Chapter 75

                By the time Friday’s dust had settled, the senior class of the Lander HCP was two smaller than it had been in the morning. Jill Murray and Allen Wells both officially put in their resignations within a few hours after the completion of the trial, and none of their peers could blame them for it. Fighting human-like enemies, watching as faux-civilians fell while the Supers were unable to save them, it had been a hard, jarring experience to say the least. Their memory fogging sessions were scheduled, although each was given time to make new housing arrangements if they so chose. Really, that matter was up to the HCP members they shared living space with, and if those students trusted Jill or Allen enough to expose their identities to them even after the memory wipe. It would be a hard choice that would no doubt demand serious discussion, but since both were leaving the program voluntarily they were at least extended some time to figure things out.

                Mercifully, this trial did not end with a meet-and-greet among the Heroes who had come to watch. Though Dean Blaine couldn’t tell them that at the outset, at least without betraying just how taxed they’d be once the exam was over, he eventually explained that this step in the training process was notoriously draining, and no one expected them to be able to mingle afterward. Instead, everyone was dismissed for the weekend, heading back to their respective homes and dorms.

                Melbrook was unusually solemn as Alice entered the common room, having forgone a quick shower below ground in favor of a long, stress draining bath in her actual home. Vince and Camille were both sitting on a couch, and Mary rested in a chair, watching a news program without paying much attention to it. Neither Roy nor Hershel was anywhere to be seen, though Alice was hardly taken aback by that, they often trained even after class was done. What did surprise her was Chad’s presence, as even after exams he tended to log more hours in the gym than anyone. He also seemed the least down of the lot, or it was impossible to spot any negative changes through his general stoicism. Overall, the tone was low, and Alice understood why. By her own count, she’d personally “killed” four Sims during the day’s test, and there were at least three civilians lives she couldn’t help wondering if she could have saved. The ones where it was impossible were easier to reconcile, but those near-misses…

                “Here’s a thought, maybe today counts for our annual Halloween curse. I mean, it’s a day early, but it feels like a solid contender.” Alice spoke as quickly as the words formed in her mind, forcefully redirecting her train of thought from obsessing about the civilians lost. Learning from it was one thing, but that kind of spiraling could lead to dark, useless places, and if she wanted to be able to cope when real lives were lost then she had to practice now, when her failures were nothing more than broken circuits.

                “Oh wow, I actually managed to forget tomorrow was the Halloween party,” Vince said. “Are we still going to try and do that?”

                “While I’m sure Nick is eager to expose us to terrible movies, Vince might be right. I don’t think any of us are going to be in the partying mood for a while,” Mary said. “Today was rough on a lot of people in all sorts of different ways. We might need a while before we feel like going out again.”

                “Guys, we’re the ones throwing the party, we can’t bail on it,” Alice protested. While it would make meeting with the mysterious Galina easier, tearing away the party also removed the cover they’d planned to work under. DVA agents weren’t going to care about a bunch of senior college students drinking and watching movies, but if certain members of the Melbrook gang gathered without warning, there was a chance it could catch the wrong sort of attention. To her surprise, Alice found an unlikely ally in her pro-party stance.

                “It also bears mentioning that this too, is training.” It was Chad who spoke, looking up from his phone to suddenly hop into the conversation.

                “Training at bad movies and drinking?” Camille asked.

                “No. Well, technically yes, but not what I was driving at,” Chad replied. “In the Hero world, battles like what we just experienced are going to be regular, if perhaps not frequent. But life, and especially criminals, do not work on our schedules, which means we will not often have the luxury of time to process and recover from such experiences. We may be called on to keep a meeting with a charity organization, or pulled away to another conflict as soon as the first is over. We may even just be going home to our families. Regardless, the ability to recover from these situations is important. Time does not stop, even for Heroes, and the world will keep needing us whether we feel ready for it or not. While there is certainly time allocated for vacations and mental treatment, if we can’t deal with the day-to-day battles then it’s unlikely we will last very long.”

                “You think what we dealt with was day-to-day?” Vince said. “We lost a fair amount of civilians.”

                “And that was tragic, but it doesn’t justify letting down others who need us because we are too deep in mourning,” Chad countered. “Besides which, today was actually optimal in one respect: no one was pulled from the field before the exercise ended. By my understanding of how these tests work, that means no one “died” among the Heroes. Hard as this trial seemed, imagine going to it after losing one of your friends and still having to do a proper job.”

                “Is this the kind of stuff you think about?” Alice asked. She didn’t disagree, Chad was bringing up points that they probably should have all been considering. Still, there was something so matter-of-fact about the way he said it all, like he’d made peace with these hard truths so long ago they no longer bothered him.

                “Every day.” Chad was as inscrutable as ever, but something in Alice’s gut told her that he was a bit more passionate about this subject than his expression let on. “My power requires ample planning, forethought, and strategy. I can’t afford to be taken off-guard, so I’ve had to face every aspect of what I’d be walking into since the day I decided to be a Hero. Much of it isn’t pleasant, or even fair, but there is a reason so few people can do this job properly. Like it or not, fights like these can’t slow us down, be it from helping people, stopping criminals, or simply living our lives with what time we have.”

                “I guess that means the Halloween party is still on,” Vince said. “Might be a pretty small one though. I’m not sure how many others will show up without getting that speech to kick them in the butt.”

                Chad offered a small smile before turning his attention back to his phone. “I think you will be surprised. Sooner or later, you would have still reached the same conclusion, and everyone else will too. If they couldn’t, they never would have lasted this long in the program.”