Chapter 28

                It is one of time’s cruelest pranks that normal weeks tend to drag on endlessly, yet when there is something dreaded scheduled for a Friday, the days whip by at dangerous speeds. So it was that, in seemingly the blink of an eye, the seniors were gathering together in the gym for their monthly trial, all filled with a familiar combination of nerves, worry, and anticipation. Some were scanning about, searching for signs of the mysterious Heroes that were supposedly watching them. If such entities were nearby, they were well-concealed, as all the students could see were their professors lined up neatly behind Dean Blaine, who began to speak as the last of the seniors fell into line.

                “Three weeks ago, a gang of Supers found their leader, killed in cold blood. They blamed a rival gang, and sought retribution. The police have done their best to handle things while the murder was investigated, however, two hours ago all efforts failed and war boiled out into the streets. This is a situation that requires all hands on deck, as so many Supers fighting can cause an untold amount of damage and loss of life. You are the nearest Heroes who can reach the scene, and as such it falls upon you to contain this situation. Each of you will be dropped into the field at random points, simulating where you were when the call came in. Once there, you are free to work with one another or go solo, whichever method you feel allows you to do the best job. When the test is over, you may be called upon to defend your thinking for this, and all other, decisions, so consider each action carefully.”

                From behind Dean Blaine, Professor Pendleton and Professor Fletcher both stepped forward, walking to opposite ends of the line of students. They began moving toward the center, depositing a small item in the hand of each senior they passed.

                “We have striven to make this test as true to life as possible, save for the ways where we deliberately chose not to. As part of that, you will all need to get used to working with a communicator in your ear. Every Hero, from the moment they don their mask until they remove it, has access to our dispatch program. Aside from just giving assignments, you can use it to relay messages, get information on targets, and find out where you’re needed most. Whatever you hear from that communicator, you can trust, and if it gives you an order, consider that to have come from the DVA itself. We’ll get into that further down the line though, for tonight the comms are just tools to practice with. Set them in your right ear, and make sure they’re secure. You can speak to everyone on the network by holding down the button that will be sticking out the side, or talk just to the dispatch center by tapping it once. While actual Hero models don’t require this, it’s still considered courteous to hold your hand to your ear while speaking on the comm, so others know what’s going on. Sort of a Hero shorthand, when you can manage it.”

                Professor Pendleton handed the last of the communicators to Jill Murray, who had to slip her custom helmet off to fit it in her ear. Will had clearly made a lot of modifications to her suit since last year, the experience of seeing it tested in real battle inspiring loads of new ideas. It was hardly recognizable from the padded outfit with electronics sewn in that she’d sported as a freshman. Now it showed more metal than cloth, and had taken on a sleek, dangerous, appearance.

                “Today, we are taking it easy on you,” Dean Blaine continued. “Your goals are to protect innocent civilians, and incapacitate the gang members, in that order of priority. For anyone who doesn’t understand why that’s us taking it easy on you, I urge you to think long and hard about what you’re about to experience. Otherwise, when we take the kid-gloves off, you might not be prepared for what’s coming.” Dean Blaine had to lay as much groundwork as he could before they got to that discussion. There was nothing harder than explaining to potential Heroes that sometimes saving people meant letting others die. If he could get even a few of them to understand it before it was spelled out, the discussion would go a lot easier.

                “However, as this is a real-world event, there will be no lights distinguishing the Sims from one another. Sometimes, when we are dispatched to handle a contained threat, we get the luxury of knowing who is more dangerous. This is not one of those situations. If you ask questions, sometimes there will be answers, but the process of asking will cost you, and the civilians, precious time. You’ll have to make snap decisions, balancing fairness with force, all on the spur of the moment. It’s by no means an easy task, yet it’s exactly what you’ve been training for all this time. Use your head, keep your cool, and don’t let the chaos overwhelm you.”

                It would, inevitably, get the better of some of them. All the screening and training in the world were no substitute for the real thing, and even this was a pale comparison. Still, it would show them their weaknesses, and with a year still remaining some might be able to overcome those flaws. If they could, then they would be better, stronger Heroes for it. If not… well that was why they usually admitted fifteen and only graduated ten. It made sense to have back-ups.

                “There are two more things to cover before we begin,” Dean Blaine said. “First off, since this has come up before, let me assure you that your fellow seniors will be the only other actual humans on the battlefield. The civilians, no matter how well-crafted, are artificial. While it is your job to protect them as if they were real, we’ve had people try to stop the exam on moral grounds before, so consider this your disclaimer. Secondly, and far more importantly, Professor Fletcher will be down there to oversee the battle, but I would be remiss if I let you think of him as an all-encompassing safety net. This training is dangerous, make no mistake about it, because the work you’ll do is even more so. From this point on, your safety will largely be in your own hands. There’s simply no other way to prepare you for what lies beyond these walls. That is part of why so few students make it to this stage, it keeps us from having to send those who can’t cut it home in coffins. The Sims are built to fight and destroy, which is exactly what they will do until you stop them.”

                Dean Blaine surveyed the eyes of his students carefully, looking deep into each one. When he was younger, he’d stopped here to allow anyone that was bothered by the risk to leave voluntarily. After five years of getting no takers, he finally stopped bothering. The ones who’d come this far were so crazy, determined, or stubborn, that not even the risk of death and bodily harm would dissuade them.

                “The test is over when all of the gang members have been neutralized and the threat to the city is ended. Good luck to you all, and please keep your wits about you. We’ll be watching.”