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.”