’m sure some of you have found out about through friends or family that came before, in spite of our efforts to keep it secret from the younger students. Every year, each of the five Hero Certification Program schools come together, bringing students for a friendly competition we call Intermurals. Each school may choose three of its seniors to represent them, save for the hosting school, which is given a fourth slot to even out the numbers. Those students will fight in a tournament based system, earning glory for their school and perhaps intern opportunities for themselves. This will take place before graduation, and winning is not a guarantee of making the final cut, though there has never been an instance of Intermural champions who weren’t also considered fit to wear the title of Hero.”

                All of the restraint and quiet the seniors had been exercising up to this point vanished in a sea of frantic whispers. Dean Blaine allowed it to continue for several seconds, enjoying the wave of enthusiasm that washed over him from his eager students, then cleared his throat in the microphone once more. Silence quickly retook its stronghold, though the bright eyes and fidgeting showed that it wouldn’t last for very long.

                “Intermurals are still a long way off, and we have work to do today,” Dean Blaine said. “Still, I know how exciting it is to first get that news, so if you would like to confer amidst yourselves, I will answer three questions before sending you to go prep for watching the matches. You have two minutes to choose your questions, starting now.”

                In no time at all, the remaining eighteen seniors circled together and began chatting amidst themselves. After only a single minute, they all dispersed back to their seats, except Chad Taylor, who remained standing. Speaking calmly, but loudly, his voice carried through the auditorium with their first question.

                “What determines the students who are chosen?”

                “That’s usually what every class asks out of the gate,” Dean Blaine remarked. “And the answer is you do. Your class, anyway. This is a contest to bring glory to your school and to your class as a whole. We feel it’s best to let the students decide who should represent them, as they have the most invested in victory. Whether you are chosen for strength, wit, or skill is irrelevant. The class determines its own champions.”

                Chad nodded, either unsurprised by the answer or taking the reply with his usual stoicism. “Do we get any information about the opponents?”

                Now that was one that few classes thought to ask. Dean Blaine was a bit impressed, though he should have expected it with so many solid tactical minds amidst the seniors.

                “You are allowed to watch the other matches. It’s up to you to collect information from that, just as they will be doing from seeing your fights. The exact line-ups are chosen randomly, so who you battle next will always be unknown until the last moment.”

                What Dean Blaine didn’t tell them, what they would have to see on their own, was that hiding their own abilities was almost as important as figuring out what their opponents could do. Depending on who the class chose to send, it might be a lesson this year’s crop learned through failure.

                “Our final question is simple,” Chad said, speaking over the small din of conversation trying to crop up around him. “Will these be simple fights, or could other elements be at play?”

                Dean Blaine repressed a grin. Normally, this was something he had to brief them on when Intermurals were actually drawing closer. Few classes actually considered the possibility that they might be facing more than a straight-out brawl, at least when they first heard about the event.

                “Match conditions, as well as participants, are randomly determined. Some will be straightforward fights. Others… less so.” Dean Blaine turned off the microphone and stepped away from the podium, signaling that the meeting was officially over.

                “That’s three,” he said, easily filling the room with his well-trained voice. “Which means now it’s time to get you ready for the freshmen matches. Everyone, follow me. We have violence to watch over.”

Chapter 7

                “This one is going to be a pain in the ass,” Professor Blake Hill said, laying a white index card down on the wooden table. “How the hell is she supposed to fight someone without using lethal force?”

                “If they’re smart with their power, there’s always a way.” Professor Esme Stone mentally lifted the card from across the table and brought it over until it hung before her. A slight frown crossed her face as she read the name and power listed there. “Or not. Damn, I forgot about her.”

                “Is it the boomer?” Professor Sonya Cole asked, the table in front of her already covered in carefully paired sets of index cards.

                “I pray that’s not what we’re calling her, but yes,” Professor Stone confirmed.

                “Ariel had one set aside for that.” Professor Cole turned her cloth-bandage covered face across the room, where a red-headed woman was rifling through the small pile of cards in her hands.

                “One sec, I know I saw it… here we go!” Professor Baker produced a white card with a folded corner and handed it to Professor Stone. “That should get her through the first round, at least. After that we’ll have a better idea of how much control she’s got, and can choose an appropriate opponent.”

                Professor Stone looked over the card she’d been given, examining the words carefully. “Is this a fair match though? We’re pitting Transmute’s daughter against a girl with no documented training whatsoever. She made it in on ability alone.”

                “Which is why we need to send her against a skilled opponent for the first round,” Professor Hill said. “She’s got power, and, until we teach her how to control it, that makes her dangerous. Judy inherited her mother’s ability, and she’s been trained since it manifested. She won’t let herself get hurt.”

                “Still, maybe one of us should watch the match,” Professor Baker proposed.

                “Let’s have Professor Fletcher on hand, he can get in there the fastest,” Professor Hill agreed. “But put one of the seniors on it too. Someone with a bit of brains. It might be good to get multiple eyes on the fight. Plus, we can see just how well these kids know how to break down a fight.”

                “Sean has a pair of Subtlety students that passed the final, either of them is probably smart enough.” Professor Baker had turned her eyes back to sorting her own pile, making sure none of the other matches were so lopsided that they wouldn’t provide useful information.

                “Perhaps it would be better to choose someone from a different major,” Professor Stone said gently. “It’s a good learning opportunity, especially with Intermurals ahead of them this year, but you know how rarely a class elects to send Subtlety majors to the event. Besides, they already receive that sort of training in class.”

                “Smart, but not in Subtlety.” The bandage across Professor Cole’s face spread, signaling that she was smiling under her cloth coverings. “You know, I actually think I’ve got the perfect kid for that job.”

                “Then let’s consider the matter settled.” Professor Hill reached over and took the two cards from Professor Stone, setting them on the table next to a Post-It with a combat cell number written across the top. “Next up, does anyone have a good fight for an acid spitter?”

*             *             *

                Mr. Numbers finished scribbling the last few notes down onto the form and slid it across the small table to the waiting DVA agents. While Lander had agreed to make room for the DVA as it tightened security and evaluated protocols, there were only so many spaces to use in the underground area. Combats cells were needed, training facilities a poor fit, and classrooms obviously already dedicated to a purpose, so most of the makeshift DVA offices were renovated storage spaces made as habitable as possible. It was for this reason that the form had a very short journey across the narrow table, arriving quickly in the hands of Ralph Chapman.

                “We thank you very much for your input, Mr. Numbers. Your expertise is considered second to none.” Ralph was the only one who spoke in these meetings, his two underlings had firm instructions not to say a word inside the room. This was less a power-play to make him seem more important than it was out of concern for privacy. Mr. Numbers was indeed renowned for his mind, and a single slipped word from the other agents might betray information he wasn’t meant to have.

                “Anything to help make the school safer,” Mr. Transport said. He stood at Mr. Numbers’ side, since there was inadequate space to fit more than the single chair. “We’re happy to do our part to keep these students safe, so long as the company permits it.”

                “No worries there, Senator Malcolm spoke to Isaac Lamont personally. He’s pledged as many resources as he can spare to help shore up defenses.” Ralph skimmed over the document Mr. Numbers had handed him, skipping the more complex parts entirely. Ralph Chapman was a multitude of things, many of them bad, but he was not a man who pretended to be more than he was. The Super in the dark suit with blue eyes had a brain that could do things no human would ever rival. There was no shame in not understanding his work; that was for the DVA’s more intelligent personnel to handle. “Most of the changes I can understand look fairly simple.”

                “They are,” Mr. Numbers confirmed. “My goal was to make small alterations to the protocols, ones that were easily executable and slightly narrowed an enemy’s chance to attack us. Each is a small piece, but using them all will make it fourteen percent less likely that a successful sneak attack can occur.”

                “Only fourteen percent?” The DVA agent who spoke immediately slammed his mouth shut and grew a few shades paler as Ralph glared up at him.

                “That’s on top of the reductions we’ve already made through the larger changes,” Mr. Numbers said. He resisted the urge to smirk at one of the silent duo finally speaking, but managed to keep a neutral demeanor. The time for chuckling would come when he and Mr. Transport were on their own.

                “I’ll run this up the channels, though I doubt there will be any contention,” Ralph said, slipping the form into his briefcase. “Once we make the changes I’ll get you fresh data to check over. Same time next week?”

                “Certainly,” Mr. Transport said. “We look forward to it.”

                Without another word, he and Mr. Numbers vanished, leaving only Ralph Chapman and his two underlings still in the room, one of whom was already braced for an extensive tongue-lashing.

Chapter 8

                Hershel followed Professor Fletcher up the small set of stairs, stepping into the viewing room that stared down at the cell below. The clear, plastic-like material that separated him from where fellow Supers would be slugging it out seemed almost flimsy, despite the number of matches that had safely been watched behind it. It wasn’t the plastic that felt weak though, it was Hershel himself. Despite taking a more active role in their education since last year, this was feeling firmly like something Roy should be handling, which made the fact that Professor Fletcher told him not to shift all the more confusing.

                “As we covered downstairs, these are your deterrent controls,” Professor Fletcher said, gesturing to a small panel on the right side of the viewing window. “The blue lever will send electricity coursing through the entire room, the yellow will fill it with gas, the white one will start lights that blind everyone, and the red will do all of that at once. Given the power sets of the two students we’re about to watch over, the yellow lever is most likely to be the one you’ll pull if the need arises. Both are physically durable enough that the other deterrents might not work as well.”

                “Do you really think I’m going to need to stop their fight?” Hershel had already memorized which levers did what, and even if he hadn’t there were small drawings positioned below each one. While it was nice to know he wasn’t expected to break into their match personally, the responsibility of making such a call was still heavy on his shoulders.

                “It’s possible, but not likely,” Professor Fletcher admitted. “This fight is one where both sets of powers are strong enough that there’s a fair chance of injury, which is why I’m on hand to watch it. If someone needs to take action, I’ll be the one to make that judgement. That said, I might need a little assistance, which is why you’re here too. Just watched the fight carefully, and be ready to act if I give you an order.”

                “Yes, sir.” Hershel turned and looked into the cell, noting that the door had opened, and it’s combatants were walking in. One of the young women was medium height, with tawny brown hair in a braid that fell halfway down her back, while the other was tall with dirty blonde hair that was chopped short. Just from watching them step into position, Hershel could see the difference in their training. The blonde walked like someone who’d spent years learning to be aware of her movements, while the brunette with the braid merely plodded along, trying to appear bigger than she was.

                “Ashley Beck,” Professor Fletcher said, pointing to the girl with the braid. “And Judy Bush.” This time he motioned to the blonde, who was already carefully examining her opponent’s stance. “Ashley has the more dangerous power, though it’s assumed that Judy will take the match.”

                Hershel nodded absent-mindedly as he continued staring through the window. “She’s clearly the more skilled of the two. Prior training, I assume?”

                “I can’t say from whom, but yes, Judy Bush has been extensively instructed in combat, as well as the use of her power,” Professor Fletcher confirmed.

                “Yet you’ve got her going against someone who’s obviously an amateur.” Hershel studied them both carefully, trying not the let the sense of nostalgia overwhelm him. Thinking back too closely would take him to when Roy had been down there, and for this he needed to be fully in the moment. “Which means Ashley has a power suited to doing lots of damage, but not to being precise. That’s why you’ve put her against an enemy who can hold her own.”

                “Spot on.” Professor Fletcher spared a glance away from the window to look at Hershel, who was so engrossed in watching the freshmen that he didn’t even notice. Dealing with Roy so often, it was easy to forget that his counterpart possessed quite a capable mind. It was why he hadn’t briefed the student on the combatants’ powers; he wanted to see how well Hershel could break down a situation just from observation. So far, Professor Fletcher was impressed. If Roy could learn to think as tactically as Hershel, he truly would be a nearly unstoppable force.

                “Hershel, whenever you’re ready, they’re waiting for you.” Professor Fletcher pointed to the only button on the wall, a large gray one that most people had to lean into to hold down.

                Hershel pressed his hand against it, and the soft crackle of static filled the air. The intercom was engaged. “Please introduce yourselves.” Hershel tried to sound more sure of himself than he felt, though he doubted there was any chance they’d sense his nerves over their own.

                “Ashley Beck. Here to take the number one spot.” She was confident, and in a way Hershel admired that. He’d admire it a lot more after she proved it was deserved, though.

                “Judy Bush. The spot is yours, if you can take it. But I have no intention of making it easy.” Judy hunkered down slightly, preparing herself for the fight that was about to commence. She was well-balanced, but far too low for any attack Hershel could imagine her pulling off. He chalked this up to either an unfamiliar combat style or something power-related, and continued with his duty.

                “Remember, the use of lethal force is banned in all ranking matches, but what is lethal will vary from opponent to opponent. Use your best judgement, because we will be watching. You may begin.”

                Hershel barely had time to let go of the button before Judy acted, though it wasn’t to break into attack as he’d expected. Instead, she dropped her hands to the ground, slamming them palm-first into the concrete. No sooner had she made contact than her skin began to ripple and shimmer. In mere seconds,her entire body had taken on the same gray chalky appearance as the concrete that lined the combat cell. Across the room, Ashley merely watched as her opponent shifted, clearly content to see where this led.

                “A property mimic who can do a complete alteration? Holy crap, those are rare.” If Judy was at all inconvenienced or weighed down by her new concrete body, she didn’t show it. The young woman was as controlled and graceful as ever when she rose back to her feet, shifting to a defensive stance.

                “Yes, they are,” Professor Fletcher agreed. “Though Ms. Beck is not exactly a common variety of… well never mind, I’ll just let you see for yourself.”

                From across the room, Ashley Beck had begun a headlong charge that would have made Roy proud, racing right toward her enemy without so much as a thought spared for her own safety. Hershel hoped she really was powerful; otherwise this was going to be a very short fight.

Chapter 9

                Ashley was halfway across the cell when Hershel noticed her hands starting to glow. It was a red, flickering light that oscillated as it grew progressively brighter. The possibilities whizzed through his head; an energy manipulator, like Thomas, seemed the most likely choice, or perhaps she merely blasted things from her hands, like Allen. Next to him, Hershel noticed that Professor Fletcher had taken a half-step back, unconsciously moving away from the window. Without prompting, he followed suit, just to be on the safe side.

                Rearing back, Ashley telegraphed her first punch so blatantly that Hershel felt even he could have blocked it without Roy’s help. For Judy, it wasn’t even an effort. With a single calculated motion she raised her forearm and began to brush Ashley’s blow aside, while readying a counter of her own. However, no sooner had she touched the charging girl’s arm than it became apparent that such a strategy might not be viable.

                The explosion filled a quarter of the cell, sending Judy careening backward into a wall and knocking Ashley halfway back to her starting position. In moments, both were back up, neither any worse for the wear, save for Ashley’s uniform. Her right sleeve was completely destroyed, the black fabric simply ending in a singed spot near her shoulder. Without the sleeve obscuring his view, Hershel could see the red energy re-appearing, pulsing veins of it running across her entire arm.

                “Explosions? Is that her power?” Hershel started to glance at Professor Fletcher, then remembered his duties and kept his eyes trained on the fight.

                “What the hell was that?” Judy yelled from across the cell. Hershel nearly jumped in surprise at the sound of her voice. He’d expected that, just as they could only hear him when the intercom was pressed, so would they be muted. It did make more sense this way, though. After all, if he was supposed to intervene in the event of danger, knowing the mood and discussion of what was happening could play a big part.

                “That, as you put it, was about a tenth of what I can really do,” Ashley replied, the glow on her arms getting steadily brighter. “My way of giving you a warning shot. I don’t want my climb to the top hampered by using lethal force. How about you give up, that way I won’t accidentally hurt you.”

                Judy’s concrete lip lifted in an oddly unsettling smirk. “I might consider that, if I actually thought you were holding back that much. But I think you’re bluffing. Besides, that blast flung you as much as it did me. Much stronger and you’ll just hurt yourself.”

                “You wish. I’m tough enough to withstand my own blasts. Just don’t get mad when I turn you to rubble.” Ashley held up her hands, clenching them into tight fists as she spoke.

                Moving carefully around the cell, eyes locked on her opponent, Judy kept a healthy distance between herself and Ashley. In a different situation, Hershel would have suspected her of looking for an opening, but given that Ashley seemed to be able to detonate at any close range, that was probably impossible. Fighting her from any angle meant dealing with the explosions, unless one had the ability to attack from a distance. No, if Hershel were to guess, he’d say Judy was buying time, thinking through a plan that would change the dynamic of the fight. It was what he’d do, in her situation.

                “You know, it’s pretty unlucky for you that I’m the opponent you were put up against,” Judy said, finally stopping her continuous circle. “If you’d gotten someone with less training, or who didn’t know as much about Supers, you might have been able to bluff your way into a victory. But even if you’re as tough as you claim, it seems to me you don’t have a lot of practical fighting experience. Which means I bet you aren’t nearly as confident in your control of those explosions as you’d need to be to use them on a smaller scale.”

                Before their eyes, Judy’s gray appearance faded away, turning her back into the same normal, slightly tanned, woman who had walked in the door. The only exceptions were her fists and part of her arms, which stayed just as concrete as they had been before. Ashley’s own eyes grew wide as she watched the change, and the glow in her own arms dimmed noticeably.

                “What are you doing?”

                “I’m making myself weaker,” Judy explained. “So weak, so human, that if you try and use an explosion like the last one, you stand a good chance of killing me. Unless, of course, you know how to use them on a small enough scale to end this fight without using lethal force.” Judy’s concrete hands raised and she shifted her feet, preparing to mount a charge of her own.

                “That’s… that’s crazy.” Ashley stepped backward, her red glow nearly vanishing as she backpedaled.

                “No, it’s a calculated risk. This is what real fights are, rookie, and I suggested you adapt to it fast.” Without another word, Judy charged, quickly closing the gap between she and Ashley. Her heavy fists easily made it through the weakly mustered guard of the girl with the braid. While the punches weren’t enough to outright flatten Ashley, it quickly became apparent that the beating was taking a toll on her, as trickles of blood began to flow from her lip and eye.

                “Should we stop this?” Hershel asked.

                Professor Fletcher calmly shook his head. “Right now, Ashley still has the chance to turn things around. If she can use her ability with enough control, she could defeat Judy. Or, if she can think of a new plan, she might also be able to turn the tables. Painful as this can be to watch, we owe her the opportunity to change the match’s outcome. Nothing is decided until- whoops, never mind.”

                As he spoke, Judy had landed an aggressive blow to Ashley’s temple, sending the brunette spinning to the ground. To her credit, Judy immediately backed away and gave her opponent room to breathe and recover, but Ashley’s slow, groping attempts to climb back to her feet made it clear that the match was done.

                “Winner: Judy Bush.” Hershel’s voice rang through the cell, even as its door opened and another of the seniors appeared, Thomas, who had pulled infirmary transportation duty. He wrapped Ashley in a cocoon of orange energy, then lifted her gently off the ground. Hershel gave his friend a moment to get clear, then continued. “Judy, if you require healing please follow this man to the infirmary. Otherwise, head back to the gym with the other freshmen to await your next match.”

                “Nicely done,” Professor Fletcher said. “Before you go though, I wondered if you would tell me, what did you think of Judy’s strategy during the match?”

                “At first glance, it seems stupidly risky,” Hershel replied, looking down at the scorch marks and flecks of blood in the cell. “If Ashley had been able to control her blasts better, or had taken a dumb risk, things might have turned out very differently. But the more I think about it, the more I realize she gathered a lot of information before taking the gamble. Seeing Ashley’s range, gauging her strength, even finding out how tough she was to calculate proper attacks; it was still risky, but it’s like she said: it was a calculated one. Honestly though, what impresses me most is that she was even able to have the idea in the first place.”

                “How do you mean?” Professor Fletcher opened the door to the observation room and motioned to head down, which Hershel did as he kept talking.

                “I mean, she decided to make herself weaker to win. Everyone in the HCP is almost universally concerned with winning through getting stronger. For her to be able to think like that, to use the rules as much as her power against an opponent, I think it means she’s got the sort of mind that’s going to make her extremely dangerous. If Judy isn’t in the top five for freshmen women, I’m going to be really scared of what these new kids can do.”

                Though he didn’t say as much, Professor Fletcher’s assessment was almost precisely the same as Hershel’s.

Chapter 10

                “Please tell me we have long enough to get some lunch before the meetings start,” Vince said, walking with Hershel and Chad toward the changing rooms. Ideally, they’d have the chance to put on regular clothes, pop up to the surface, and slam down some food before reporting in to choose their discipline. While the morning hadn’t been a particularly stressful one, at least not for them, it had taken a long while for all of the fights to be resolved. Vince almost found himself grateful that he’d been knocked unconscious when he was a freshman. It made the day go a lot faster.

                “It’s just now one o’clock, so I’ve got an hour and some change,” Hershel said, checking a nearby clock on the wall. “I don’t know when your meeting was scheduled for, though.”

                “Not until two-forty-five,” Vince said, relief evident in his voice.

                “That’s right after Roy,” Hershel noted.

                “And just before I go in,” Chad added. “I suspect they are trying to keep those of us with similar course schedules bunched together, as it will make things easier on the professors. I doubt our meetings will take very long, either. Vince and I both have high enough marks in Close Combat to continue our training. For that matter, so does Roy.”

                The three men walked through the entrance and quickly opened their lockers, revealing the mundane clothes tucked away inside. “You’re not wrong about that, but he’s dead set on going with Weapons,” Hershel said. “It was a surprise at the time, though the longer he works at it, the more I’m glad he made the choice. We might just have a real shot at graduating.”

                “True, choosing the discipline is almost as important as the training itself,” Chad agreed.

                “At least ours were straightforward,” Vince said. “Oh, Hershel, did you ask Mary if she wanted to join us for lunch? Camille is going to meet us by the lifts.”

                “I did, but her meeting is earlier than ours, so I’m bringing her back a sandwich. Alice might be able to find us up there, though. She had one of the first meetings on the schedule.” Hershel looked at the phone in his pocket as he changed from the uniform to his jeans. “In fact, hers should be starting any minute now.”

*             *             *

                Alice stepped into the room, noting the long table near the front where Dean Blaine sat, Professor Hill on one side, Professor Pendleton on the other. No sooner had she entered than Professor Hill gave her a warm smile, beckoning her forward to the lone unoccupied chair sitting directly in front of the table. Too aware of the gazes on her, she walked over to it and took her seat, careful to give eye-contact to each of her educators while maintaining a neutral expression.

                “Alice Adair, the time has come for you to choose your discipline,” Dean Blaine announced, as if it weren’t obvious. Silly as she felt hearing it, Alice could only imagine it was far worse for the dean, who actually had to say it to every senior student as they made their way in here. “Currently you are enrolled in Control and Subtlety. Despite the final exams being pre-empted, Professor Hill has determined your grades to be exemplary, and would like you to know that he will offer no objection to you continuing in Control.”

                The warm smile grew bigger, and she could almost imagine Professor Hill trying to flash her a thumbs up from across the table. Professor Pendleton, meanwhile, looked bored as he fidgeted with the pen in front of him.

                “And what about Subtlety? Do I have that option as well?” Alice made a point of not looking at Professor Hill; she could already feel his smile fading as he took in her question.

                “Since you managed to produce reasonable grades throughout the year, solved part of the cypher in your mid-year exam, and actually succeeded on passing the final, there’s no academic reason to bar you from continuing down that road,” Dean Blaine informed her. Professor Pendleton had looked up from his pen and was staring at her with uncertainty. It felt strangely good to be the one confusing him, for a change.

                “But it should also be noted that Subtlety Heroes are often looked upon with suspicion, and rightly so, as the moral lines they work next to are ill-defined at best,” Professor Hill added.

                “Oh, blow it out your ass, Blake,” Professor Pendleton snapped.

                “Gentlemen. I will ask you both to remember that we have a student in front of us and behave accordingly.” Dean Blaine seemed to still be calm, but Alice hadn’t taken two years of Subtlety for nothing, and she noticed the small facial tics signaling his frustration. She had a hunch that he’d cut off everyone in the room’s powers already, just to be on the safe side.

                “No, actually, I think I’d rather let them fight.” Alice leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, staring back and forth between the two professors. “That’s the best thing to do with these sorts of squabbles, right? Just fight and get it over with. Isn’t that how family is supposed to behave?”

                The room went deadly silent as Professor Hill looked from her, to Professor Pendleton, to Dean Blaine, and then around the rotation several more times. “Blaine… you didn’t.”

                “Didn’t stick my nose in where it didn’t belong? Quite correct, I did not. Alice learned through her own methods, or did you miss the part about her passing the junior year of Subtlety training? I kept your secret for the same reason I didn’t tip you off that she knew. I told you from the first day that this secrecy, all of it, was on you. It was never my place to get involved.” Dean Blaine stared down his employee without so much as blinking.

                For a moment, Professor Hill stared back, but when he didn’t see anything to distrust, his gaze turned to the other man in the room. “Then you did this, didn’t you Sean? Found a way to tell her without actually telling her, right?” He quickly looked to Alice, expression somewhere between angry and frantic. “What other lies did he tell you? It’s not true, you know. What happened to your mother-”

                “You should really stop talking,” Professor Pendleton warned.

                “So I can let my niece believe all the terrible things you fed her?”

                “No, because she did this in the hopes of goading you into spilling secrets.” Professor Pendleton looked at Alice, who offered not so much as a smirk in reply to the accusation. “It’s akin to reverse interrogation, you make someone flustered and angry, get them on the defensive, and they’ll start denying things you never even knew to accuse them of.”

                “He’s right. And I’m not sorry. I saw an opportunity, and I took it.” Alice let her arms fall to her side and leaned forward, refusing to back down in the slightest. “I know there’s more about my mother that you all aren’t telling me. I’m going to find out the truth, no matter how hard I have to keep digging.”

                Silence fell upon the room for a long moment, broken when Dean Blaine scratched a quick note onto the form in front of him. “Ms. Adair, shall I correctly interpret this circus as your way of letting us know you’d like to make Subtlety into your discipline?”

                “I sort of felt like just saying it didn’t seem fitting,” Alice replied. Only now, with the game fully played, did she allow a smile to creep across her lips. “But yes, Subtlety will give me the tools I need. That’s what I want to keep studying.”

                “While, generally speaking, pursuing a major of study out of personal reasons doesn’t usually lead to a good outcome, I suppose it’s hard to argue with the results you produced,” Dean Blaine said. “Please tell the next student that we will call them when we’re ready. I need to speak with my colleagues, for a few moments.”

                “Yes, sir.” Alice Adair rose from the chair, took one last look at the dean and her two uncles, one fuming, the other just staring at her, before slipping quietly out the door.

Chapter 11

                By the time Mary’s meeting came around, things had calmed down significantly in the interview room. It certainly helped that Professor Pendleton had left, since he’d already talked to the few remaining Subtlety students, and now Professor Stone sat on Dean Blaine’s right. While Mary hadn’t actually heard the fight as it happened, Dean Blaine’s power shutting her out completely, she’d pieced it together from Alice’s thoughts after she left the room. Professor Hill did still seem a touch out of sorts, but it was possible she saw that only because she was looking for it. Inside this room, their thoughts were their own, so Mary merely took her seat quietly while facing the three educators.

                “Mary Smith, the time has come for you to choose your discipline.” His words were almost exactly as Alice had pictured them, proving that he did rehearse this part of the meeting, or had been doing it so long that it was automatic.

                “Currently, you are enrolled in Control and Focus. While neither of these classes had a final exam, your overall scores and demonstrated skill throughout the previous years have left neither of your teachers with any doubt that you can handle the next step down either path. You may choose without additional examination.”

                Mary looked away from Dean Blaine, to Professor Stone, who met her gaze as if she’d been waiting for it. Mary dearly, desperately, wanted to be able to have a discussion with the older telepath, but it was impossible with Dean Blaine blocking powers in the room. There was always the option of talking out loud, however, that came with the risk of revealing things she wasn’t certain she wanted to be common knowledge. Not yet, at least. With few options before her, Mary decided to roll the dice.

                “Dean Blaine, would you mind letting me use my power for a few minutes? It doesn’t need to be on you and Professor Hill, just Professor Stone.”

                “I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline that request,” Dean Blaine replied, noticeably unsurprised by the question. “Anything you wish to ask or discuss with Professor Stone may be said out loud, or not at all.”

                It had been a longshot going in and she knew it, but Mary still felt a bit disappointed at getting shut down. Nothing for it now, she’d either have to hold her tongue or press on. There was technically no risk in silence, yet all the same Mary knew she would regret this moment if she didn’t speak. So very much was at stake, for the others even more than her.

                “Professor Stone, is this okay?” She couldn’t have made it any vaguer, not that she hadn’t tried, so Mary felt a rush of relief as the older woman gave her a soft smile and nodded.

                “It’s fine, Mary. Just for now, but it’s fine.”

                “Does anyone plan to tell me what that was about, or at least what discipline Ms. Smith has chosen?” Dean Blaine interjected.

                “Focus, sir. I’ll be continuing my education in Focus.” Mary stood to leave, but paused before heading to the door. “Also, if it’s possible, I’d like to have a meeting with you. Sometime in January, after whatever mid-year events or exams you throw at us.”

                Dean Blaine considered the short, amber-eyed woman for several seconds. “I’ll put something on the books and send you an e-mail. Let me know if the time doesn’t work for you and I can move it around. The one upside to booking my time this early is there’s ample wiggle room.”

                “I’m sure it will be fine.” Without another word, Mary hurried out the door.

                “Well, that wasn’t odd or anything,” Professor Hill muttered under his breath.

                “Let it be, Blake. She’s my student, and I know what I’m doing.” Professor Stone gave her colleague the best wise, all-knowing look she had in her arsenal. The truth of the matter was that she was half-winging it in this, and most, matters. Luckily, no one else on staff was a telepath, so that was a secret she got to keep all to herself.

*             *             *

                Mary moved quickly as she left, passing the three other students waiting for their own meetings with a nod of greeting. Alex, Violet, and Shane all returned the same gestures, though Alex glanced at a clock afterward.

                “It’s still five minutes until my time is supposed to start. Do you think I should just go in?”

                “I’d wait to be called,” Violet replied. “Maybe they need to get a beer or take a piss between these things. Best to wait until they’re ready for you.”

                “Personally, I’m just impressed they’ve managed to keep it all running on time so far,” Shane added. “Every new meeting has been within the fifteen minutes we’re given. Guess they’re not letting people run long.”

                “It’s not like there’s much debate to be had,” Violet said. “I think everyone spent the summer figuring out what they wanted to continue training in. Well, those of us who didn’t know from the first year, anyway.”

                “True,” Shane agreed. “We all knew you and I would go Close Combat, and that Alex would specialize in Focus.”

                “Guess again, buddy boy.” Violet mimed throwing a dagger at Shane’s heart, then reeling it back in. “I’m going Weapons. Scrapping with the best of them is fun and all, but the addition of range makes a big difference for me, especially now that I’ve more or less gotten flying down. I’ve got a few ideas I want to test out this year, and Professor Cole is my best shot at making them work.”

                “Is this why you kept gathering all those rocks, then flying off away from everyone else?” Alex had noted her odd behavior over the summer, though given that all of them were engaged in some of form of training or another; it hadn’t struck him as particularly worth pursuing.

                “It was part of it. Let’s just say I have a few new tricks up my sleeve. Hopefully I’ll get to show them off before we do the Intermurals vote,” Violet replied.

                Shane snorted softly. “From what we’ve seen in years past, the opportunity to demonstrate our combat skills is likely the only thing in this entire program we can depend on. Especially this close to graduation.”

                The door to the meeting room opened and Dean Blaine stuck out his head, scanning around. “Alex, we’re ready for you.”

                “See you both later on,” Alex said, rising from his seat. “Looks like it’s time to pick my destiny.”

Chapter 12

                “I thought you classy types knew it was bad form to show up to a party early.” Nick glanced down at his watch, double checking the time. “Especially six freaking hours early.”

                “This wasn’t something I wanted to talk about with everyone else around.” Alice breezed through the doorway, not bothering to wait for Nick to invite her into his apartment. Taking the cue, Nick quickly shut and locked the door before facing her. She stood in the middle of his living room, chin set and eyes nearly aflame. That look meant determination, and he could guess about what in one shot. Few things worked up Alice to such a degree. Better to let her be the one to say it, though. Luckily, Nick had ample experience at playing dumb.

                “Something happen?”

                “Few things. Decided to go with Subtlety as my discipline, so that will make for an interesting year. Let Professor Hill know I was aware of our genetic relation. Oh, and in the scramble of words that came from kicking that hornet’s nest, I found out he knows something about what happened to my mother. Given that he didn’t seem surprised by the revelation, I think Professor Pendleton does too. Which means his protégé might just have been keyed in on it as well.”

                “I can call Will, but he’s probably still-”

                “Nick, don’t.” Alice glared at him, hands half-way balled into fists. “Just once, let’s skip the dancing. No one, short of the other teachers, is closer to Professor Pendleton than you, even if you both try to hide it. Now I’m not saying you know where my mom is or what went down, but I get the feeling not everyone was fed that whole ‘died at childbirth’ lie. Even if all they know is a different cover story, that still might help me. I’ll take anything I can get at this point.”

                Wordlessly, Nick moved away from his doorway and took a seat on the couch. He stared at Alice, waiting patiently until she finally left her spot in the living room and went to sit at the opposite end of the sofa. Only when she was settled did he respond, and it was with a gentler voice than she could ever recall hearing from Nick before.

                “Do you know why Sean and Blake hate each other?”

                Alice shook her head. “No, I could just tell they did.”

                “It’s because Sean blames Blake for what happened to your mother, at least partially. I can’t get him to talk about it, and as you know everything about her death or vanishing or whatever it was has been expertly erased, but that much I do know.”

                “I can’t believe he wouldn’t tell you more,” Alice replied.

                “Don’t be. Remember, you’re not the only one who can figure things out. He knows you and I are close, that there are some things I’d tell you even if it wasn’t the move he’d want me to make.” Nick reached across the cushions, letting his hand lay on the middle seat of the sofa. “Whatever happened, what little Sean might know, he’s fine with keeping me in the dark if it means protecting you from it.”

                Slowly, astonishingly so, Alice moved her own hand to the middle cushion and rested it on top of Nick’s. “I’m going to choose to believe you, but Nick, if you’re playing me on this one, I will never forgive you.”

                “Not only am I not playing you, I’ll do you one better. I want to help you find out the truth. Not just what Sean and Blake might think they know, but what actually happened.”

                “How do you plan on pulling that off?” To her surprise more than anyone’s, Alice didn’t sound skeptical as she asked the question. Nick was many things, and a liar highly among them, but when he said he could do something, more often than not it turned out to be true.

                “I’m working on something that will get us what we need, but in the meantime I think you might be able to pull more information out of Sean,” Nick said. “After all, I may be his protégé, but you’re his niece. One who looks just like his dear sister. With a little pressure, I bet you can crack through the tough outer shell, into the gooey emotional core of our professor.”

                “Emotional manipulation? I’m pretty sure he’s going to see that coming, seeing as he teaches classes on it,” Alice pointed out.

                “And like he says in the class, the beauty of using it well is that even if the target knows what’s happening, you can still make it work. Assuming you’re good enough, that is.”

                “Guess that means I have some practicing to do.” Alice looked down at the hand under hers and squeezed it carefully. She and Nick had been going forward slowly with their strange, ill-defined relationship. All the same, it was reassuring to know he was there when she needed him. Then again, she’d saved him from Nathaniel last year, and helped bust him out of his own head, so clearly he needed her just as much.

                “Can you tell me what the backup thing you’re working on is? Or did you think I wouldn’t notice how quickly you tried to deflect me away from it?”

                Nick tilted his head back and let out a long, theatrical sigh. “Damn that professor for sharpening your mind. The truth of the matter is that I’ve been working at this angle since last year, and while I think I’m making progress, it’s still slow going. If you really want, I’ll bring you up to speed, but understand that this will likely take a while, if it even works at all.”

                “You know what, I’ll just trust you,” Alice said. “Once I know, that’s one more thing to think about, and analyze, and have occupy mental space. I’m better off focusing on the things I can actually impact, and letting you handle your own work.”

                “It strikes me that perhaps Subtlety might just be the best fit for you, after all,” Nick said. “Though I’m sure you’ll miss getting to put those awesome gravity powers to use.”

                “Says who? Just because I can use Subtlety doesn’t mean I won’t also be working overtime to master my ass-kicking skills.” Alice tilted her head and flashed a devilish grin, one that Nick suspected would eventually haunt the nightmares of many an unfortunate criminal.

                “I’m going to show this world what a Subtlety Hero can really do.”

Chapter 13

                “Close Combat.”

                Chad noticed a visible wave of relief sweep the room as he made his choice, most visibly in Dean Blaine, though Professor Stone and Professor Fletcher let their body language relax as well. He made no effort to comment on it, trusting it would either be touched on or was none of his business. It turned out to be the former.

                “Well, at least there were no surprises with our final student,” Dean Blaine said, more muttering than announcing. While not every meeting had involved colleagues fighting or strange, cryptic discussions with professors, there had been enough oddities for everyone to be glad the day was done. “Thank you, Chad. Your choice has been noted and you will continue your education under Professor Fletcher. Since you’re the last meeting of the day, and still have a few minutes left, were there any questions you wanted to ask?  Bear in mind, we’ll be going over the general program for the year during class tomorrow.”

                “Nothing about classes, though I would like to know if all the construction has impacted our gym or training areas. I still have an evening workout to do.”

                None of the educators were surprised that Chad’s first impulse after an entire summer of constant training was to try and work more, they’d been watching him for three years, after all. Honestly, they were more surprised he hadn’t tried to smuggle in some free-weights and sneak a few curls during the meeting.

                “All training facilities are fully operational,” Dean Blaine informed him. “In fact, we took the opportunity to add on a few upgrades. Feel free to check them out, though I should remind you that the first gym session of the year is also tomorrow. Try not to overdo it.”

                “Of course.” Chad rose from his chair and looked toward the door, then hesitated. “I do have one more question, albeit one not related to the facilities or the program. Or, not the program directly, perhaps I should say. It can wait, if there’s a better time.”

                Dean Blaine glanced to the professors on either side of him and, receiving no objection from them, gave Chad a slight nod. “You still have a few minutes left, go ahead and ask whatever you’d like.”

                “Thank you.” Chad retook his seat, facing all three of those before him but focusing chiefly on Dean Blaine. “Now that we’re seniors, I’m well aware that we will need to begin considering and submitting our code names for the possibility that we graduate. While the deadline for that is likely some ways off, since I intend to submit a legacy name, I wanted to see if there were any additional forms or process that needed addressing early.”

                “There’s a little more,” Professor Fletcher said, perfectly aware of the name Chad wanted, but pretending not to know for the sake of decorum. “The biggest issue is obtaining the rights to use a name. When a Hero retires, they keep ownership and income from use of their name. Should they… pass… then that ownership goes either to their next of kin or is bequeathed through a will.”

                “That part will not be an issue. My mother is currently the owner of the name I wish to use, and has agreed to transfer it to me when the time to submit my own Hero codename arrives,” Chad said.

                Dean Blaine said nothing; of those in the room he was the only one besides Chad who knew it hadn’t been quite as simple as that. For so long Miriam had tried to fight her son’s desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. She hoped to convince him to use his abilities to have a normal, happy life away from violence and bloodshed. But Chad was indeed Joshua’s son, and as such he refused to give in on an issue where he felt he was right. It had taken many hard, bitter discussions, until eventually Miriam had relented. Deep down, Blaine suspected it was because she realized Chad would press forward no matter what, and she’d preferred to preserve whatever time with him that she could. Of course, she’d also demanded Blaine do everything he could to prepare Chad, so that he wouldn’t echo Intra’s early end. It was an unnecessary request; he’d already intended to do exactly that.

                “If you’ve got the rights, then that makes the process very easy,” Professor Fletcher said. “I’ll give you a couple of forms tomorrow for you and your mother to fill out. Once we have those on file, then you’ll be able to submit a legacy name just like you would any other. It’s also worth mentioning that just turning in the paperwork doesn’t bind you to it, either. You can still choose another one when the time comes, if you change your mind.”

                “That’s good to know,” Chad said, once more leaving his chair. “But I assure you, I’m set on the name. It’s one I’ve wanted to wear for a very long time.”

                “Then I suppose all there is to say is good luck in the coming year,” Professor Fletcher replied. “Do your best, work hard, and hopefully you’ll make it to graduation.”

                “I will give everything I have.” Chad turned and walked out the door, leaving Dean Blaine considering his parting words.

                For most people, that was just a way to say they were going to put in a hundred and ten percent. With Chad, on the other hand, there was so much more to it. He truly meant those words. He would give everything; his time, his body, his blood, even his life, if it meant reaching his goal. Chad Taylor had been born with an ability that was useful, a talent for martial arts, and a good head on his shoulders, but none of that accounted for why he’d manage to dominate the top spot during his three years at Lander. No, what truly set Chad apart was the gift he’d been given in almost immeasurable quantities.

                Chad Taylor was the absolute embodiment of determination.

Chapter 14

                The pop of the champagne bottle caused several of the students to jump; the sudden sound much louder than any of the non-drinkers had expected it to be. Nick was not among these as he poured the bubbly liquid, purchased for less than ten dollars and likely all-but unpalatable, into an array of glasses and plastic cups that in no way even remotely resembled champagne flutes. Next to him, Vince untwisted a bottle of sparkling grape juice and began filling up separate receptacles.

                “Alright everyone, grab a glass of whatever you want, booze or some god-awful knock-off stuff,” Nick commanded to the guests gathered around his modest kitchen table. They did just that, walking slowly to avoid jostling one another as they moved, slowly but surely grabbing their respective drink choices; save for Violet who snuck an extra glass of the champagne.

                It was a large crowd, bigger than Nick would have ordinarily tried to cram into his apartment under normal circumstances, but this was a special occasion. Everyone from the summer training camp had come after their day’s activities ended, and now at last it was time to truly kick things off. Shane made his way out of the crowd, handing glasses of the grape juice to Chad and Thomas who’d hung back, while Jill craned her neck to see if she could repeat Violet’s double grab attempt. Alex telekinetically lifted several cups over to he, Camille, and Will as they tried to avoid the scrum of bodies. Roy was helping Vince hand things out, his size creating a small moat of space around him. Alice and Mary, ever the sly ones, had nicked their cups early and hurried away to safety.

                Only when everyone had a drink in their hand did Nick stand on top of the cheap wooden chair, towering over the gathered students. He raised his own glass, full of the thriftily-purchased champagne, high in the air.

                “Tonight, we celebrate all of you, our friends, our trusted companions, and each other’s rivals, who have made it to their senior year.” Nick turned as he spoke, being sure to look every person in the eye for at least a few seconds. “I know it was unnerving for a lot of you when a wash-out showed up at the training camp, and I’m thankful to all of you for taking the chance on letting me hang around, polishing up my own skills. In that time, I got to see all of you work, and truly appreciate how powerful you are. Making it this far is an incredible accomplishment, and one you deserve to celebrate. But as someone looking in from the outside, trust me when I say this should be a piss-poor party compared to one you throw when each and every one of you reaches graduation. Cheers to you all, and have one hell of a year!”

                Nick gulped down the terrible liquid before it could sully his taste buds, noting that the people with grape juice at least seemed to be enjoying their choice. He wouldn’t have minded springing for something a little nicer, truth be told, but it was important to keep up appearances. Aside from his original friends in Melbrook, no one else knew quite the entire story of Nick Campbell, and he was much happier keeping things that way.

                The crowd quickly dispersed, spreading into different rooms so people had space to move around. A familiar hand appeared to help Nick down, which he accepted as he hopped off the perch.

                “Thanks,” Nick said, running his tongue along his teeth to get the taste of cheap sparkling wine off his gums. He hadn’t done quite a good enough job in tossing it back, and a bit of the flavor insisted on lingering.

                “No problem. Thanks for having us all over to celebrate.” Vince took the chair Nick had been standing on and wedged it back under the table, clearing the walkway for others to get by.

                “Come on, you all made it to freaking senior year. How was I not going to make you celebrate that? If I’d left it in your hands, all of you would have just had an extra helping of vegetables from the cafeteria, or whatever it is you HCP kids do.” Despite reconnecting with so many of his former classmates, ostensibly under the guise of self-betterment in the wake of a tragedy, it hadn’t been made public knowledge that his memories were recovered. Since he, and the professors, had technically broken HCP protocol, Nick wanted to keep those who knew as limited as possible. Plus, one never knew when a well-hidden card would be the one that snatched victory at the last moment.

                “We generally don’t do cake and champagne, that’s for sure,” Vince said. In the kitchen, Thomas was helping Jill as she sliced into the white frosting covering spongy chocolate cake. Nothing was written on top of it, in wake of last May’s events secrecy was all the more important than ever, but no one needed frosted words to tell them what they were celebrating.

                “Maybe the HCP needs to take a few pages out of my book, those are some excellent motivating forces,” Nick replied. He lowered his voice slightly, letting the din of the crowd mask his next words. “How are things looking for this year, by the way? Any big scares or surprises?”

                “They didn’t cut anyone from the class, from any of the classes, actually. Though we did lose Terrance. No one knows exactly why, but I heard he came upon some bloody stuff during the rescue efforts. Decided this wasn’t the life he wanted after all.”

                Nick was unsurprised that seeing real danger had spooked a potential Hero into quitting. If anything, he was shocked only one had taken the off-ramp. The HCP, it seemed, did a good job of screening who had the stomach for the work they were learning.

                “Can’t say I blame him, that was a rough night. It’s nice of them to give you a pass, since you missed final exams, though.”

                “I was sort of worried we’d have to go through something today, though after all those months of training I think I’m as ready as I could be for it,” Vince said.

                “Tell me about it, I caught a few of you and Hank’s training matches near the end. I feel pretty confident that you could have easily passed whatever test they threw at you.”

                “Maybe so.” Vince looked down into the bubbly depths of his grape juice, watching them pop one by one as they reached the surface. “But graduation is a long way off. There’s no certainty I’ll pass every test from now until then.”

                “True, Nick agreed. “But when has that ever stopped you? Don’t fret too much about the future, Silver. That’s not your strongpoint. You just focus on getting through one day, one trial, at a time. Do that enough, and I guarantee you’ll end up wearing one of those ceremonial white capes.”

                “I’ll do my best.” Vince gulped down the rest of his juice, then grabbed the bottle to refill it. “If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to try. HCP classes are never boring.”

                Nick was amazed that, after all these years of friendship, he could still be blown away by Vince’s talent for understatement.