Chapter 67

                Owen watched carefully as the students began to pair up. While other Heroes, more than had come to any other trial, in fact, were bearing witness from the communal room, he’d once again elected to take a more rustic, and private, seat in one of the lesser facilities. It came with a bucket of beer though, along with Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport to fill him in on details regarding students he hadn’t helped train during summer, plus the added bonus of not having to deal with anyone who might still have old grudges or agendas to grind. Getting back into the Hero world had been tough enough, dealing with the community was a task all on its own, and today he didn’t want to bother with it. His attention was on the kids, especially the one he was genetically connected to.

                “That’s interesting,” Owen said, noting the way the groups were forming. “Isn’t the Taylor boy living with Roy and his friends? I’d expected him to fall in with their group; instead they’re bringing in the other telepath.”

                “Strictly speaking, Alex Griffen isn’t exactly a normal telepath,” Mr. Numbers replied.

                “More to the point, they have a long history of working together.” Mr. Transport was a few seconds behind his normal clarification of Mr. Numbers’ detached analysis, due largely to the shock of hearing his co-worker acknowledge the odd abilities of Alex Griffen. “Chad and Shane DeSoto are close friends, so in a hard battle he’d want to be covered by the person he trusts the most.”

                On the screen, Chad and Shane could be seen pairing up with Amber and Britney, making a team of four. Mr. Transport considered that an interesting combination, between Britney’s reconnaissance abilities and Amber’s echolocation, they could be the most informed group on the ground; a fine compliment to Chad and Shane’s precision if played properly.

                “They might have at least snagged the healer,” Owen grumbled. “Roy might be tough, and Vince has his absorption, but Alice, Mary, and Alex are all physically vulnerable. Camille could have been a useful asset.”

                “Again, strong bonds,” Mr. Transport told him. “Camille has been close to Violet and Thomas since freshman year, and since Stella failed out she no doubt wants to look after them. Besides, the Murray twins are both quite vulnerable as well, so she probably considers herself more useful to them. In terms of fighting power, that team needs a healer more than your son’s.”

                “Looks like they aren’t the only one.” Owen pointed to the screen, where Adam had talked briefly with Camille, and moments after touching her hand shape-shifted into a perfect copy of her. “I almost forgot the class had a mimic. That is damn useful. Too bad he didn’t come up for training; a good mimic always has a place on Hero teams.”

                “Adam Riley isn’t as close to your son’s peer group as some of the others,” Mr. Transport said. “Although there is no animosity between them either. Different social circles, as I understand it.”

                “I can see that. He’s linking up with a whole group of people I didn’t get to meet. The taller girl, Selena, she can enchant people with songs from what I remember during the last trial. And the one with the goatee stops people by looking in their eyes. What about the other guy, the one pacing?” Owen asked.

                “Allen Wells. Destructive energy blasts,” Mr. Numbers informed him.

                “Guess he didn’t make much of an impression last exam,” Owen said. “Hope he does better this time around. Still, two people with containment powers, a damage absorber, and a long-range attacker. That’s a risky combination. Theoretically great at neutralization, but without anyone to handle the heavy hits they could wind up in trouble fast. Might work out well though, if they play it smart.”

                “The same could be said for any of the four groups.” Mr. Numbers walked over to the screen, carefully examining the structure of the teams. “It’s interesting, though. You can already see the results from last year’s attack on their thinking.”

                “You can?” Mr. Transport followed Mr. Numbers’ gaze, not quite sure what those blue-eyes were seeing.

                “Oh yeah you can,” Owen said. “Normally in a situation like this, the students try to figure out what the best overall team compositions are, gaming the system to give themselves an edge. They completely ignore the fact that working with people in a high-stress, high-stakes environment is more about trust and familiarity that specific powers. This group didn’t do that. They linked up with people they knew, people who they’d worked with before and trusted to have each other’s backs. That’s the kind of thinking that comes from tasting real action, understanding just how crazy things get once you leave the safety of HCP walls.”

                “I see.” Mr. Transport reached over to the bucket of beer, twisted a top off, and took a long sip as he watched the students begin leaving the gym, heading to the chaos waiting in the floors below. “Think it will work out better for them?”

                “Hard to say.” Owen walked to the table, helping himself to a beer and sitting down across from Mr. Transport. “The emotional support is a good thing, you both know this is meant to push the kids in ways they aren’t comfortable with, so that element of trust might pull some through. But the downside is that people who think alike and have similar morals tend to befriend each other, and in this case that could hurt.”

                “Once the trial starts, the more emotionally detached students will have a serious advantage,” Mr. Numbers said, making no motion to sit at the table or take a drink. “If they were scattered throughout, they could help pull every team along until the others adjusted. Without that element, there’s a risk of entire teams freezing up and failing to execute their orders.”

                “Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Owen agreed. “Most of them will get there eventually, but those first few minutes are crucial. Especially given the Sims they’re fighting.”

                Mr. Transport took another lengthy draw from his beer, eyes trained on the now empty screen. He couldn’t help the students he looked after, what came next was entirely in their hands. All the same, he felt compelled to watch every second, as if doom would slip in the minute he glanced away. It was a silly superstitious idea, like wearing unwashed socks when his favorite football team played, but all the same he couldn’t shake it.