Prologue: Part 1

                Coughs, and the sound of shuffling papers, filled the room as Blaine Jefferies sat patiently staring at the row of people looking down at him. This was not a hearing, per se, and the five people assembled wore no black robes, but there was no misunderstanding about the circumstances in anyone present. These people were his judges, and what they determined in this room would shape the remainder of Blaine’s life, to say nothing of the Lander Hero Certification Program.

                “Dean Blaine Jefferies.” Senator Malcolm was the one who spoke, of course. As the chairman for the Department of Variant Human Affairs, he was  at the top of the chain for the government program. Short of presidential involvement, Senator Malcolm’s word was law, and no sitting president would touch this mess with a thousand foot pole. “This task force has reviewed the witness statements, forensic evidence, meager surveillance footage, and affidavits. We have discussed at length what failings can be determined from the incident at Lander, as well as if those failings are within the system or the staff. Is there anything else you’d like to submit for consideration before we share our findings with you?”

                Blaine’s hand tightened at the word “incident” and he shoved it below the small table before him lest they see his reaction. What had happened at Lander was not an incident in the slightest, it was a tragedy and an attack on the world he’d dedicated his life to. What Blaine wanted more than anything was to be out there kicking down the Sons of Progress’s doors, tearing Crispin’s location out of his subordinates by force. But there were other Heroes who could do that job, some better than he. This was something only Blaine could do.

                “No, sir, I do not. Everything I could submit or say has been presented. There is nothing new to add, so I am ready to hear your findings.” Blaine had faced death countless times, yet as the senator leaned forward and began to read from the paper in his wrinkled hands Blaine still felt a wave of fear try to drag him into despair. He wasn’t afraid for his own career or position; all Blaine cared about was protecting his staff and students from the fallout. If he could be the only casualty, Blaine would consider it an unmitigated triumph.

                “The attack by the Sons of Progress on Lander’s campus highlighted many weaknesses and failures in the HCP campus defense protocol,” Senator Malcolm began. “Given the fact that Supers with new, unexpected abilities are constantly surfacing, we’ve always known that no area could be completely designated as unassailable. Thus, when the protocol fails, it falls upon the Heroes that an HCP keeps on staff to react in ways no mere system could. Your reaction failed to capture the man leading the attacks, put uncertified students into a combat situation, and cost one of them her life.”

                Senator Malcolm paused, taking a sip of water from a nearby glass and moving on to the next page in his hands. It was a tense, heavy silence as the elderly man found what he was looking for in the document. Blaine had been on the other side of authority enough to mark the pageantry for what it was. They were keeping him dangling, reminding him that for all the power he might possess, they were the ones in control.

                “However, the actions you took also saved more civilian lives than we were able to accurately determine, though the best estimates put it in the hundreds. Your students were technically empowered to act as emergency responders, so we cannot fault you for using them as such. And, you did manage to bring down the enhanced Supers employed by the Sons of Progress without losing a single Hero. There is good and bad on both sides of the scale; often so interwoven it’s impossible to tell how things would have fallen if you’d taken different actions.”

                Setting the papers down, Senator Malcolm look at the legendary Hero with stern, yet uncertain, eyes. “Let me level with you here, Blaine. This is a fuck-up. The Hero world just took one on the chin. Most people want to burn you at the stake for it, lay all the blame on your shoulders and come up with a laundry list of mistakes you made to explain away how an HCP college could suffer such an attack. Your junior wasn’t the only life lost, and there are families out there howling for blood. The only thing that’s stopping me from making the easy choice is this: we talked to the deans and staff of every other HCP, and none of them could tell us a better way to handle the situation. Methods differed since they have their own staff, but at the end of the day everyone backed you.”

                Blaine felt awash in a rush of gratitude for his fellow deans and professors. The spirit of competition between the HCP colleges was no secret, but the bond of fellow Heroes went far deeper than that. What meant the most was that Blaine knew if they did see a better way, they’d have told the DVA. They’d have had too, right now new procedures and protocols to better protect the students were being drafted. Keeping them safe came before anything else.

                “Since I’m not inclined to punish a man for doing nothing wrong, I can’t say that torching you for this sits right with me. More than that though, right now things are harsh out there. With Crispin still at large there’s no telling when, or if, another attack might come. Robbing Lander of one its greatest Heroes and most experienced educators when it needs you most… no, if I let that happen then I’ve become the one who destroyed it. This task force finds that, given the threats you were facing, the actions of you and your staff were well-considered and justified. There is no human fault, and as such no punishments for any of you. Honestly, I’d offer commendations, but that wouldn’t sit well if it got leaked.”

                “Thank you, senator.” Blaine rose from his chair slowly, only half-certain that what he heard was real. He kept waiting for guards to rush him, taking him by surprise and dragging him off to a cell somewhere. “I have to ask though; you said the public needed a scapegoat. I don’t disagree with that assessment, and as much as I’d hate to be it, I can’t sit idle if I know someone else is taking my place.”

                “Sit or stand, it’s all the same to me.” Senator Malcolm took another sip of water before facing Lander’s dean. “The error was in the protocol that failed to account for powers we should have seen coming. As the DVA chairman, the buck for that stops with me. In a few weeks, I’ll be stepping down from my post with apologies. The public can have someone to blame, and I’ll be free to spend more time with my grandchildren.”

                “Senator… you love your post.” Senator Malcolm had fought and clawed his way into his position decades ago, and had rebuffed all attempts by others to take it for themselves. He was a tough old man, but he tried to balance the difficulties Heroes faced with the duty owned to the public. While far from universally loved, he was highly respected, which in the Hero world mattered far more.

                “I do,” Senator Malcolm agreed. “But age is catching up with me. Sooner or later they’re going to shove me out of here, and I don’t have the energy to fight like I used to. Better to go out on my own terms, I think. Make it count for something. I’m sure I don’t have to explain that sentiment to you.”

                “No, sir, you don’t.” Lowering his head, Dean Blaine turned from the five people watching him and strode down the short walkway to the door. With his position secure, it was time to turn his attention toward all the tasks that only a dean could handle.

                There was much to be done before the new school year’s beginning.