Chapter 66

                The senior class moved slowly as they gathered in the gym. This wasn’t due to any particular malaise or lack of sleep; no, these students were conserving their energy, making sure everything they had would be brought to bear in the coming trial. Amidst the room, small gestures of pre-battle jitters could be seen. Vince, adjusting his borrowed body armor, Chad fixing the strap on his band of throwing knives, even Roy was testing the heft of his once-again upgraded bat. Rustling uniforms and careful movements were almost the only sounds that echoed off the gymnasium walls, until the crisp steps of Dean Blaine commanded their attention to the front of the room.

                “Good morning.” Dean Blaine scanned the faces, noting the anxious looks barely masked in some of their expressions. He didn’t consider that a bad thing, any Hero who didn’t sometimes suffer from a case of nerves was one who didn’t truly understand their job. It was the ability to push those worries aside when the time for action came that mattered, and he’d seen that skill demonstrated by this group time and time again. Still, he lingered, looking them all over carefully, wondering which ones he was seeing in this gymnasium for the final time.

                “What you are facing today is something we consider a worst-case scenario in the Hero world,” Dean Blaine said. “Last night, a group of captured Supers were in transport to a permanent containment facility when their vehicle was ambushed. The Heroes working escort duty are down, with most confirmed dead. The freed Supers, along with their accomplices, have fled to town. Since most of them were already facing serious jail time for their previous crimes, they have no expectation of being allowed to escape. To that end, they have dedicated their remaining time to causing wanton destruction and mayhem, along with working to kill any Heroes who try to stop them.”

                Dean Blaine hated this scenario. Not because it was too hard, or asked more than was fair of the students, but because he knew it was important. Most Hero work was containment of individual or small teams of Supers, very rarely did situations like this escalate to such levels. When they did, however, they went from bad to hellish in almost no time at all. Dean Blaine hated this scenario because at least some of the class needed this training, for when they’d eventually be called in to handle something similar. And if they survived, the memories they carried would weigh them down for years, perhaps the rest of their lives. Even healers couldn’t fix those kinds of scars.

                “Your units are the unlucky first to arrive on the scene. You are all being given communicators once again, and as before they will allow you to speak to a central representative for information. This time, however, you should expect to receive more direct orders, as the situation demands immediate containment. Orders given are to be executed if at all possible, and failing to do so will result in serious discussion once the exam is complete. Be ready for that, and I urge you not to hesitate.”

                The students nodded like they understood, and Dean Blaine had no doubt they believed they did. It was a forgivable mistake; the error in their minds was one of ignorance, not hubris. That too was what this exam was here to correct. Along with testing the hardest part of being a Hero.

                “There will be civilians in the city,” Dean Blaine continued. “And again, I urge you to remember that no matter how life-like any Sims may look, you are the only real people in the exam space. Please keep that in the forefront of your mind at all times.” He paused, letting that last point sink in before he moved on to the one that would overtake all other concerns.

                “Additionally, in this scenario, the priority is shifted. Due to the highly destructive nature of the criminals and their demonstrated dedication to causing as much loss as possible, you are to prioritize neutralization of the criminal Sims over saving the civilians.”

                For the first time that day, muttering words floated up from the senior class. Not all of them were caught off-guard, Dean Blaine had been hinting at this possibility for some while, even if he hadn’t yet explained to them what the Super classification system really meant. That talk generally went better after this test, when they’d seen for themselves why sometimes saving the most people meant letting a few die. That truth was a little too bitter for such idealistic people to swallow without context. Even knowing that their priority was shifted had shaken several of the students, who’d thought themselves mentally prepared for whatever came next.

                “I don’t expect you to like that condition,” Dean Blaine told them. “In fact, I’d be deeply concerned about your place in the program if you did. But the fact remains, Heroes serve the greater good. We cannot allow criminals to cause unchecked destruction. We must stop them, you must stop them. And if that means letting one person fall from a building to stop someone from demolishing a school of children, then you have to learn to live with that on your conscience. That is a Hero’s burden.”

                Slowly, the muttering faded down as they wrapped their heads around it, or resolved to be strong enough to just not let anyone die. There were always a few, hopeless idealists who believed they could stop the bad guys without letting a single soul perish. Blaine had never been among that lot, he knew his limitations too well. That sort of dream had been left to people like Phil and Joshua. Even though the harsh reality of what they had to do would eventually crush such ambitions, Dean Blaine still took joy in watching his students try each year. Wanting to save everyone was pure-delusion, yet all the same he considered it among the most important aspects for future Heroes. That hope, that dumb, boundless, impossible hope, was what assured him that the world perhaps wasn’t such a dark place as it sometimes seemed. And it was always possible that one day, a student would prove him wrong about it being impossible. That was a day Dean Blaine Jefferies would very much like to see.

                “Do not take the priority shift to be an open invitation to your own destruction,” he cautioned them. “While losses are inevitable, if you are the ones to cause needless death I assure you that you will be held accountable. You must walk a careful line in situations like these, better you master that now than when real life is on the line.”

                One last look at his students, who were about to be fed into one of the hardest moments of their HCP career so far, yet within a year of graduation wouldn’t even crack the top ten of the toughest things they’d faced. When it was all real, it was so, so much worse.

                “For this trial, you are assumed to be part of teams that were on call, if you want to be,” Dean Blaine said. “You have ten minutes to split into groups of no more than five, or you can work on your own. This will determine who is started off together and nothing more. Once you’re on the battlefield, everyone is part of the same team, Heroes versus criminals. Still, starting with people you trust in a hostile environment is no small thing, so make your selections carefully.”

                The last of the instructions done, Dean Blaine gave the nod for them to begin talking amongst themselves.