Chapter 64

                Dean Blaine looked over the Sims carefully, a critical eye on the newest units brought in to Lander’s HCP. Beside him Professor Pendleton and Professor Baker both examined the automated combat robots as well. Although she was far from tech-Super level, Ariel Baker had gotten a Masters in Mechanical Engineering during her own HCP and intern days, and often served as the on-campus consultant for basic Sim-maintenance issues. Sean Pendleton, on the other hand, had just been nearby and curious when Dean Blaine was alerted to the delivery, and had therefore tagged along out of nothing but blatant curiosity, with perhaps a tinge of boredom mixed in.

                “Is it me, or are these way better than previous models?” Professor Pendleton asked, hunching down over what was clearly meant to be a strongman-type Sim and poking it in the chest, taking note of the new, more fluid, designs.

                “From what I can tell, it’s a marked improvement, though I was expecting as much,” Professor Baker replied. Her red-hair was a blur as she darted between different groups of Sims, checking over details that neither Sean nor Dean Blaine completely understood. “It’s not something being spread about too much, but after last year in Brewster when they dealt with some pretty impressive robotics tech, our people dug into the designs. Bit by bit they’re reverse-engineering it, and the newer Sims have already benefited from the research.”

                Despite what should have been good news, Dean Blaine let out a frustrated sigh. “Which means we no longer have an accurate assessment of their combat abilities, and therefore can’t allocate the right number for Friday’s trial. Why, why do they always insist on springing these new upgrades on us midway through the year?”

                “Probably something to do with budgets, or red tape,” Professor Pendleton proposed. “Or the DVA just gets a kick out of screwing with us.”

                “I’m going to second the screwing with us theory,” Professor Baker added. She finished looking over the latest batch of Sims, ones equipped to simulate elemental-based abilities, before moving on to a set built for flight.

                “Well, in that regard they’ve certainly succeeded. As if this trial weren’t hard enough.” Dean Blaine watched as his people worked, the gears in his head already spinning. They were only a few days away from an activity he dreaded every year. Sometimes it came in September, sometimes in October, and on rare occasions he’d even push the test back to November, but regardless, it had to happen. This was a key part in the students’ training, perhaps one of the most important moments they would face in all their time at the HCP. Yet, necessary as it was, Dean Blaine abhorred it. Not because he found it unfair, or pointless, or even cruel.

                No, Dean Blaine hated this trial because, when the dust settled, several of his students would be out of the program. It happened every year. Sometimes there were more, sometimes there were less, but loss was inevitable. Hard as those kids had worked to make it this far, once they got a real sense of the stakes they were playing for outside these walls, there would be those who walked away. Nothing could prepare them for this moment, not even last May’s campus attack.

                Knowing that was what his kids were facing, Dean Blaine would be damned if he let them go into a battle that wasn’t properly calibrated. Moving slowly, unnoticed by Professor Baker and Professor Pendleton, Dean Blaine removed the jacket from his suit, folding it carefully and setting it down on a nearby chair, then proceeded to loosen his tie and roll up his sleeves until they passed his elbows.

                “Professor Pendleton,” Dean Blaine called as he finished tucking his left sleeve into its new position. “Since you’re not actually needed to inspect the Sims, I want you to do me a favor. Go fetch Professor Cole and Professor Fletcher. Tell them to meet me in the Intramurals combat cell. And make sure they come ready to fight.”

                “You know, usually a written reprimand is customary if you want to show an employee your displeasure,” Professor Pendleton replied. His snarky grin lasted until he made his way past the Sims and saw that Dean Blain had indeed been readying himself for action. “Um, I was joking around, but are you actually going to try and beat up those two? Cause if so, I need to run by the campus dining halls and see if I can buy some popcorn.”

                “I am not fighting with my employees,” Dean Blaine replied. “Or not fighting against them, is perhaps a better way to phrase it. But I also will not subject the senior class to a battle where I don’t properly understand the power-level of their opponents. If I put too many in, they could easily be overwhelmed, and if I use too few then the exercise will fail at its purpose. This trial, above all the others, demands a delicate touch. And since the DVA has decided, in their infinite generosity, to send me new Sims, I’m left with only one option. The staff and I will have to test them personally to ensure we have a firm understanding of their abilities.”

                Professor Baker’s head popped up from behind the nearest group she was checking over. “That’s not a terrible idea, but you might want to leave it to Carl and Sonya. I haven’t had the chance to update these things with the conditional defeat protocols for the actual students yet, let alone yours.”

                While the conditional defeat protocols were an absolute necessity during exams, they were what allowed the Sims to shut down at a glance from Rich or a touch from Camille, Dean Blaine usually only had his own added in as a precautionary measure. In the event things went completely out of hand, his presence could neutralize entire sections of a battlefield, allowing the students to be moved to safety. Useful as that was for the actual trials, however, it wasn’t strictly necessary for what he had in mind.

                “I can work with that,” Dean Blaine replied. “In fact, it’s better this way. I’ll serve as a stand-in for the students with no protection or endurance abilities.”

                “But they at least have offense,” Professor Baker pointed out.

                “I’m surprised at you, Ariel. As an instructor, you should know better than anyone that a properly trained Hero is never truly without the ability to fight. We are more than our powers, after all.” Dean Blaine paused, taking another look at his mechanical opponents, wondering just how much stronger they were than the last batch he’d dealt with.

                “Professor Pendleton, find Dr. Moran as well, please. I’d like to have our staff healer on standby, just in case.”