Prologue

 

 

Every part of her body screamed at her in agony. She was covered in blood, draped half over the railing of a catwalk inside a warehouse. She remembered the window, she had thrown herself through it when she had been blasted airborne. She never even saw what hit her, just felt the jarring impact as her left side erupted into a torrent of pain and she was flung off the roof of her stakeout like a ragdoll. The street had been rising up to meet her and she could barely focus enough to keep her eyes open. She had seen the window and it had taken everything she had to telekinetically throw herself through it and at a chance at safety. Her right arm had only partially protected her face, her left still hung useless. She couldn't see anything through the haze of red any more. She couldn't hear any of the thoughts around her. She didn't know why she couldn't just pass out and escape the pain. She felt herself sliding off the railing and could barely force herself to wonder if she was falling on to the catwalk or off and to her death. She wondered which one she would prefer at this point. Then finally she slipped into the blessed darkness of unconsciousness.

Dean Kathryn Jilles rubbed her shoulder to stave off another bout of phantom pains as she thought back to what had been her first week on the job as a Hero. More than 30 years ago and every part of that night was still completely vivid in her mind, the worst pain she had ever experienced, directly or second hand via telepathy. She made her way up the ridiculously oversized steps of the capitol building, shielding her eyes slightly as the late Spring sun reflected off the bright white building and massive glass doors. It truly said something for the state of politics in this country that she was thinking back to that moment fondly as she strode into a meeting with the Senate Committee for Budgeting of the Hero Certification Program.

Her mood was not notably improved when she realized that Riley Walker, Overton University President, was already present at this meeting. It was far from the norm for any University employee not directly affiliated with the HCP to be present at these meetings, even one with the amount of political juice that Riley seemed to possess. She nodded to him politely as he stood to greet her, every bit the boisterous, cheerful Texan as he pulled out her chair for her, towering over the petite woman even with his only average height and slightly out of shape frame. As he smiled and pushed her chair in she caught what he was thinking quite clearly, with a seriousness that did not at all match his expression or mannerisms. This is not going to be a good day Kathryn. Someone's making a power play and we're going to be stuck in the middle of it.

 

...

 

Kathryn had not thought her mood could be notably worsened from what she already expected to face at one of these meetings. Endless rounds with career politicians as she tried to insure that the money her HCP needed to do its work would not be funneled off into someone's pet project or private subsidies while no one was looking. This had been something far worse than that. Bad enough that she had actually accepted Riley's invitation to drinks. She didn't particularly like the many-faced politician currently presiding as president of her University, but she desperately needed a strong drink right now. And Riley was almost as angry as she was, which should make good company.

"Second String Heroes!" he muttered with enough vitriol that Kathryn was mildly surprised he didn't manage to melt straight through his suddenly empty whiskey glass. "Unless someone grossly misinformed me at some point, all the HCP selection processes are equally stringent. Everyone who makes it through our courses would make it through Lander, or West, and anyone who washes out there would wash out here just the same. Fucking politicians," as he cut off to again empty the freshly refilled glass in front of him as the bartender nodded sympathetically having caught the last two words of the quiet rant.

Kathryn was actually quite surprised that even with this amount of anger and alchohol in his system Riley was managing to keep complete control of his outward appearance and volume. She wasn't sure she would trust her own voice to not rise to screaming profanity were she to begin voicing her ire as Riley did. This amounted to a personal attack on her and her program, and worse still none of the politicians in the room had more than the slightest idea of WHY they were setting in motion an attempt to strip Overton of its HCP. There were some of the expected motivators she had caught easily, the idea that if the HCP in Overton was cancelled there would finally be an open spot for some other state to get the program moved into one of THEIR Universities. With all the prestige and extra budget padding to hide all the pork a politician could ever desire. But none of the members of this committee actually knew what was going on. They had all been reading from scripts prepared by someone else, and embellished with their own personalities. As she finished her fourth shot of tequila and chased it with a sip of lime juice she started trying to go over the script analytically, though she knew it was a waste of time as she was far too angry to focus properly right now. Claiming that a lack of recent 'World Renowned Heroes' graduating from their program was a clear indicator that the quality of their graduates was not up to par with the other programs. Only a dozen truly famous Heroes in twenty years, as if fame was any real measure of how successful a Hero was in their duty.

Kathryn was pulled out of her own private angst as Riley suddenly leaned in very close to her, a far more serious and sober expression on his face than she had ever seen, and than she had ever thought possible on a man who had just finished nearly a full bottle of 50 year old single malt. "Someone is power playing and they think we're the weak link," his voice was so quiet she doubted she would be able to understand him if not for her telepathy picking up the words as he focused on them with almost frightening intensity. "And whoever is pulling these strings has made a serious fucking mistake thinking that we would roll over and take it. I have some strings of my own I can pull. A lot of strings." He stood carefully and started to turn towards the door before pausing again. "You tell me something though, no bullshit about it being HCP business only or 'need to know' crap. Can they really pull off this insane 'Oversight' bullshit? Can they actually make something like this stick enough to be a real threat?"

Under any other circumstances she could imagine Kathryn would have told Riley that HCP business was just that. Occupying the same space as her program didn't give the University president any standing within the program, but as a telepath, she knew without a doubt that this was a man preparing to go to war. War in an arena she despised, and was not nearly as prepared for as she needed to be for this. Like it or not, that meant Riley did need to know. "There's not any actual precedent for it, but it's buried in all the legalese from the program's founding act. And the wording is loose enough that they can use any negative findings from an oversight committee to get them all the political leverage they'll need to move the program to another school." It hurt to say it out loud more than she had expected, and again she found herself missing her Hero days. Even the ones when she had been broken, bleeding, and near death. Those hadn't hurt the way this hurt. This was someone attacking the foundation of the Hero Certification Program, and she wasn't sure if she could stop it.

"Alright then. They can use the findings, and they can force us to accept their damned committee. I'm going to pull every string I have to make fucking sure that the people on this committee are going to report EXACTLY what is going on. No shading, no coloring, no political affiliations. You've been running things for two years. Your predecessor ran things for far longer than I've been around. Never once has anything gone wrong on that campus while you train the most powerful people in the world to be even more powerful. Every. Day. If you weren't doing your jobs my campus would have been leveled a long time ago. So keep doing your job, and you tell me anything you need to do it better. Recruitment, equipment," his voice dropped off completely but she heard the thought loud and clear, Pest Removal. "You name it, Janette and I will find a way to make sure you get it. We'll show these fuckers some 'prestige' if that's what they want. Call up your recent Alumni and ask if any of them need better agents." The last few words were starting to slur, and Kathryn watched as Riley motioned the bartender for a cab. "We're in this together Kathy. And we will win this."

Kathryn found herself watching the retreating form of a man that she could honestly say she had never liked. And as she downed her final shot she decided that she couldn't have designed a better ally for what was coming if she'd had all the time in the world. They want to call us 'Second String?' Her thoughts were still angry, but more collected in spite of the alcoholic haze. That's a good thing. Being underestimated at the start of the fight is some of the best news we could have. As she signaled the bar tender for her own cab her mind was already trying to spin its way through the temporary fog she had drank it into. In the morning I have a lot of work to do.



 

 

*****

 

 

Welcome to Second String Supers! A serial fiction set in the world of Drew Hayes' Super Powereds
Updating as often as I can make words fall out of my brain!

-Chad

 

 

*****

 



 

 

Prologue pt 2:
Battleplans

 

A flash of bluish light and a swirling breeze heralded Riley Walker's return home from the capitol. One of the many benefits of coming from a wealthy and well-connected family: having a private teleporter as part of his personal staff. His wife, Janette, met her husband as he strolled into their large off-campus estate. The 40 year old blond was beginning to show the first signs of her actual age, but fought tooth and nail to remain as youthful in appearance as possible. Most who had met the wife of Overton University's president saw nothing more than the slowly fading beauty of an aging trophy wife constantly caught up in fanciful and unrealistic pursuits. Quickly catching the stony look in her husband's eyes and aggressiveness of his stride her carefully cultivated look of vapid contentment quickly evaporated.

"The meeting went as badly as you expected?" all trace of the airheaded persona that she generally adopted in public had vanished.

"Worse. Someone wants a war," Riley's response caught Janette by surprise. His planning for worst case scenarios rarely underestimated the mark.

"What kind of war, and who?"

"Someone is pushing an agenda from behind the budget committee. They're trying to get the HCP pulled from Overton so that it can be 'assigned to an institution more appropriate to the august history of the program,'" the sing-song mocking tone with which he recited the quote still seethed with suppressed anger. "They told us that the committee is tired of seeing Overton take the same HCP budget as the other schools only to churn out 'second string heroes.' And whomever is pushing this agenda is doing it from a safe distance away from our telepathic Dean."

Janette felt her own ire stir at her husband's second quotation. Janette had personally made the arrangements for several of the agents that represented Overton's graduating Heroes' public images. She had personally invested several resources to insure the success of some of Overton's graduates, and an insinuation that they were an inferior product actually got under her skin. Even through her normal level of cynical detachment from the world she was often awed and more frequently jealous at what the graduated Supers were capable of as Heroes, both with their abilities, and with the political clout they seemed to collect without effort.

"Step one dear, calm down," Janette guided her husband to one of the many comfortable chairs in the room. "If someone is pushing this from behind one of the most powerful committees in the Senate, they have a lot of juice. Maybe as much or more than we do. We are going to approach this calmly and methodically. Start from the top, how bad is it?"

Riley smiled as his wife worked to take control of the situation. At times like this he truly loved the woman that he had originally married only as a mutually agreed upon means to further both their ambitions. "Bad enough that Dean Jilles is being honest with me," Janette sucked in a startled breath at that revelation. "Starting this fall they're attaching an 'Oversight Committee' to the incoming freshman class. The stated goal is to insure that Overton's HCP is maintaining the standards needed to produce 'real' Heroes."

He closed his eyes as he attempted to calm himself as his wife said. This did indeed require a careful, methodical approach and being angry made it too easy to be impulsive. "First step is simple, we need to get the Texan senators and reps on our side. Should be simple enough," he allowed his smile to widen slightly, "after all, if we lose the HCP, the whole state loses it. Somehow I doubt that our wonderful elected representatives want that to happen while they're in office. Second step is a little trickier," Riley opened his eyes and locked his gaze with his wife. "We're going to have to figure out how the 'Oversight Committee' is being rigged and un-rig it. We won't have to weight things in our own favor, the facts should take care of themselves just fine. But if whomever started this controls the Oversight, they get to spin the reports as much as they want, and it won't matter HOW exceptional this new batch of Heroes actually is."

Janette nodded in agreement with the two laid out steps, allowing herself a small smile as well. "And by 'we' need to use our connections to un-rig a committee I will assume you meant that 'I' will have to do so?" Riley may have had a lot of money, both independently and through his family, and the kind of political connections that sort of money comes attached with, but Janette's family was a vast network of career politicians. He was going to be the blunt instrument pounding on the gates and rallying all others whose self interest was served keeping the HCP where it was. With her connections she could be more subtle, orchestrating the changes needed without drawing the attention to invite direct reprisal. He was the battering ram, she was the knife in the back. "It's a good start dear, but I strongly doubt anyone was stupid enough to start this ball rolling without having a middle and end game strategy to keep it rolling in the direction they want. What's the rest of our strategy?"

"The rest is by far the simplest. We make sure that Dean Jilles has everything she asks for to make for one of the most spectacular classes the HCP has ever seen." He rose from the chair and stretched. "We are going to have a lot of work to do before August my dear Janette."

Janette had phone in hand before Riley had finished speaking. A calculating look in her eyes and a smile on her face. She was going to have to call in a lot of markers on this one. It was going to be the most fun she'd had in years.

 

...

 

Kathryn Jilles had a slightly longer return trip from D.C. than Riley Walker's. Overton was willing to spring for first class airfare, but while the University president could privately afford a teleporter as a personal assistant, such considerations were not part of the actual University budget, so she flew. As she flew she began sorting through the few early applications that Overton's HCP had already received. She largely ignored the most promising applicants, their acceptance was largely a rubber stamping to get them into the program, and then it was merely a question of which HCP they would attend out of their available options. A much larger chunk of applications was discarded with similar quickness for this initial examination; those that were quite clearly NOT Hero material. There would be a longer, more complete review of these applications but those weeded out quickly were usually pulled for good reasons and rarely was that reversed. Kathryn was looking for the borderline cases, the ones for whom acceptance was not a formality, but whom had no outstanding reasons to deny their admittance either. She had always been a deeply intuitive person, and now she sought to tax that more mundane of her many abilities to its limits. She needed to find the students that other programs might overlook. She needed the ones that would fight all the harder for their places. Kathryn knew that this was going to be an oft-repeated process for her over the summer as the admissions deadline approached. Overton's lack of prestige left several Supers not applying to its HCP until they had been denied from their first choice of school. By the time her plane had landed she had sorted through all the current applicants twice. Her intuition had three of the borderline applicants jumping out at her, though she couldn't quite nail down the whys as yet. Then with a smile, she realized she might not have to for a change and as she strode into the terminal her phone found it's way to her ear.

"Good afternoon Riley, I hope your morning has been as productive as mine. I have some prospective students that I would like a slightly more complete background on. I do hope you are ready to provide the assistance you offered last night."

"Names and current city of residence please Kathryn. You'll know everything there is to find out about your prospects in a week."

Kathryn's smile widened slightly as she began to recite the information into her phone. This was not the sort of fight she would have picked, but something about going into this political battle was getting her blood pumping almost as much as the old days.



 

 

Prologue pt 3:
Rallying the Troops

 

"EVERYONE WILL SHUT UP NOW!" the Dean's voice, accompanied by a telekinetic thunderclap briefly brought the room to order. And a second thunderclap as the shouting threatened a comeback gave her the time she needed to work.

"Now I am aware that this is not happy or welcome news, indeed it is shocking, terrible, and unprecedented. All of us screaming at each other for the past two hours has not seemed to solve the problems presented, so perhaps we could try discussing this like professionals who have all obtained highly respected positions within one of the most prestigious programs in the world? Since I'm the Dean, maybe I can go first?" there was some continued grumbling, mostly from her left where the Close and Ranged combat instructors sat, but the overall tone indicated assent. Kathryn had known that she would have to let everyone vent for some time in order to get any cohesiveness out of the group, she had unfortunately underestimated the length that venting would take and so would have to conduct the remainder of this meeting accompanied by a throbbing headache.

"To re-summarize: Someone with a lot of political clout is trying to get Overton pulled from the HCP. Our best theory is that this is being done to get a new fifth HCP recognized in a location that benefits our mystery person or persons. To this end the Senate HCP Budget committee has informed us that a special oversight committee will be formed and be situated on campus at the beginning of the upcoming academic year. The oversight committee will closely monitor the freshman class for signs that our faculty is not performing up to the standards required by the HCP and churning out a succession of 'second string heroes,'" Kathryn paused to glare at the Close Combat instructor, James Rachd, stopping him just before he could begin another rant. As expected, she had caught the man just as he was starting to stand and open his mouth again. He glared back, but returned to his seat without starting another tirade. "In addition the oversight committee will periodically check the progress of our sophomore, junior, and senior classes, but their primary focus will be on the newest students, as they are to be monitored throughout their entire tenure in the program, thus allowing for a complete assessment of our HCP. After the graduations from this current class, four years from now, the oversight committee will compile a fully in depth report on our HCP, and based on that report the Senate HCP Budget committee will determine if Overton retains its status or not. Now instead of everyone shouting some more, does anyone have any points that they need clarified?"

Having managed to contain himself long enough for the Dean to actually finish speaking, none of the other faculty attempted to start as James was once again on his feet. "How the hell can you let them call our graduates second string? Why didn't you just take care of this while you were up in DC in the first place? Isn't this political shit your job Kathy?"

"The Senate committee is free to call any graduates anything they want. I'm not going to assault them over it no matter how incorrect their statements are or how personally angry those statements make me. If this were not the case I doubt I would be able to travel to our nation's capitol without going on a crazed killing spree. Also since statements made in a closed door session are not subject to public record I have no interest in publicizing those statements myself. Were the Senators making such claims to the media I assure you President Walker and I would have likely sued the committee for slander by now." James had managed to resume his seat by this point, though he still looked like he was about to break something. "As for 'taking care of it while I was in DC,' there wasn't anything to take care of. This was already decided prior to my being called up there. So thoroughly decided that Riley was called up as well since the University President must be notified of any major changes that will result to their campus as a result of the HCP. And yes, this 'political shit' is the Dean's job, fortunately I have some very strong allies in this case far better versed in politics than I, as well as a top notch staff of current and retired Heroes with which to demonstrate to this oversight committee that no part of the claims laid forth by the Senate committee hold weight."

"Surely we cannot be expecting a fair fight in all of this mess," the speaker this time neither stood nor shouted. All eyes turned to the eldest man at the table, Laurence Vree, Overton's Focus instructor. "Leaving out that American politics are behind the whole thing, I doubt anyone with any power would be stupid enough to take on even a small facet of the HCP without stacking the deck in their favor as far as possible." The elderly British man gestured around the table as he continued, "Are we then to be the oversight of the oversight committee? To insure that the men sent to watch us are watched in turn so that they deliver only truth to their political masters?"

"Actually Laurence, that particular problem has been largely remedied," Kathryn loved it when she got to see a genuine look of surprise on the older telepath's face. "Janette Riley has been using her family's political connections to unstack that deck over the summer. Most of the oversight committee will now be comprised of actual independent investigators used by the Attorney General's office, and reporting their findings through the AG and not directly to anyone in the Senate. Additionally the committee will be monitored by a Hero we are familiar with, sadly trapped on perpetual duty in DC."

"No, you're kidding," the speaker this time was a hispanic woman with strangely fluorescent red hair. "I only know one Hero that most of us are sad about being trapped in the political shithole. It's Mirror isn't it? Deanne's actually going to be the one overseeing the oversight committee?" Dani Reyes, the normally very animated Weapons instructor was again showing signs of life after having been near tears when Kathryn had first broke the news to her faculty.

"Yes Dani, Mirror will be back for a visit. Just try to remember not to use her given name in front of the committee, I'm not certain how many, if any, of the oversight committee will actually be cleared to know her real identity."

"How is it that President Walker's airheaded wife actually managed to pull this shit off?" James had managed to retain his seat this time while speaking, though made sure to be at least twice as loud as anyone else in the room.

"You've gotta be kidding me Jimmy," the speaker this time was a tall African American. "I know a lot of the Close Combat types are supposed to be no good at all in Intel, but do you have to be that much the stereotype?" Anthony Banning, Overton's Ranged Combat instructor, was actually laughing by the time he finished, a pleasant shift from a man who had been screaming himself hoarse just a few minutes ago. "That woman's family owns or runs almost 10% of this country. The woman herself runs all the financials for the University with only one administrative assistant for support staff, and still has time left over to go shopping, pony riding, and generally maintain the perfect cover as an aging trophy wife. Shit man, you know she'll probably be appointed University President in a couple years when Riley finally takes the plunge and steals the state Governorship, right?"

Judging by the somewhat dumbfounded look on James' face, he had not realized any of these things, and the tension was allowed to further seep out of the room as everyone had a brief laugh at the Combat instructor's expense.

"All that aside then, I must assume that there's more Kathryn wished to discuss with us. This meeting could have been conducted under other circumstances, and the initial information could have been delivered remotely, thus saving our Dean the splitting headache that she believes she is concealing from a room mostly full of trained observers." The short asian woman actually drew a bit of surprise from the room and several more laughs when she joined in with the joke at James' expense. Hai Nguyen, the Control instructor, rarely showed anything except a perfectly serious and professional demeanor. "and this is the conference room we traditionally use for finalizing our program's acceptance of new freshman students. Would I be correct in assuming that there will be some changes to this year's acceptance?" No one but a telepath could possibly have caught the undercurrent of displeasure from the fully composed speaker. To the two in the room it was quite obvious that she was not at all happy about the idea of trying to stack their own deck.

"There are some changes. And they are in some ways related to this development, and in some ways they were simply hurried forward by it. I want to start by assuring everyone," the Dean looked only directly at her Control Instructor as she spoke however, "that we will not be applying harsher guidelines in an attempt to have only the truly best of the new students. For one reason, it would likely leave us with a notably smaller freshman class, something that would likely be a strike against us in an oversight report. For another, and far more importantly, it would not be in any way fair to the students, or to the program itself to do such a thing. Some of the best and brightest Heroes did not have the most auspicious of beginnings, and I can state as fact that many of those who went on to do great things barely passed the bar to gain entry in the first place."

"Wait, you can't possibly be suggesting we loosen the standards in hopes of getting some diamond in the rough or something?" the only person at the table that had not chimed in since the yelling had ceased, Elena Martinez, Overton's Subtlety and Alternate Training instructor spoke quietly, still seeming a bit put off at not having gotten advance notice of an oncoming issue of this size. "Wouldn't that simply create the same problems, only with reversing the class size one?"

"Quite right Elena," Kathryn moved a stack of folders from a supply table across the room and spread them around to her faculty. One of the many advantages of telekinesis, she didn't even have to shift in her chair in order to do so. "I've been doing research this summer. A lot of it, and with a startling amount of help from Riley Walker," she was anticipating the surprise from some of the faculty at this bit of information and managed to press on before James could derail the conversation again, "and before you ask, Riley is involved because Overton is his University as much as ours, and he's as committed to fighting to keep us here as we are. And the man has some frighteningly effective connections. In front of everyone now are 13 applicant files, all of which are at the borderline for acceptance or rejection to the HCP for one reason or another. Questionable control over an ability, potentially insufficient physical capability to handle the training regimen, and several sitting right at the cutoff where they would normally be denied on academic grounds and advised to spend a year at a community college establishing a better GPA and reapplying next year."

It was Laurence, already halfway through the stack of files who spoke next, "And you are suggesting that we should accept all of these borderline students in the hopes that some of them will prove to be truly exceptional? I might agree for most but I don't see how the program will be helped bringing in those that are likely to be disqualified on academic grounds before the end of the first semester." Kathryn could tell the old man was baiting her. She'd surprised him once this meeting and now it would be an effort to get him to drop his facade and get him to openly share his extremely accurate perceptions.

"As I said earlier, some programs have been accelerated as a result of this development coming at us. Janette Walker has been working on a pilot program to get high school graduates whose GPA would normally disqualify them from getting into a major University right out of the gate, but whose SAT scores are high enough to indicate some level of genuine scholastic talent, into a University with access to a private tutor for the duration of their freshman year. She was planning on starting the program next year, but accelerated things enough to have 100 slots open starting in the fall semester for this. Most of the students getting into her program are inner city, broken homes, all the traditional sad stories that prevent an otherwise intelligent kid from getting a real education. Coupled with the fact that her other programs make Overton one of the cheapest financial aid Universities in the country and I think she's actually going to do some real good with this one. In addition she has reserved five slots in her program for HCP students that show exceptional abilities or potential and meet the SAT requirements while being borderline on their highschool GPA. Each of the 5 students sitting at the academic borderline in that stack has scored over a 1200 on their SATs, and one scored a 1604," a low whistle from Laurence indicated that he was somewhat impressed by one of the borderline students breaking a perfect score on the SATs.

"And the rest? We have eight more files here that are borderline for either their mundane physical abilities or for their current or projected powers. Are we going to have a special tutoring program for all of them as well?" James never made any secret of the fact that he didn't believe those applying to the HCP without being physically prepared for the program in advance should even be given the chance to wash out. "Little personal trainers and private gyms maybe?"

"Some how I doubt even the Walkers could afford to set that up in a single summer," Dani had identified and discarded the academic borderlines and was focusing on the other eight for anything that caught her interest. "Oooh, magnet boy! Even at that short of a range that could be a really good one if these estimates for his lifting power are accurate. Huh, bit of a shrimp though."

"Five and a half feet tall and 140 pounds. Throw this one back, it's too small! And Christ, physical regimen put together for him by his mommy, how touching." James dropped the folder in question and started to look for another.

"Read the footnotes Jimmy, someone did some extra investigating on our behalf," Anthony was still holding the file that had caught Dani's attention. "Mommy was a decorated veteran of the SAS Super Interdiction and Neutralization teams. The kid's been doing a Spec Ops exercise routine since he was 8." James quickly snatched up the file again and began looking more closely.

"Jesus, where the hell did Walker get all this extra information? And how the hell did our initial checks miss this stuff?" James grabbed another folder and boggled slightly as he found several pages worth of supplemental notes that were obviously NOT from the HCP information gathering system.

"I would not care to wager as to where our esteemed President Walker obtains his intelligence, as our Dean has already stated it is frighteningly accurate and I fear too much supposition could turn it against us!" Laurence speaking tone began to meander as he fell back into his preferred 'crazy old man' routine which amused the otherwise reserved Brit from some reason. "As to how the initial intelligence missed these details, that should be obvious. The SAS takes their jobs FAR more seriously than their US counterparts, and developing cover identities for those that retire from their ranks is one of the jobs taken MOST seriously."

"Ok, seriously though, what do you want us to do with these eight? Pass em all in?" Anthony again waved the thick stack of files over his head.

"I don't want to give anyone a free pass, but I want us all to go over these files and look very hard to see if there's anything there that any of us think is worth putting into this program. Scott Jameson," she held the file Dani had dubbed 'magnet boy' up as she continued, "would normally have been denied in all likelihood as we would have questioned his physical fitness, and without a truly impressive power to overcome that hesitance we would have denied his application. There's something else in this file and several of the others that we have to consider, but only as secondary to the applicant's actual qualities. Scott in particular, is from a major Hero family in Europe. There's a lot of political connections there, and I won't pretend that we don't need all the political allies we can find. I don't want to make these connections a primary consideration, if I had a real choice I wouldn't want to consider them at all, but this is the reality. Several of our borderline files have similarly connected families. If we can't come up with a concrete reason why they would not fit the HCP, something more than playing the safe card because we don't want to invest the resources in someone only to see them wash out of the program, we let those connections be a factor in admitting them instead. We are going to be taking some chances we don't normally take in the HCP, but all that chance gets these kids is a ticket to either succeed or fail on their own merits."

"Well then, since everyone's already found it, let's start with magnet boy!" Dani began reciting off information from the file that she thought was pertinent without waiting for anyone else to accept or reject her suggestion. And the rest of the faculty followed along and began their own interjections, even James managed to be mostly rational instead of emotional in his input.

Kathryn smiled, and felt the headache seep away just a little bit. These applicants were probably going to get the most thorough reviewing in the history of the HCP. She hoped that at least a few of them would make it into the program to be thankful for the extra scrutiny.



 

 

Prologue pt 4 (the really long one):
Heroes of Tomorrow

 

"And it was really that simple. Alternating months on a no grains/no sugars/no dairy diet and a no meats/no complex proteins diet and I'm now in the best shape of my life. It's hard to believe that just a few months ago..." a quick angry mashing of keys quickly closed the last pop up window as Scott Jameson cursed at his computer.

"Lord all I ask is that you let me find ONE damned page that outlines a diet that will not destroy my exercise program and contains food with actual real world flavors," the young man dropped his head into his hands and clenched his fists into his short sandy-brown hair in frustration. "Why must you persist in leading me into these virus and trojan ridden pop-up hells oh Lord? Have you not had enough fun fucking with my life that you need to screw with the little things as well?" Looking at the clock icon in the corner of the screen Scott sighed and put the computer to sleep as he stood and headed away from his desk. It was just about time for his hopes and dreams to come crashing down around him after all, wouldn't want to be late for that.

Scott headed out of his room and down the stairs just in time to hear the knocking, followed immediately by the opening of his front door and the entrance of his two closest friends. A tall white girl with long hair that apparently decided to be vividly red today strode gracefully through the doorway as a slightly taller and much heavier set black youth with poorly maintained dreads stood slightly to one side, hand still raised to knock on a barrier that was no longer present. Scott simply waved him in and they all headed in the direction of the comfortable seating in the living room. Both of Scott's two friends towered over his 5'6" frame with Ty's 6'1" just barely inching him above Erin's near amazonian proportions. The three friends made an odd group as they settled in around a coffee table, each holding a thick envelope bearing the same stamped on return address: 'Overton University, Office of Admissions.'

This was the fifth time this particular ritual had been repeated, and Scott's enthusiasm had waned with each repetition. Initially it had been his boundless optimism and unwavering determination to enter the HCP that had drawn both of his friends into sharing his goal. Erin had been completely concealing the fact that she was even a Super while attending East Academy until Scott's unrelenting dedication had broken through even her jaded outlook and found the then 13 year old Erin confiding in her two friends that she also had abilities, and that she would join them in their 'quest.' The three friends had already received replies from Lander, Korman, Sizemore, and West. Erin had been accepted at all four colleges and into all four Hero Certification Programs. She had her pick of the bunch. Ty had been likewise accepted into all four colleges and to all the HCPs save for West. Scott had been accepted to all 4 colleges as he was an excellent student, but to date was zero for four in being accepted to the HCP. Overton was literally the last chance for the dream he had committed himself to since the age of seven. And as the three friends sliced open their matching letters in almost perfect unison he had already resigned himself to what would be waiting inside.

Erin and Ty scanned their letters and both quickly raised them over their heads, a signal of triumph that had no enthusiasm behind it this time as they watched Scott's hands shake as he carefully read his own letter. The mood in the room seemed to drop further as both could see tears forming in their smaller friend's eyes.

"Fucking HELL YES!" both Ty and Erin nearly fell off the couch as Scott leaped to his feet with the acceptance letter clenched triumphantly over his head. "Words I never thought I would say; thank you sweet Lord for Texas!" All three quickly broke down into cheers and laughter as the realization set in. They had done it, all three of them were in.

 

...

 

A somewhat androgynous youth with features indicating a definitive Japanese ancestry sat nearly motionless in front of a small desk, long blue-black hair hung forward as his focus was directed entirely at the object in front of him. The object at which Kyle Sawara was staring so intently appeared to be a simple manila envelope. He hadn't yet worked up the courage to actually touch it since his mother had dropped it on the desk in front of him and wished him luck. His sister Sydney was already packing to head off to the HCP at Sizemore Tech, but the twins had decided that they would not be leaning on each other in college. Each had applied to different programs, Sydney to Lander and Sizemore, Kyle to West, Korman, and Overton. He broke his stare with the envelope to look at the trash can next to his desk. Within it were two similar envelopes, each containing bad news that he had hoped not to receive, but still expected. Both his parents were Heroes, and both were still very active in that world. Their family had relocated thirteen times while Kyle was in high school, and he had struggled to manage even a C average as a result. Not that he lacked the academic ability to do more, Kyle had broken the perfect score on the SATs without much difficulty. Kyle's problem with high school had been his lack of patience when the new school wanted him to learn the same thing the old school had just taught him, and his tendency to rant at the teachers who really were not being paid enough to put up with his shit. Kyle sighed again. There was no way around it, time to open the final letter and then figure out where he was going to community college to get his GPA up to an admittable level so he could apply again next year. His sister was never going to let him live it down when she graduated a year ahead of him.

The Overton letter was a lot thicker than the others he realized as he tore off the flap and began to flip through the many pages inside. Special tutoring program for freshmen? What the fuck was this? He didn't remember seeing anything about a tutoring program and he definitely didn't apply for one. Skimming quickly through the ridiculously long winded document he stopped as all the important bits caught up to him. Pilot program, provisional acceptance with additional academic requirements. Acceptance. His hands were shaking so hard he could barely separate the last and most important page of the stack to read it carefully. And reread it. 'University of Overton HCP, applicant Kyle Sawara: Accepted subject to additional academic requirements.' He was getting stuck with a giant extra provision, but it didn't matter. He was in!

"Texas," he mused as he sat back in his chair and began to spin slowly in place, watching the ceiling. "Does this mean I need to get one of those stupid hats?" Deciding it didn't matter for the moment he leapt gracefully from his chair to run down up the stairs with a decidedly non-serious grin on his face. "Mom, Dad, I'm going to Texas!"

 

...

 

The elderly woman turned from checking her mail box and let out a brief cry of shock as she nearly ran face first into a wall. A wall with loose fitting clothing and a lot of muscle. Looking up the startled woman's expression flitted from frightened surprise to a kindly smile. "Tasha Johnson, how on God's green earth does a girl who takes up so much space sneak up on people so well?" The 6'6" heavily muscled and crew cut black woman smiled back at her elderly neighbor.

"You forgot your hearing aid again Mrs. Levey!" the girl spoke in a slightly too loud voice and at a slower cadence than most normal speech.

"Oh dear," the older woman felt around her ears and realized her young neighbor was correct. "I swear those darned things just wander off on their own! I thought you were off to college by now dearie." Mrs. Levey's volume was also notably louder than a normal conversational tone, but it wasn't anything anyone in the building was unused to.

"Just waiting for the last of my applications to come back before I decide where I'm off to," Tasha indicated the small stack of mail she had retrieved from over her neighbor's head while they spoke. "You really need to keep better track of those hearing aids Mrs. Levey, you're lucky we live in upper Manhattan, or someone would have run off with your purse without you ever noticing by now," she motioned the old woman to the purse left forgotten on the ground. "Have a good afternoon Mrs. Levey!" The tall woman waved to her tiny neighbor as she turned to flee quickly up the stairs before being dragged into a too loud 5 hour conversation about grandchildren that never remembered to call except on the holidays.

Making it up three flights in near record time Tasha slowed and began sorting through the mail. Two pieces of mail were the only ones she was really interested in, the large block letter stamp return addresses read 'Sizemore Technical Institute, Office of Admissions' and 'Overton University, Office of Admissions.' Tasha desperately needed one of these two letters to be an acceptance letter. Either one, it didn't matter. It was this, the army, or following in her father's carefully laid out one hundred sixteen step plan for her life. She loved her family, she just couldn't stand taking a path that someone else had carved out for her. Unfortunately this meant she was going to have to pay her own way from here on out, none of her parents' money would be going into her education until she gave up on her 'childish fantasy' and decided to start 'living in the real world.' As she moved from the stairwell to the elevator and keyed the penthouse level she bowed her head slightly and closed her eyes. "Please God, I've never asked for anything before, and I haven't really given a lot of reasons to grant me favors either, but please let one of them take me. I really don't want to join the army." The elevator chimed as the door slid open to lavish but tastefully decorated entry hall.

Tasha heard tiny footsteps come running and smiled as her youngest sibling, her six year old sister Dena, came running up to her leg and began scaling her older sister like a small mountain. Once the youngest Johnson had reached her shoulders and relative stability Tasha continued on into the living room to drop the family mail on the table and stare intently at the two letters.

"Which one do you think I should open first, munchkin?" Tasha held the two letters up to where her sister could reach them. Dena snatched the Sizemore Tech letter and slid down Tasha's back and onto the couch as she worked carefully to unseal the flap before handing it back. Tasha drew forth the documents inside and felt her heart swell up, and deflate nearly as fast. Accepted to Sizemore, but she did not qualify for any of the financial aid programs. Rich parents had to be the most impossible obstacle to overcome if you were trying to go to school somewhere THEY didn't approve of. No easy Federal Aid, and most University Financial Aid was out, and the HCP would not allow a student to take on over a hundred thousand dollars in basic student loans as it made them far too easy a mark to compromise the system when they graduated with a six figure debt. Sighing she handed the other letter to Dena, who unsealed the flap with the same intense concentration as the first. Reading through this one she felt the same upswing of emotion and tried to quash it as she didn't want to feel the crash again when the got to the end. This time the ending was different.

"I got a scholarship, and the financial aid package," she collapsed back against the couch as her sister began to skip around the room now that the mail opening ceremony seemed to be complete for the time being. "Thank you God, I don't know how you pulled that one off, but I'll owe you one for now." And there attached to the last page of the University's acceptance letter was the letter she was far more interested in. Overton HCP acceptance of Tasha Johnson. She stood quickly and moved with purpose into her room. She had packing to do and a lot of calls to make if she was going to be out of the building before her parents got home. She could have the same argument for the sixty seventh time from her new accommodations in Eastern Texas just as easily as she could from here, and it was going to be a long drive in her little jeep. Might as well start sooner rather than later!

 

...

 

A muscular young man sat alone in a massive, trendy gym staring blankly at his phone and the message on it. Collin Gauge read and re-read the words a dozen times but they failed to make any more sense to him than they had the first time. It was a simple text message from his mother, and it concerned his older brother. 'Flying out to California tonight. Jeffrey didn't make the cut for his third year and he didn't take it well. Will be gone a week at least. Will call when I land.' Collin had brought a stack of mail with him to the gym, it was the place where he felt the most relaxed and at peace with himself. It was the place where he intended to find out if he would be joining Jeff in the HCP or not. But now Jeff hadn't made the cut. How could that even be possible? Collin steeled himself as he picked up the stack of five letters from where they had slid off the bench while he stared at his phone and wondered what his chances of being accepted were if his brother couldn't make the cut. Even with all the work he'd put in to improve academically after his brother had hammered the point home when he left for Lander two years ago, Collin hadn't gotten anywhere near Jeff's grades. His SATs were above average but not be a huge amount. He always thought his ability was impressive, but Jeff's had been by far moreso in the minds of both brothers.

"Well fuck it. Either I'm in or I'm not, and at least if I'm not I won't have to worry as much about Jeff being an ass about it." With a deep breath he tore open the first of the letters. Then the second, the third, the fourth. They were so identical in their content he had to double check to make sure he hadn't somehow grabbed the same letter twice. 'Insufficient academic scores to warrant admission at this time.' They didn't even bother including the denial for the HCP at each of the colleges. There was no need to waste even the single sheet of paper.

He'd hoped that somehow it would be enough. A 2.1 GPA and a 1202 SAT, but from an elite private academy, that might make it carry just enough extra weight to slide him through the cracks somewhere. Staring at the final letter he quickly tore the envelope open before hesitation or introspection could do any more damage to his already shaken ego. This one was a lot thicker. A lot of paperwork about some program he'd never heard of. He skipped to the last page and his heart froze as he saw the HCP seal on the stationary. 'University of Overton HCP, applicant Collin Gauge: Accepted subject to additional academic requirements.' They were letting him in. They were putting him on academic probation before he even set foot on campus, but it didn't matter. He was in. As he leaned back against the weight bar behind him he couldn't quite bring himself to feel truly happy about this development.

"I'm in. But I wonder how long I'll last if even Jeff couldn't make it to the third year."

 

...

 

"Sean! Get your ass down here and open your letter so we can throw your party!" the young man in question sighed heavily as he pulled himself from his bed to stare in the direction the cheerful female voice echoed from. Sean Tannen, average height, heavy build, and perpetually tangled brown hair trudged slowly towards the door.

"What makes you think Overton is going to let me in when none of the others wanted me?" Sean had not realized how bitter he was over the rejections until he heard the tone in his own voice compared to his mother's unending cheerful optimism.

"It's entirely possibly your mother cheated and already looked, now come down here, open your envelope, and then it's time for cake!"

Sean was a bit taken aback by this statement. His mother's abilities would make it rather trivial to read his mail without opening it, and he wondered if she really had done so or if she was just goading him onward. Either way it was working, he was walking much more quickly to the living room where his mother held out a large manila envelope and practically vibrated with excitement. His father stood to the side, a smile on his face and a boxed cake in hand, wise enough to stay out of his wife's way when she got this excited.

Sean took the letter cautiously, and carefully unsealed it. Within was a large packet of paperwork. Much larger than a rejection letter could possibly need to be. For the first time he felt some of the same enthusiasm his mother was radiating as he pulled the packet out and dropped all but the last page. The smile that lit up his face made even his mother's vibrating cheerfulness look dull. The look soured after a moment though. "I can't believe you read my mail." he mock glared at his mother, trying to summon some level of angry emotion and failing utterly.

"Of course you can believe I read your mail. If it had been another rejection letter I would have flown down and personally beaten their HCP board into changing their position and brought back the right letter myself. Now there's quite a few details in all those papers you've thrown on my living room floor that are important, but first, CAKE!"

Sean found himself hugging the tiny woman that had raised him tightly with tears in his eyes. He had been so sure he was going to fall short of his goal. She had never doubted. Then he pulled back and looked at his mother carefully. "You didn't actually assault any of my future professors, did you?"

 

...

 

With an exhausted gasp and a thump, the young blond man collapsed onto the carpeted floor of a nicely furnished living room. Danielle Glenn watched her son, Jon, as he lay on the floor panting and the woman sighed. "You know pushing yourself until you end up hospitalized won't change whether or not you were accepted. I know you know this. You know that I know that you know this. So please sit down like a normal teenager, watch TV, and relax until the ma..." the sound of paper sliding through the mail slot, and the flurry of movement from the extremely lanky young man no longer collapsed on the floor cut Danielle off.

Jon walked slowly back into the living room, staring at the envelope in his hands. He started to open it and then stopped as his hands were shaking so badly between nerves and physical exhaustion that he couldn't get a grip on the flap. Wordlessly he held the envelope out towards his mother, eyes unblinking and never wavering from his determined stare into the manila paper.

"All right, moment of truth, would you like a drum roll Jon?" She succeeded in pulling his gaze away from the envelope, but only long enough to glare at her briefly, before his expression broke into one of desperate exhaustion.

"Please Mom, just open it and hope for good news for me. Overton's my last shot, then Dad's going to make me join the army." Jon's voice held nothing but pleading desperation. Danielle set the envelope aside for a moment and took hold of her son's still shaking hand.

"Jon Glenn, no one in this house will force you to do anything you don't want to. Your father is excited that you developed an ability, as late as it came on we were all shocked and he went a little overboard wanting to pull you into his command as fast as possible. If this letter is not the one you're hoping for then you will make your own decision about what comes next. If you want to go take a year off and reapply next year fine, same if you want to go to one of the prep schools for Supers or to a Community College, or if you decide you want to skip the HCP altogether! Whatever your choice is will stand. Your father will obviously try to convince you that you should join the army if you don't get into the HCP this year, but your father is a general Jon, it's his job to want you to join the army. If push comes to shove, trust that I will remind your father that in THIS household the Hero outranks the General." Her speech had the desired effect, a spark of life seemed to come back into her son as he nodded along with her.

"Thanks mom, but please open it now, so I know before I pass out."

Danielle promptly picked the envelope back up and used her fingernails to carefully slit the top open and extricate the letter. "Dear Mr. Glen, Overton University is pleased to inform you that your application has been accepted for the freshman class of the upcoming fall semester. Please..."

"The other letter mom," Jon's eyes were more than halfway closed as he settled onto the couch and took a deep breath. "The college is easy, but did I make it?" his voice trailed off a bit as Danielle sorted through the various admissions paperwork.

"Overton University, Hero Certification Program. We are pleased to accept the application of one Jon Glenn into the Overton Hero Certification Pro..." Danielle trailed off as she noticed her son's breathing had become regular and deep, his eyes closed. "I'll just leave this here for you son," she whispered as she set the letter on the coffee table in front of her sleeping child. "And call to break the news to your father that he won't be getting one particular new recruit he was hoping for."

 

...

 

The heavily tattooed and pierced oriental girl tossed the envelope onto the table in front of her as if it had just bitten her. The short, stocky young woman attempted a look of casual aloofness, and failed miserably.

"Daughter, you've been delaying on opening that letter for almost a week. If you wait much longer it won't matter what it says, because the school year will already have begun and you will feel very foolish." the woman speaking was much taller than her daughter, and between her appearance and a hint of accent seemed to be of Irish descent.

"Whatever, all these colleges are completely full of shit anyways. I dropped high school and got my GED at 16, and I'm getting denied for GPA bullshit?" the girl's rant was ended when her mother calmly slapped the back of her head with one hand and shoved the recently discarded envelope into her chest with the other.

"Lisa Bridgette Shang, you will stop acting like a fool and you will start acting like the mature young adult you spend so much time telling the world you really are. Open the damned letter, and then we are going out to dinner."

"Are we celebrating or commiserating?" Lisa rubbed the back of her head and gave a brief glare at her mother, but did not attempt to discard the envelope in question again.

"We won't know that until. You. Open. The. Letter." Lisa sighed dramatically. She knew that if she didn't open it at this point her mom would probably pin her to the floor, sit on her, and read it to her. She frequently wished that her genetics had taken more after her statuesque Irish mother as opposed to her asshole Chinese father. At least on HIM the look had been moderately attractive.

"Fine, but if this is my fifth of five rejection letters you are buying me a bottle of black label Crown Royal on the way home." She started grudgingly and with painstaking slowness to peel the envelope open.

"Agreed. But if it's your acceptance letter you are cleaning every square inch of this apartment every day from tomorrow until you leave for classes."

"Deal," Lisa pulled a thick stack of paperwork out of the manila envelope. "Holy shit, when they say everything's bigger in Texas I didn't think they meant the damned paperwork." Lisa's eyes scanned through the pages with a progressively more confused look on her face, and completely missed the one page that fell away from the back of the pile to drift across the table to where her mother caught it deftly. "What the hell is a 'pilot tutoring program?' And when did I sign up for this. Crazy cowboy fu..." she trailed off as realization finally caught up to her. "Oh my God. This is an acceptance letter. A bunch of crazy academic strings attached acceptance letter but holy fuck it's an acceptance letter." briefly forgetting her mother's presence Lisa actually danced a little jig around the table, sheets of paper flying around her as she did. "But... fuck it. It doesn't count. No HCP letter to go with it." Lisa fell into a chair and closed her eyes tightly, willing the tears not to come. "I think this one counts as a draw mom. Halfway accepted and halfway rejected, I think no cleaning and no whiskey tonight." her voice almost broke as she forced the words out.

"No daughter, this is an acceptance letter. That means I win the bet, and you have a lot of cleaning to do." Lisa couldn't believe how smug her mother sounded and was out of the chair ready to scream before her eyes managed to focus on the paper her mother was holding directly in front of her face. A sheet of paper with the HCP logo emblazoned all over it. And the word 'Accepted' in large bold print right there in the middle.

In the face of the last several moments of rapidly shifting emotional extremes, Lisa's brain took the best option it had available to it. Lisa made a soft "Squee!" noise somewhere in the back of her throat, and then the overly worked up girl passed out with a disbelieving smile on her face.

Fiona caught her daughter halfway to the floor and laughed. "Glad to see you handle good news almost as well as your mother does honey," as she lowered Lisa to the floor and waited a moment to see if she recovered from her shock on her own. After a long minute of watching her daughter lie blissfully out cold on her floor, Fiona shrugged and went to fill a large mixing bowl with cold water. She had a dinner to get to, and the guest of honor needed a wake up call.

 

...

 

"So what's the final count looking like Kathryn?" Elena Martinez posed the question as James finally made his way into the preparation meeting for the incoming freshman class.

"It's looking to be 62 this year. We ended up taking four of the five academic borderlines, and four of the eight others. We still have one final applicant who made a bit of an odd, but reasonable, request all things considered. A telepathic girl living over in Kilgore wants a personal meeting if she's accepted into the program. Her application stated up front that she has not yet informed her parents of her intention to enter the HCP and..."

"Why is she a potential applicant then? The HCP requirements..." James interrupted the Dean mid sentence and then was cut off in turn as both women in the room turned to glare at him until even the loud Combat instructor took the hint and trailed off.

"As I was saying. She did not inform her parents or rather large immediate family of her intent to enter the HCP when she applied, and stated in her application that the reason she did so was due to not wanting to spend the entire summer in close telepathic contact with seven dearly loved family members who would all be constantly worried for her. Her request was simply that a member of the HCP here at Overton would come out for a personal interview with the family IF she qualified for the program, and seeing as how it's less than a 20 minute drive AND the girl's qualifications are excellent, I saw no harm in humoring a very reasonable request."

"How strong of a telepath is this girl?" Elena's attention was instantly piqued by the Dean's obvious interest in this applicant.

"She can open up to a range of close to three miles. Of more interest is that she's apparently a projective or 'speaking' telepath. She can broadcast speech and images to nearly the same range she can listen to, although she states in her application it takes far more effort to broadcast than to listen. She's also been examined by some Advanced Mind experts I'm personally familiar with to confirm that and another quirk, she can access sensory data from people around her, effectively giving her an incredibly impressive spatial awareness as long as there are people or animals in the area she's in to 'piggyback' off of."

"How much telekinetic mayhem can she manage," James seemed to be warming up to the idea of the odd applicant as it sounded like she had a pretty impressive power set after all.

"At present, none. As far as can be determined she has no telekinetic abilities, in spite of everything else lining up to indicate major potential."

"Has that ever come up before?" Elena re-entered the conversation before James could say something inappropriate. "I've never heard of a telepath that strong not being telekinetic, and I don't think I've ever heard of a 'speaking' telepath before."

"I know there have been a few documented projective telepaths before, but it's very rare. Also it's not the first time a powerful telepath has been found with no telekinetic abilities. I do believe this girl may be the first point where both rarities have intersected though."

"Definitely one for you then Martinez. I don't think this one's going to be doing a lot of front line combat with no combat abilities." James sounded slightly disappointed by this outcome, though the two women were mostly shocked that he'd simply been to the point instead of starting another rant. A rarity for James Rachd with the arrival of the Oversight Committee looming on the horizon. "On to the first topic, are we sure that 62 freshmen won't raise any flags? This is going to be the biggest HCP class Overton has ever accepted."

"Tied for the largest class in Overton's history actually James. The incoming class for the '93-'94 school year was also 62. And I'm not especially worried considering Sizemore and West both have freshman classes of 70 students this year." Kathryn turned to Elena as she continued, "James is likely right about this new student being one for you however. I was going to ask if you wanted to make the trip out to meet her and her family. I can manage if you have something already scheduled."

"I'm sure I can manage. I can get to Kilgore a lot faster than you can, as long as I'm not expected to bring the girl back with me. Do you have the file?" Elena stood and held forth her hand, the question really a formality as the expected folder floated into her hand from the desk.

"You've got a couple of hours before the scheduled meeting, I have no idea what this girl told her family so far so try to be ready for anything when you get there."

"I'm sure it'll be fine. We'll finalize all the initial physical plans tomorrow then James?" Elena waited while James nodded his assent, then vanished from the room.

"I hate when she does that. She uses the door like a normal person on the way in, why's she gotta be flashy when she leaves?"

"Because James, it's rude to teleport INTO someone's office, not out of it."

 

...

 

Elena arrived about 5 minutes early, popping into existence a bit down the road from the address she was looking for, then slowly faded into view as she ascertained that there was no one observing her. She then strode quickly towards the somewhat rundown ranch home that was listed as her destination in the file she had absorbed over the last two hours. Catalina Blake; parents Sofia and George; four brothers, Edward, Juan, Ralph, and Lorenzo; one sister, Rose. She was a straight A student, apparently a diligent martial artist as well as a competitive cheerleader in high school, 5'10" tall, athletic, short auburn hair.

"You must be from the University. Please come in, I've already gotten the family together. Try not to let the boys intimidate you, they tend to be a little overprotective of me." Elena paused for a moment. Huh, so that's what a projective telepath feels like. The voice was soft, and genuinely sounded like she was hearing it externally, but with several notable oddities. Exactly the same volume in both ears, no breath sounds normally associated with someone speaking, and heard clearly over the dog that suddenly started barking loudly as she approached the door to the house.

As she stepped up onto the porch a male voice roughly yelled at the dog, and the barking quickly quieted. Elena pasted a standard professional smile onto her face as the door opened and a truly massive man stood in the doorway looking her over. "Cat tells me you've come out from the University to have a talk with us all? Please, come in. It's not a lot, but it's a home!" The living wall moved to the side and earnestly beckoned her forward.

As she entered it was quite easy to spot the assembled Blake family waiting patiently spread across several somewhat worn couches and chairs that appeared to have been hastily rearranged to face away from the TV. My God, what are they feeding them out here? Elena was momentarily awestruck as she surveyed the room.

The smallest of the men had to be 6'4" and they all looked to be made of solid muscle. Objectively she knew that the three women in the room were also quite a bit larger than average but mixed in with the five giants they looked absolutely petite. She heard a soft giggle with the same telltales as the earlier voice and worked to suppress her own small laugh. "They really are harmless. Mostly." Elena was a bit surprised that the girl was still using her telepathy to communicate, and moreso when she realized it was an open broadcast as she saw several of the men blush and the older woman, likely Catalina's mother, began laughing.

"So what important University business brings you all the way out here to see my daughter in person Miss-?" the older woman managed to quell her laughter but still held a wide smile as she stood and offered her hand to Elena.

"Elena Martinez, Elena is fine Mrs Blake," Elena responded as she shook the proffered hand. Predictably it was callused and extremely strong.

"Call me Sofia please Elena. It's a pleasure. But our Cat is being so secretive about all this, is there something wrong with her application? Or if the financial aid didn't come through, we can work out something I'm sure..." Elena felt bad as she realized that Catalina had actually told her family nothing other than the fact that a meeting was happening today. She braced herself for what she expected to be a bit of a conversation bomb but was interrupted before she could begin.

"Actually everyone, I don't think it would be very fair of me to make Professor Martinez deliver this news for me." Catalina stood and moved next to Elena before facing her family, now all riveted with looks of anxious curiosity on their faces. Elena was again mildly surprised that the girl had only spoken telepathically so far, and wondered if she thought she was still auditioning in some way. "Everyone, Professor Martinez is an instructor with the Overton University Hero Certification Program. She's here because I applied to the HCP and have been accepted. Mom, Dad, I'm going to be a Hero!" There was a little trepidation in the soft voice the girl projected, but hugely overshadowed with the pride and joy she felt at her acceptance. As Elena predicted, everyone immediately began talking at once, loudly, and rapidly.

After several minutes the largest man in the room, whom Elena had determined was Catalina's father George, yelled for quiet amongst his family before turning and directly addressing Elena, with Catalina still standing proudly at her side. "This is impossible ma'am, there's no way my daughter can do something that dangerous. There must be a mistake miss Elena." He was pleading, but there was a genuine undercurrent of fear in his voice that made Elena wary.

"Mr. Blake, George, your daughter is a gifted young woman, her abilities are exceptional, and she has demonstrated an incredible amount of focus and drive towards accomplishing this goal. I assure you the HCP did not make a mistake in selecting your daughter to be admitted, and we will take the best care of her possible while she is with us." but George was slowly shaking his head throughout Elena's entire speech, and she prepared herself for the inevitable rebuttal. She had prepped for a wide variety of scenarios, and thought it unlikely she was going to hear any argument that she hadn't already planned for. She just hoped that Catalina would join back into the conversation, it would make things a lot easier.

After a long pause George finally spoke again, very raw emotion evident in his voice. "My Catalina is deaf miss Elena. How is your program going to take care of that?"

Eyes widened Elena turned to Catalina, who smiled shyly and nodded in confirmation. "It's not like it's as big a deal as Dad is making it out to be. I probably hear more than anyone else in the room, just not using my own ears!"

Elena felt her mouth working open and closed a few times involuntarily as she processed the situation. This was NOT one of the scenarios she had considered.



 

 

Prologue pt 5:
Last Minute Addition

 

Janette Walker sat patiently in a small waiting room outside a closed office door. Next to her a tall, relatively thin man of apparent Samoan ancestry stood, rocking slightly back and forth and twisting a bit to stretch and glancing frequently at the clock on the wall.

"Are you sure she knows we're here Mrs. Walker? She might be out of her office." The tall man broke the silence as he noted the clock had marked off a full hour since they had arrived.

"The semester starts in three days Dale. Dean Jilles is meeting more or less constantly with the Professors that will be working with her incoming class. There's quite a bit more planning involved for this sort of thing than with a normal incoming freshman college class, and that's without all the bullshit we're all wading through this year." Dale Sefo, executive personal assistant to the Walker family and skilled teleporter, was still somewhat shocked every time his outwardly sweet and somewhat ditzy appearing employer spoke lately. She seemed to be giving up the 'harmless' persona she had affected for so long. "I'm sure that as soon as she has an opening she will see us in, after all she knows that it's important. I never realized how much I truly hated all the stupid formalities and word games professionals and politicians have to run through until I got to work with a telepath. It's so nice to be able to get things done without having to jump through a dozen flaming hoops first."

Dale chuckled softly at the mental image of his employer leaping through burning rings of metal dressed as a circus act. It was with this wonderful mental imagery that the door they had been waiting for suddenly swung open and a somewhat harried looking Dean Jilles waved them into her office.

"We've finally gotten confirmation on this damned Oversight Committee, and I have to admit, you and your husband do good work. Only one career political appointee on it, the rest are confirmed as honest to God investigators with the Attorney General's office, and one Overton Alumni as their Hero oversight." Kathryn smiled slightly at the last as she motioned Janette and Dale towards the chairs facing her desk. "Now as you were telling your assistant here, I do indeed know that you are here for something you feel is deeply important. In the interest of your expressed desire to eliminate as much bullshit as possible, what the hell could possibly be so important three days before the start of the term?" Kathryn's tone and expression remained remarkably pleasant as she spoke.

"I would like you to consider a last minute additional applicant," Janette motioned for Dale and he quickly approached and produced a file folder from somewhere. "I am aware that this is quite late, specifically this is the last possible day that any student can be added to the HCP, and doing so requires direct intervention from the Dean and an impressive set of extenuating circumstances. I believe that these circumstances," she gestured at the folder that Kathryn had not moved to open yet, "are far more impressive than these rules ever conceived of when they were written. Please Kathryn, if you disagree then I won't try to persuade you."

Kathryn gave the woman sitting across from her a long, measuring look. All she picked up from her mind was that Janette truly believed that she would go traipsing off with her and her teleporter the moment she finished reading this file. She sighed. "This had better be good Janette." Kathryn finally opened the file and began reading.

"Unfortunately it's quite the opposite Dean Jilles." Dale hadn't spoken since coming into the office, but the level of conviction in his voice surprised her, moreso as it was echoed even more strongly in his thoughts. "But I truly hope that the ending is happier than the rest of the story."

Kathryn turn back to the folder and read. As she read she felt her hands clench more tightly. Pages turned and her teeth ground together in anger. As she reached the end of the file she realized that she had actually torn several of the pages, so tight had her grip become. She looked back at Janette as she felt tears in her eyes. "This is true? All of it?"

"Every word has been verified. The final rulings were passed down this morning, and that girl now has a future again."

Kathryn grabbed her coat and sent a quick email from her laptop. "Are they expecting us?"

Dale nodded in response and held out a hand to each of the women. "There in a flash ladies, hold tightly please." And with a shimmer of greenish light and a soft popping sound as air rushed to fill a newly created void, the Dean's office stood empty.

 

...

 

'Amelia, they're here to speak with you, get upstairs quickly!' Amelia sprinted as quickly up the stairs as she could after receiving the short text message. She couldn't believe they were here already, she had thought for certain she would be waiting til next year to apply to the HCP. As the 6'2" stick figure of a girl rounded the final corner and through the door into the loft she currently shared with her older sister she was forced to stop so abruptly her braid swung around and struck her squarely in the face as she had nearly run over their visitors. Two women and one man, all dressed in quite a businesslike manner. Amelia briefly flushed as she realized she was wearing bike shorts and a sports bra. Not the first impression she had hoped to make, but she realized the fact that she was getting to make any impression at all was huge.

"Thank you so much for coming. I don't think I can express how happy I am to get a chance to enter the HCP this year. My name is Amelia Jacobson, please call me Ames." as she shook the hand of each in turn and they introduced themselves she marveled briefly that there was no hesitation on any of their parts. "Amanda says you've already read the report on me?" Seeing the nods from all three she continued, "So, does this mean I'm in?"

Kathryn actually laughed out loud at the girl's confident directness. She had read a file about a girl that had literally been locked in an asylum by a greedy man in order to take a wealthy family for every dollar that could be wrung from them. She had expected a shy, reserved girl, socially awkward, and likely terrified of physical contact. What she got was an extremely tall young woman who was direct, earnest, and seemed to have no lack of confidence whatsoever. "We actually do have an interview to perform before we can say one way or the other if you are 'in,' Ms. Jacobson. Are you feeling up to going back over everything again with the court case just wrapping up?"

Ames nodded without hesitation as the group moved to the dining room table and Amanda produced a pitcher of iced water and several glasses. "Where do you want me to start Dean Jilles?"

"Please start at the beginning if you could, although a summary of events from your perspective would probably be best as there is a bit of a time crunch involved." Kathryn began pouring water for all those assembled without actually touching the pitcher. Ames watched the floating pitcher for a bit with a smile on her face, then took a sip and assumed a more serious expression.

"The summary of events is pretty simple Dean Jilles. When I was four years old I nearly killed my sister." Amanda reached down over and rested a supportive hand on Ames' shoulder. "Shortly thereafter a con artist working for a respectable institute showed up and convinced me and everyone around me that I was a Powered, and a massive threat to myself and others. I was then kept locked in a very nice cell for the next twelve years. At the age of nine I was informed that my parents had been killed in a car accident and that my sister had almost died for the second time in her life as well, the largest resulting change for me being less outside contact and heavier restraints. At age eleven I finally started to question whether or not I really was a Powered because the reality I was living in did not match what my research on the internet said. Two years ago at the age of sixteen I waited until the con artist was not in residence at my prison, found one of the few people there I trusted, and demonstrated unequivocally that I am not a Powered, and have complete control over my ability. This morning they put that son of a bitch in prison for the rest of his natural life, and now I'm hopefully getting the chance to finally do something in the world after having spent most of my life watching it pass by through a massively reinforced window. I believe that adequately sums up my life story to this point." There were unshed tears visible in the girl's eyes, but her voice never wavered, and she showed no sign of fear or hesitation, only grief at the content of her memories.

Kathryn Jilles nodded in response to the story. The details were really far worse than the summary, and she'd already read those. The girl's mind confirmed to her that the impossible story was true, someone somewhere, no, a LOT of people EVERYWHERE had fucked up catastrophically to not notice that Francis Leroe, Director of Powered Havens, was coercing wealthy parents into sending their children to his clinics. Regardless of whether or not they truly needed the isolation, and regardless of whether or not they were actually Powereds. She'd only touched the barest edge of what Ames had lived through and it made her feel sick. Her appraisal of the young woman in front of her continued to ratchet upwards. After just long enough of a pause for the girl to finally show a hint of nervousness Kathryn stood and extended her hand across the table.

"Amelia Jacobson, I am honored to personally welcome you to the Overton Hero Certification Program."

Chapter 1

Chapter 1:
Moving In, Old Friends and New Faces

 

"C'mon Scott, at this rate we'll still be unpacking at Winter break!" Ty was currently seated in a comfortable looking office chair, watching as his friend trembled visibly as he attempted to move a massive piece of equipment into its neatly prepared slot.

"Lord give me strength," muttered Scott as he glared over his should at his reclining friend. "What the hell do you mean 'we' Ty? I finished unpacking yesterday in under an hour. This is all YOUR crap and you'd better get off your ass if you want me to keep helping you move it." Scott had been shifting equipment for Ty's takeover of the garage for almost six hours now, and he was seriously starting to reconsider his decision to room with his two friends. Or at least the part where he had offered to help Ty unpack.

"Scott that thing weighs slightly over one metric ton. How exactly would you expect me to assist your INCREDIBLE efforts to move such an impressive mass with naught but my fragile limbs to aid me?" Ty made no move to get up from his seat as he spoke. He might have left Scott with most of the heavy lifting, but he'd been crawling in, around, under, and on equipment all morning and was at least as exhausted as his friend. Plus he did not see the point in assisting where he couldn't actually do any good. "Besides if you want me to keep supplying you with high-density magnetic alloy goodies, this is still US that's unpacking."

Scott uttered a wordless grunt in response, which slowly became more of a groan. "Dear Lord are you sure that there's room for this thing here? It is not slotting in like you keep telling me it will. And it is NOT easy to steer this damned thing when you tell me I can only pick it up by these straps." a little redirection of energy caused one of said straps to make a sharp twanging sound as though plucked. "You think maybe you could..."

"Boys!" a familiar voice called from the doorway, interrupting the complaints and drawing the eyes of both young men. Erin had apparently decided her hair should be a deep shade of blue today, as she flicked some errant strands out of her face before stepping through the doorway and assuming a 'presenting!' posture. "May I introduce our finally arrived fourth dorm-mate, the lovely Amelia Jacobson!" at her words an extremely skinny girl noticeably taller than even Erin's six feet came into the door way and offered a shy wave.

"Please call me Ames," she spoke softly but clearly as she entered the garage and observed the current happenings. "Oh wow, that looks heavy. Do you need some help moving it?" Scott set the ridiculously large piece of industrial equipment down gently as he turned a look full of pleading sincerity towards the newcomer.

"Ames if you can get Ty's last giant toy in the too small space he made for it I will be eternally grateful." Scott then proceeded to collapse into the chair Ty had just vacated in order to offer a handshake to the new arrival. Ty scowled at his friend after shaking Amelia's hand and introducing himself.

"And the exhausted shrimp there is Scott," Ty stated as he completed his introduction. "And if you could help him out it really would be great. I'd be careful though because..." Ty trailed off as the tall girl stepped carefully past him, gripped the super dense alloy rings attached to the lifting straps that Scott had been using, and lifted and maneuvered the thousand kilo electric forge into place without any apparent effort.

All three long time friends were staring as Ames straightened from her task, though Erin at least managed to keep her mouth closed while she gawked. Scott's eyes grew even wider when he saw that Ames' grip on the magnetic rings he had been using to maneuver heavy equipment all morning had visibly deformed them. "Holy shit you're strong," Ames seemed to flush a bit at all the attention she had suddenly attracted from her dorm-mates.

"It's not that big a deal, and you were lifting it just the same as me a minute ago and you're like half my size so..." Ames trailed off as Ty and Erin both erupted into laughter. Scott looked less amused and settled for glaring at his friends until they subsided.

Erin got control of herself a bit ahead of Ty, "No Ames," she paused to stifle another giggle, "Scott wasn't lifting anything with his muscles. He does super short range magnetic fields."

"I could do without everyone having to point out the 'super short range' part," grumbled Scott as Erin continued her explanation.

"The reason they were using the rings and straps was to give him something to latch onto that wouldn't fry all of Ty's expensive toys." Erin walked over to the recently deposited equipment to inspect Ames' handiwork before turning to the taller girl again. "Where the hell do you keep all that muscle anyways? You're skinnier than I am and I can barely bench 800lbs. It didn't even look like that was HARD for you."

Ames shrugged in response, seeming a little embarrassed over misidentifying Scott's power, before considering the question Erin had asked her. "I actually don't know what my absolute upper limit is. I only got tested to make sure I had everything under complete control, we never did any upper limit tests."

"Well judging from your lifting angle on those straps and the weight of the machine, I can safely say that whatever your maximum limit is it's well over a thousand kilograms." Ty was already climbing over the final placed piece of equipment, hooking up conduit and unhooking straps.

"Well, now that Ty's toys are finally in place, I am a man in desperate need of a shower," Scott made a rather dramatic production of pushing himself out of the chair and pointing himself towards the door, then pausing and examining each of his three dorm-mates carefully. "How the hell did I get stuck in the land of the giants anyway?"

Erin laughed, Ames giggled, and Ty responded from his position halfway behind the machinery, "You do keep telling me that your God has a sense of humor, right?"

 

...

 

Cat sighed as she looked wistfully out from her tiny dorm window and wished she could have found a way to afford a spot in one of the townhouse dorms that had sprung up along the edge of campus. It wasn't that the regular dorms were particularly tiny or anything, although with her current roommate it definitely felt a lot smaller than it had when she'd first arrived.

"Having regrets about where you landed in the roommate lottery?" Cat's roommate made her way into the common area between their two bedrooms and gingerly dropped onto a standard issue heavily patched dorm chair. Next to most women she met Cat usually felt a little bit overly large. Standing next to Tasha she felt positively petite. The woman was even bigger than her brothers were.

"I don't have any regrets about my roommate," Cat responded to the large woman as she turned away from the window. "I just wish I could afford the deluxe accommodations so that my roommate and I wouldn't be sharing showers with the whole floor."

"That is a sentiment I can get behind. Maybe we'll manage something for that next year!" Tasha found the remote and started channel surfing. "You think they'll get us keyed to head down and check out the actual facilities tomorrow?"

"Considering that the entire Freshman class is supposed to be meeting in the HCP auditorium tomorrow I imagine we'll have to get access somehow. And there's really not enough teleporters for us all to get down without the elevators." Cat could understand wanting to get into the training quickly, although she'd never encountered Tasha's intensity in wanting to push herself physically in anyone she'd met before. She idly wondered how common such a trait would be in the program.

"Well I think I'm going to hit the regular campus fitness center until dinner time. You want me to leave the TV on?"

"I wouldn't get much value from it once you head out," the response briefly puzzled Tasha before she simply shrugged. Cat was her first telepath, and she had already decided that the whole species was probably a bit off.

Cat smiled as her roommate headed off. As far as this particular telepath was concerned, Tasha's last assessment was a completely accurate one.

 

...

 

Collin's arrival at Overton was much later than he had intended. He had delayed at home waiting until his mother could finish dealing with whatever difficulties Jeff had put himself into as she had wanted him to have a proper send off, but at present that situation still seemed unresolved. His mother had apologized for not being able to make it home to see him off in person and promised that she would fly down and see how he was settling in as soon as she got Jeff home. Just what every college bound eighteen year old looks forward to, an on campus visit from an overprotective parent. Now Collin was arriving only a single day before the Freshman HCP orientation, and only two days before classes. He managed to retrieve a hand truck to load his belongings onto as he made his way into the dorms. "I just hope I didn't end up with a serial killer for a roommate," he muttered to himself as he made his way onto the elevator. He supposed it wasn't too likely. The housing notice did let the incoming HCP students know that everyone rooming with an HCP student was also in the HCP. It was nice to know that the program wanted the 'Secret Identity' thing to be difficult, but not impossible.

Turning down the hallway, he quickly surmised that from a logical numbering progression his room should be all the way down in the corner. Not having been in a college residence hall before, it took him several false starts before he realized that logic did not seem to have much acquaintance with the room number progression. The highest numbered room in the hall was located dead center and directly across from the showers. Fumbling out his keys, he paused to knock on his door as he realized his roommate had likely beaten him here. "It's open!" a deep voice called pleasantly from the other side.

Collin managed to get the door open and waved at a tall black man sprawled at an odd angle across both the central room chairs. His roommate pulled himself to his feet as he noticed the truckload of belongings accompanying the new arrival. "Damn man, I was starting to hope that I was the odd man out and was going to get a room to myself!" Fully upright he was a couple inches taller than Collin, though not quite as heavily built. He crossed the room quickly and offered his hand. "Name's Ben. You want a hand moving your stuff?"

Collin shook the proffered hand, "Collin," he replied and winced slightly at the taller man's grip.

"Oh, sorry man. I was hoping you were a Strength like me. You got the build for it ya know?"

Collin nodded and flexed his hand a few times. "After a fashion, I actually am a strength type. Shifter, actually." Ben looked a bit excited at the news.

"That is awesome to hear my new friend. I can finally have someone to spot me on the big stacks. Bet you know what it's like to look for help with that shit?" Collin nodded in agreement. Assuming they were even in the same ballpark in terms of physical strength, his roommate could make a great training partner. "Now let's get your shit put away so we can go hunt down some food. Word of advice though, don't touch anything they serve at the West side cafeteria unless there's money on it."

Collin laughed. Maybe the HCP wouldn't be as bad as he'd started to fear. At least things looked to be off to a good start!

 

...

 

"Come on Kyle, you've got to tell us! You know what all of our abilities are. You can't just pull that 'My power is Shifting' bullshit!" A chorus of agreement came from the other two dorm-mates. Kyle sighed. It had seemed like such a great idea to get listed for the newer, nicer, townhouse-style dorms back when he'd filled out the housing application. The cost difference was definitely not a factor for his family. It hadn't occurred to him that as a result he would essentially be stuck with three randomly selected roommates instead of just one. All eyes were on him as he maintained his silence.

"Seriously my new friend, it is an ability that was worth accepting you into the HCP. It cannot be that bad." The speaker this time was one Ramón Carrera. "If it is shifting then at the very least it is probably less boring than my being very strong and fast. Or than Gerard hitting things with invisible walls." The tall hispanic man stood to tower over Kyle as his 6'4" frame leaned in close, seeming oblivious to the slightly shorter Gerard Finne glaring at him for the unflattering assessment of his own ability. "And most of all it cannot possibly be less interesting than our Canadian's power of speaking French while healing!" Unlike Gerard, Antoin Montaine, the French Canadian in question simply laughed at this assessment of his ability.

"You realize, Ramón, that the speaking of French and the healing of injuries are separate talents, and not dependent on one another?" Antoin managed a very condescending tone as he spoke, but his expression indicated a less than serious intent behind it.

"They have told me many times the same thing is true of being very strong, and having all these muscles. For Supers, they are not always related," Ramón gestured towards himself before turning and adopting a body builder's pose. "But since I have never been super strong myself without having all of these muscles," he shifted into a new pose and both Kyle and Antoin found themselves laughing at the ridiculous expressions Ramón was contorting his face into to match his physical poses, "I cannot verify such a thing as fact. And I would wager my Northern friend, that you have never healed anyone without also having the ability to speak French!" He finally lost his pose as he broke down and joined two of his three dorm-mates in laughing at his own absurdity.

"Regardless of the giant's reasoning, or lack thereof," Gerard was the only one still wearing a serious expression as he alternated a cool glare at each of his dorm-mates. "Are you really going to persist in not telling us what you can do? After we've already shared our abilities with you?"

"I believe," said Kyle as the laughter died down in the face of Gerard's unrelenting seriousness and he stood to head in the direction of his bedroom. "That I will do exactly that. In deference to all the sharing you three have done, I will say this at least. While shifted..." he turned back towards the group while letting his voice drop very low so that all three of his dorm-mates leaned in closer. "I would definitely be victorious in the Swimsuit Competition!" this last statement was made with completely solemn conviction that lasted for several seconds before the three less serious residents all broke down laughing again.

"That's it? This is a serious matter and all you want to do is make jokes? And now where are YOU going?" Gerard noticed that as Kyle made his way towards his room Ramón had grabbed a set of keys from the basket near the door and was in the process of heading outside.

"Where else my friend? I have been challenged! I am off to purchase a new speedo!"

 

...

 

The four girls gathered round an open pizza box and a pair of half empty 2 liters. All four wore various workout clothes and exhausted expressions. These girls had met in the Freshman dorms, realized that there were still townhouse dorms available, and as a group decided to hatch a mad scheme to get moved from one side of the campus to another in less than a day. Lisa Shang looked around at her three new dorm-mates and smiled. This was going to be a much nicer way to spend the school year than crammed into a single hallway sharing four showers and six toilets with nineteen other girls. A strange realization dawned on her as she relaxed. "So Ladies, anyone else willing to bet that this is the only residence on campus without any white people in it?" Lisa smiled as this statement was met with brief startlement, followed by a round of examination and more laughter from the other three.

"Two Asians, a Mexican, and a Black girl walk into a house in Texas..." drawled Ora Brooks, the very petite black woman mentioned in her own statement. "I'd be willing to bet we could find at least one redneck on campus that can add the completely racist punchline to that." Ora reached forward to snag another slice of pizza.

"You think we could find only one punchline?" the very slender but not quite as petite Japanese woman asked as she leaned back into the sofa and sighed. "I think I have heard twenty or more such jokes already, and I have only been in Texas for three days." She looked towards the last of their group. "I imagine you have heard more than that Teresa?"

"First, I'm Puerto Rican, so let's stop pretending that it's only the rednecks in Texas that like to make racial generalizations Ms. Brooks, Ms. Kimura. And second, oh God yes. Hundreds, and I've only been here a day longer than you have." Everyone laughed again at her pronouncement. Teresa kept up the mock serious/angry expression for a few more seconds before joining in the laughter. "What the hell were we thinking when we decided to go to school in Texas, Ladies?" she bemoaned into her drink after finishing her last slice.

"I was thinking they were the only HCP crazy enough to let me in. What's ya'lls' excuse?" Lisa's attempt at a drawl was definitely cringe worthy.

"Father was a graduate from Overton, so father says: 'Kaori must go to Overton and carry on Great Family Legacy!'" the way her expression changed, her accent became incredibly pronounced, and she tried and failed to pitch her voice deeply enough to sound masculine drew another round of giggles from the assembled girls. "Or possibly start 'Great Family Legacy' since he's the only Hero our family has ever had that I know of. Father's instructions are not always very precise, or logical." The Japanese girl shrugged.

"Only HCP I could afford. They got some great financial aid here to help make up for it being, ya know, here." this statement came from Ora as she also finished her meal and rose from her chair. "I do believe it is time to shower and feel like a proper human being again. However I am curious as to why 'Ms. Montez' deigned to grace the lonestar state with her presence as well." there was another round of laughter as Ora nearly perfectly mimicked Teresa's scolding tone from when she'd addressed her and Kaori a few minutes ago.

"Well my reasons are even simpler than the three of you," Teresa stated with a perfectly serious expression on her face, before reaching down and cupping her chest demonstrably. "They keep saying everything's bigger in Texas, and I came here hoping that it would become true!"

 

...

 

"Cheers!" a pair of glasses clinked together as pair of young men sprawled tiredly in their standard issue patched beyond ever knowing what the original upholstery looked like dorm chairs. Both sat facing an enormous 72" 3D high definition TV screen that had taken all the ingenuity a pair of college Freshman could summon to navigate the narrow corridors up to their room and install. The steel wall anchor was probably going to cost them a bit of a room damage charge. Completely worth it.

A celebratory meal of Chinese takeout was ordered as the brand new epic flatscreen was broken in with a short sci-fi marathon. Both were quite glad to have landed a roommate with sufficiently similar tastes to be able to relax together. The husky young man with short brown hair and heavy late day stubble looked over at his extremely thin blonde roommate and realized that one point of order had been skipped since their initial meeting and neglected further in the rush to bring his new TV up. As the ending credits played for the current episode he reached his hand over in the direction of the other man, receiving a curious look as he did so.

"I'm Sean Tannen, by the way," he smiled as the realization came onto his roommate's face and the other man started laughing loudly as he reached out to shake the proffered hand.

"Jon Glenn," the slightly taller blond man finally managed as he stopped laughing. Both turned back towards the giant screen as a new episode queued up from the blu-ray.

"Sean?'

"Yes Jon?"

"I think we might need to work a little bit on our detail orientation while we're in the HCP."

Sean considered his roommate's suggestion as an epic space battle played out in beautifully rendered 3d before his eyes. And thought back to the two full days they had been staying in the same dorm without remembering to introduce themselves. "You might be onto something Jon. Let's start paying attention to details at orientation."

"Sounds like a good plan." The show played for several more minutes before Jon turned again to his roommate. "When exactly is orientation again?"

Chapter 2

Chapter 2:
Orientation

 

Michael Karl was feeling slightly less than pleased as he made his way into the large auditorium amidst a sea of black uniformed students. The required orientation for HCP students, required on a weekend no less, had been delayed for almost three hours. Michael sometimes wished his telepathy was more precise as various people had gone through the Freshmen waiting to use the concealed elevators that led down to the underground complex where all HCP courses and events were held. All he knew was that the 'new security protocols' were all fucked up in some interesting ways. At least he was slightly mollified to know that the technicians were having an even worse day than the students. They had apparently been working on this since 4am.

He found himself slightly surprised as the flow of black uniformed bodies around him made their way into the seating and revealed that there was a group of gray uniformed students and a much smaller group in white already occupying the auditorium. From the thoughts projected from that side of the room it was quickly apparent that the Freshman class had not been the only ones losing a huge chunk of their last day of freedom. Also apparent was that most of the upper classmen seemed more than slightly confused as to why they were here at all. A sentiment that Michael found himself echoing internally as he found an empty seat and dropped into. The packet said that this was specifically the Freshman orientation. I wonder why the whole program turned out?

Fortunately the students were not left long in suspense. Shortly after the last of the arriving Freshmen found a seat several professionally attired persons made their way onto the stage facing the assembled Supers. Well, mostly professional attire. The two that stayed towards the stage entrance and well back from the seats that had apparently been placed up there for whoever these people were had dressed in tan colored BDUs instead of suits. Michael tried to get some idea of what was going to happen as a petite woman with shoulder length black hair identified by photo in the Freshman information packet as Dean Kathryn Jilles approached the microphone. His efforts to listen in on the stage met with some strange static that he'd never encountered before. It was like a white noise generator going off in his head. And one of a pair of identical looking women caught his eye as he puzzled over the new sensation and winked at him. Shit. Fortunately the Dean launched into her speech before any repercussions could land in his lap.

"Assembled students of the Overton Hero Certification Program, please allow me to apologize for taking up so much of your last day of summer. I will make this as brief as possible so that you can get back to the important hours of freedom before my program owns your nearly every moment for the next nine months." There was a bit of nervous laughter from some of the Freshmen. None from the older students. "Our first order of business affects the entire enrollment of the HCP, and after it is taken care of all but the Freshmen will be dismissed." That statement got some more interest from the upper classes. "So please allow me to introduce the seven gentlemen and three ladies on the stage behind me." Odd, there were actually four women on stage by Michael's count. "Ladies and gentlemen if you could please stand when I call your names. Bert Rivera, Jessie Green, Sherman Banks, Allan Riley, Rufus Hawkins, Joe Jones, Darlene Neal, and Celia Watkins." Everyone but the man in the most expensive looking suit and the two identical women had stood as their names were called. "These seven upstanding men and women are special investigators for the United States Attorney General's office, here at Overton on a special assignment. The finely dressed specimen directly behind me is Walter Raines, oversight appointee by the Senate HCP Budget Committee. Next to him is a woman a few of our more Alumni obsessed students may have already recognized, and also appointed by the Senate committee, the Hero Mirror." There was a great deal of chatter occurring amongst the assembled students now. Investigators? Oversight? And Mirror, one of the biggest name Heroes in DC was here in Texas?

"If everyone can please settle down so we can get this finished and all of you can get back to whatever you had planned for your final day of freedom," the Dean's voice and its reminder that escape could be at hand sooner rather than later had the desired effect of quickly quieting the assembly. "This is not something the student body needs to be alarmed about. The Budget Committee has simply decided to begin some review processes to see how the HCP is spending its billions of dollars per year allotments and has formed this Oversight Committee to do exactly that. For everyone's piece of mind, for the purposes of the 'Secret Identity' requirements these men and women are treated the same as Overton HCP Instructors. Additionally none of them should approach you at any time that you are not in the underground HCP areas. Please be as courteous to them as you would with any of our other faculty. Oh, and one more small thing." Dean Jilles held up an almost comically large ID badge from the podium in front of her to where the assembled students could see it. "All of our students and faculty are set up with a combination biometric pass key and an enhanced Overton ID badge to allow you access to the underground facilities. Our visiting committee will not have biometric keys due to high level HCP security concerns, so they will all have these badges instead. If any of you students should happen to find a member of the committee 'trapped' in our facilities having misplaced their ID somewhere, please assist them in reaching the nearest faculty member as quickly as possible so that the situation can be remedied." The Dean's expression held nothing but polite sincerity. The looks on the faces of the oversight committee ranged mostly among various degrees of amused expressions with the exception of a surprisingly hostile look from the Senate appointee. There was a round of smothered chuckles and giggles from the assembled students as several realized what the Dean was telling them. Michael found himself smiling as well.

"It is our hope that we can make this process as streamlined and painless as possible and not allow it in any way to interfere with your educations and progress within the program. And I would like to apologize once more to all of our students for the delays this meeting has created. Everyone except the Freshman class, you're dismissed."

 

...

 

After the other three classes had filed out of the room the remaining Freshmen were instructed to seats closer to the front and center of the auditorium. After everyone had finished moving the man and woman dressed in BDUs instead of business suits took up positions on the floor level in front of the stage and podium, directly in front of the Freshman class. Dean Jilles gave the Freshmen another moment to settle into their new seats before she began again.

"Welcome Freshmen, to Overton's HCP. I would like to assure you that we don't normally have problems with punctuality, and apologize again for the wait. Fortunately this meeting won't take that long either, so you should still be free in time for a late lunch!" The Dean's smile seemed to be a genuine one as she addressed the smaller group.

"During your tenure in the HCP it is important to remember three things. Firstly, many of you are not going to have what it takes to be heroes. Of every class that enters the HCP, by the time that class's graduation comes around more than 80% of that class will not have made the cut." This announcement was greeted with a great deal of surprise and more than a little fear became evident in the room. "That is not to say that you won't ever have a second chance if you don't make the cut at any point. Barring direct expulsion from the program you will be invited to re-apply as you continue to improve yourself and your abilities. Several distinguished Heroes did not receive their certification in only four years." The softening of the blow did not seem to notably improve the mood of the room. After another pause to allow the students to process this information, Dean Jilles continued her list.

"Second, you are going to have to work harder than you've ever imagined you were capable of in order to succeed here. Take everything you think you know about limits and forget all of it. Starting tomorrow you will be expected to push yourself to levels beyond what any ordinary person or Super is capable of." Several students were visibly wilting at the content of the Dean's speech.

"Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you need to learn very quickly that possessing great power is not all there is to becoming a Hero. You will need to be creative, intuitive, and adaptive. You can try to make it through on nothing but brute force, but by far and away the majority of those that I have seen fail out of these programs choose that path. In this very room we have a student who could likely fold a tank in half bare handed, and another whose only Super ability is to make herself unseen and unheard. I will tell you that both of these students right now have the exact same chance of graduating from this program. You're success or failure will depend on far more than how hard you can hit something." The Dean paused again as she let her final point sink in and smiled a little wider at her students as she realized that many of those projecting the worst nerves a moment ago were now much calmer, while several of those previously most confident were now beginning to worry.

"And now that I believe I have sufficiently impressed upon you all the gravity of your choice to enter, and chances of succeeding within, the HCP, allow me to introduce your primary instructors for your Freshmen year. For those of you who have somehow forgotten my name already, I am Dean Jilles and I will be your professor for Ethics of Heroism. The large gentleman forward and to my left is Professor James Rachd, although I understand he prefers 'Coach Rachd.' He will be your primary physical fitness instructor as well as the primary combat instructor for your Freshman year. The distinguished lady forward and to my left is Professor Elena Martinez. She will be the assistant physical fitness instructor and will be the primary instructor this year for those of you who do not have primarily combat oriented abilities. Does anyone have any questions before I turn this meeting over to the two professors?" A few hand went up quickly.

"Ms. Johnson," the Dean pointed at an impressively massive black girl who stood as her name was called.

"What about the healers? The information packet says we have to do some alternate stuff in addition to the physical and combat training. Who do we report to for that?" There were quite a few shocked expressions as students took in the six and a half foot tall muscular woman, all with the same thought in mind. That's a healer?

"Ah, a relevant question. Always excellent. Healers in the program that wish to receive additional credit and training in that area will be reporting to Doctor Saxena following the completion of the combat rankings next Saturday. Any other questions?"

Several more hands went up, this time a Mr. Plankett was called. "We're doing combat ranking the first week?"

"Many of the HCPs actually do their combat ranking matches on the very first DAY Mr Plankett. At Overton we like to delay for the first week so that those truly unprepared for the level of physical exertion required are washed out of the program before we build the ranking system. Anyone else?" The reminder that students were expected to wash out of the program in the very first week seemed to have quieted most of the class. One hand went up again though. "Yes Mr Carrera?"

"So the entire mass of us will be taught by only three instructors, or four if you count the doctor that works with the healing students? That seems to me like not enough."

"As Freshmen you will only be working with a very limited selection of the staff while we ascertain your fundamentals and build up an actual base to improve all of your abilities. Those of you that make it to the Sophomore year will be working in more specialized disciplines with a wider variety of instructors."

"How many of us are going to make it to Sophomore year?" several students looked around to see where the last question had come from to see a young auburn haired hispanic woman standing to address the Dean.

"There are 28 slots in the Sophomore HCP program. Please keep in mind that you will not only be competing for those spots against your own classmates, but there is an additional pool of former students that have previously not made the cut seeking readmission. Anyone else?" No hand went up this time. The mood in the auditorium was decidedly somber as Dean Jilles directed the two professors to take over.

"Alright, LISTEN UP! Pick your asses up and stop feeling sorry for yourselves. You ain't even tried yet and half of you look like you've already failed. Works out pretty good for me as I've got to cut about that much dead weight from my program by the end of the year." James Rachd sounded far more like a drill instructor than a college professor. A point the man was definitely proud of. "As far as all of you are concerned my name is Coach Rachd. I do not accept or appreciate attempts to abbreviate or change that name. Here's the way it's going to break down. You are all scheduled for three and one half hours of 'gym' five days a week. I will tell you up front that if you think you get to skip out on the other two days you will not last long in my program," a few flinches from the crowd at that one.

"For the first week we will not be doing any combat training, we will be running you into the ground to show you how far out of shape most of you are. Everyone in this room who's ability grants them an enhanced physique will likely thank God for that several times before the week is over. Don't worry, we'll get around to busting your limits after Combat Rankings." More nervous shifting, but none of the students had the nerve to so much as mutter and every eye was locked on the Combat Instructor. "After the first week is over and you have been ranked, each gym session will be two hours of physical fitness, one hour of general combat instruction, and one additional half hour of physical fitness. Those of you who will be putting their classmates back together in addition to taking them apart are excused for the final half hour to work with Dr Saxena instead. This is how things will work until the winter break, then things will change again. Questions?" the last word sounded more like a challenge than anything else, but one of the students raised a hand. "Black kid in the middle, what?"

"It's Ben Pelley Coach Ra-"

"The Dean is the telepath kid, I'm not going to bother remembering any of your names until you've been here long enough to impress me. Get to your question."

"Sorry, I was just wondering what happens after the Winter Break?"

Coach Rachd let out a barking laugh as his first response. "I like that you think you're going to be here long enough for it to matter, but the fact is I don't see the point in explaining what's going to change to a room half full of people that won't see that change. Anyone else?" Either all the questions had been answered or no one was quite brave enough to ask Coach Rachd anything else quite so soon. Into the silence Elena Martinez stepped forward.

"For those of you worried about the amount of emphasis the first semester places on combat, relax a little bit before you give yourselves strokes. I am Professor Martinez, you can call me Coach when we're in the gym but I would much prefer to leave that title in that room." There were a couple of nervous laughs as her tone indicated the statement was meant to be humorous, but not many. "While the first semester is focused almost exclusively on combat training and physical fitness we are not going to be evaluating you all on the same scale. We will not be throwing you off the deep end to drown while we watch. If you have a non-combat oriented ability we will work with you to maximize it's usages in combat while prepping for your upcoming alternate training. The Dean and Coach Rachd enjoy scaring the newcomers a bit by letting them know about the expected failure rate, but here's the silver lining: You don't get cut from the program until you fail to measure up on your own. There are 28 Sophomore slots, but that's for each program. You are competing not only against the students in this room, but additional students in four very similar rooms around the country listening to very similar speeches, and a host of others that have already been through what you're about to do at least once. But they are also competing against YOU. Not every single one of you can continue at Overton, but if you are truly as good as most of you thought you were before you got here, you can ALL continue in the HCP," the mood in the room had shifted a bit. No one seemed exceptionally optimistic at the expanded explanation, but it was a light at the end of the tunnel for all of them.

The three HCP Instructors all wore the same expressions they had a moment ago, but all were internally satisfied. There was a level of quiet determination in the room that had been absent before. They now had a properly motivated Freshman class to work with. Dean Jilles stepped back up to the microphone one last time.

"You may all now return to your last day of summer. Additionally the HCP training facilities are now all open for your use." and as the class filed out of the room her smile widened slightly. Almost every student was heading towards the training rooms instead of the elevators. It was a good sign.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3:
Surviving the First Week

 

Three classes and less than one full day into her college career, Catalina Blake found herself outside of Dean Kathryn Jilles office, wondering if she had made the greatest mistake of her short life. After nearly five solid minutes of staring at the door trying to work up the nerve to actually knock before the Dean's office hours ended and both would be due in the 'Ethics of Heroism' class Catalina had made it nearly halfway across the sitting area towards the door.

Will you please just open the door and walk into my office so you can stop giving me a migraine with your nerves? The nervous Freshman actually stumbled sideways into the wall in surprise as she picked up the fully coherent thought directed at her. I may not be projective like you are but I can tell when you're listening. Please come in. NOW.

The young woman flushed a bit at the mental reprimand, then steeled her legs for the remaining three steps, marched forward, and finally made it through the door into a rather small office containing neat stacks of file folders on every available flat surface and one somewhat amused looking Dean sitting behind the desk. The Dean motioned for her to take one of the two unoccupied chairs across the desk from her, and waited for Catalina to seat herself.

"Now, what could possibly have happened on the first day that has an HCP student so tightly strung I thought the mental pressure was going to give me a nosebleed?" the Dean's tone was polite, and her demeanor was professional but casual. Her visitor seemed to fold a little farther into the chair at the reminder that her presence and procrastination had caused the Dean discomfort.

"I have a concern about... Ethics I suppose actually," the Dean was still finding the younger telepath's ability to project her voice mentally somewhat unsettling, though she did find the young girl to have a lovely 'speaking' voice.

After another long few moments it was Dean Jilles who decided the silence needed to be filled again. "I've often found that even with telepaths things tend to be clearer and easier to discuss when the content of a topic is actually discussed Ms Blake," Catalina blushed a little deeper from embarrassment before rejoining the conversation.

"You know how I'm a telepath and I kind of 'borrow' visual and aural input from other minds around me, and I never thought it would really cause problems and I don't even think about it most of the time, but in class I'm noticing that everything that's being discussed I'm getting from everyone, and I know there's not a lot on the first day, but I think I'm already two chapters ahead in my literature class and I haven't even opened the textbook yet!"

Kathryn smiled at the nearly frantic young woman as she began to ramble. A notable downside to telepathic projection, she noted as the rambling continued, the speaker does not in fact have to pause for breath at any point in the conversation. After letting the girl chase her own thoughts in circles for a few more moments Dean Jilles interrupted her student the simplest way she could think of, a quick telekinetic flick to the nose was more than sufficient to derail the mental babbling so that a spoken word could finally be inserted again. "Your concern is understandable, and you should take it as a very good sign that your ethics are firmly intact if you're worried about having an unfair advantage in classes on day one. Here's what you need to remember though: you are a Super. You will have a lot of unfair advantages over a lot of people in your life, no matter what you choose to do. For a telepath as powerful and active as you are standard procedure at Overton has always been that you will attend and test normally with your classes, but that you will also complete a separate mid term and final in a 'quiet room' to insure that you have actually absorbed the relevant material and aren't just borrowing it from your classmates and instructors while they are handy." Catalina's changing expression almost caused the Dean to burst out laughing as she watched it traverse from nervous, to hopeful, to happy, and finally to something somewhere close to disappointment as she realized she would have to effectively take every major test in her college career twice.

"So this is normal, well, Super normal anyways?"

"As far as the HCP is concerned certain abilities, with regards to a student's academic career, are simply exceptional studying aides. As long as steps are taken to insure that the student is not attempting to actively cheat with them. Hence taking different tests over the same material for telepaths, and a few other precautions for other abilities."

Catalina was definitely curious as to what other precautions and other abilities could be referring to, however she was quite happy enough with the answers she had already received and did not want to push the Dean further after already nearly ruining things with her long entrance. "Thank you very much for your time Dean Jilles, and I'm sorry again for any discomfort my mental state caused. I'll try to remember to get things over with quickly next time!"

"I imagine you won't be the only student that gives me a headache this week Ms Blake. It's part of the job description. Now I believe it is time for your next class," Dean Jilles stood as she spoke, and the door opened seemingly of it's own volition. "And time for my next class as well. I'll see you in the auditorium Ms Blake."

"Yes Dean. And thanks again!" and with that the younger telepath darted out of the office and jogged down the hallway towards the HCP lecture rooms.

Kathryn smiled again. It had taken four days of class before she had brought a similar concern to Dean Fillion all those years ago.

 

...

 

"I'm telling you man, he's gone. It wasn't even into the first day, Presley was just GONE this morning when I got up. And now his stuff's getting packed up by University staff. How the hell are we supposed to make it in this program if we're getting picked off before we've even had on class?" The obviously agitated speaker was drawing a bit of a crowd from the students who had arrived early to their first official class in the Overton HCP. A few looked dismissive but most were rapidly becoming as worried as the speaker.

"They wouldn't kick us out before day one, unless something came up suddenly that the background missed the first time around my friend. You should stay calm, or at least ask the Dean before you panic!" the second speaker was a tall heavily muscled hispanic man, and seemed by far the most relaxed of the growing knot of students.

"Fuck you Ramón! You think I'm going to ask the Dean of the HCP why they kicked out my roommate in the middle of the night before the year officially started? I'm not stupid enough to get my own ass thrown out, you ask her!" the notably shorter white speaker was beginning to lose control of his volume, and spitting more than a little as he half yelled his rebuttal.

"Whatever you say Shane, but please let me know if you would like me to do the fucking or the asking first," he waggled his eyebrows suggestively at the suddenly retreating and even further panicked first speaker. "The asking I think can be done as soon as the Dean gets here, but proper time for the other..."

"You, but, NO! Fuck..." Shane was rapidly reaching the point of being unable to speak. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Ramón was not suffering a similar problem.

"Ah, a change of heart. No fucking then, as you say. This is probably for the best as I must admit I have no experience with the men in that department. Ah, but class is about to begin, so the asking I can still do. To our seats Freshmen!" and with that Ramón bounded away from the group towards a desk with his name on it, and most of the others quickly followed suit, the situation mostly defused thanks to the large Mexican.

A few moments after the last stragglers found their way in but not yet to their assigned seating, Dean Jilles entered the small auditorium style lecture hall and took her position behind the lectern, patiently waiting for the last few students to find their seats before beginning.

"Welcome all to your first official HCP course of the year. I'm sure that right now many of you are not looking forward to Ethics of Heroism, as it truly does sound like a dreadful bore of a class. I think it will end up being a favorite HCP course for many of you this first year, I will inquire tomorrow," the almost predatory smile on the Dean's face had most of the students in the front row squirming somewhat uncomfortably in their seats. "On to another issue that needs to be addressed before it grows out of control, and you can put your hand down Mr Carrera it is in fact that issue, and yes I can read your mind, that's what they pay me for." Ramón's unflappable demeanor seemed unaffected by this statement as he dropped his hand with a shrug.

"Many of you are concerned with your former classmate, Mr Presley Anders, Mr Lynton's former roommate. Please allow me to quell your fears that the HCP is washing out students prior to any evaluations. Mr Anders was unfortunately forced to leave the program and the University due to a family emergency and will not be rejoining our class this year. He has indicated a desire to reapply to next year's HCP class and in all likelihood will be reaccepted without issue, so those of you who make the cut for Sophomore year will be able to see Mr Anders and ask him personally all the questions that many of you are considering asking me, and that I will not be answering." Many students in the group that had been flocking around Shane Lynton slumped back into their seats and dropped half-raised hands in response to the closing portion of the Dean's statement.

"Now that THAT matter is settled, let's move on to our actual class. This is Ethics of Heroism, a course where you will study, discuss, and debate many of the choices made or not made by real world Heroes in actual field situations. The objective of this course is to teach you about how a Hero has to react in a situation that they frequently have only seconds to analyze, and hopefully in doing so to instill some of the values you will need to make the correct choices when it comes to be your time to be the Hero in the field deciding between life or death in a split second."

 

...

 

Ty could say with some certainty that he had enjoyed Ethics of Heroism. He had thought the class would be boring, but even in the very first lecture they had gone into some of the more famous recent Hero activities that had made national headlines. And the class had gotten to see all the information that the media didn't have or wouldn't display that influenced why some of those Heroes made the choices they did. Ty found it exhilarating and terrifying to think that someday he might be the one that had to make a decision that could cost or save thousands of people's lives, including his own, in less time than it normally took to answer a phone call. As the end of the Freshman's first Gym period was finally within sight, he was also completely certain that Ethics of Heroism was his favorite HCP class. 'Gym,' he was now absolutely certain, was simply some archaic and long dead language's term meaning 'Eternal Suffering.' He nearly collapsed on the running track as Coach Rachd finally called out the sweet, blessed words he had been waiting for over an hour to hear.

"Run's over, walk cool for five and then GET OVER HERE!" Even the Coach's drill instructor shouts sounded like an angelic chorus with the right words at the right time.

He found himself walking next to his much smaller friend, Scott, as they continued their trek around the track, though he was pretty certain Scott had lapped him at some point during the actual run. "I'm really... Really glad... that you... talked me into... Erin training... two years ago." the tall, somewhat heavy black youth shook sweat soaked dreads out his eyes, noting that the damned things were staying flat against his head for probably the first time since he'd decided on the style. "I thought that girl... was insane when she... put me through all that," Ty was finding himself becoming more annoyed that his much smaller friend didn't seem to be having nearly as difficult a time as he was. "And how the hell... are you not breathing hard?"

"I was breathing plenty hard Ty," Scott was actually able to get full sentences out without needing to pause for breath. "However in spite of all the extra smarts the good Lord stuck in your skull, he gave ME the common sense to wait until I've caught my breath before starting a conversation with my friends." Ty glared, but Scott only smiled. "If you want unfair, Erin is the one that was NEVER breathing hard," as he pointed Ty looked over to see their other friend, today sporting very plain looking brown hair, approaching them along with their fourth roommate, Amelia. "And Ames doesn't even look like she's so much as sweated a drop. So please complain to them about breathing, while I get some water and recover the way mere mortals must."

"Water sounds good," Ty agreed as the two headed over to one of the fountains alongside the track for a quick drink before the Coach's shout reminded them all that there was an appointed meeting they were apparently late for.

"Congratulations boys and girls, most of you made it through your first session in my Gym! That means that tomorrow I should be able to ramp things up to almost a real workout for y'all!" Coach Rachd's grin was stuck firmly somewhere between sadistic and lunatic. "For those of you who were unable to keep track, you have already lost Mr John Leedes, who decided he needed to show off for the first hour and a half and apparently was not bright enough to realize that he still had two more hours to go after that! Additionally we have bid farewell to Ms Judy Bryant, that would be the redhead who collapsed on the track just thirty short minutes ago and couldn't get up. To whichever pair of you now have single occupancy rooms, an additional congratulations!" Most of the students were openly glaring at the Coach now, his mocking tone stirring up quite a bit of rage in the mostly exhausted students. Ty was one such student briefly, and considered saying something before Erin caught him with a look and shook her head.

At about that time Ty's normally very active brain started working again and he realized that the point of the Coach's speech really was to make them all angry. United in anger against a common enemy, the Coach himself. It was a pretty elementary training technique, but having finally been on the receiving end Ty could see why it was used. It worked. Possibly too well.

"You don't have to be an asshole about it," the voice was quiet, but contained no trace of fear or hesitation. It was a voice Ty had become very familiar with over the last few days. He closed his eyes hoping he was wrong, but when he opened them he saw Amelia standing at the front of the group, calmly matching Coach Rachd's glare with her own and not backing down at all. The stare lasted for several long seconds as no one else in the gym hardly dared to breathe, before it ended unexpectedly.

Coach Rachd started laughing. A deep, genuine laugh not at all like the barking, mocking laugh that was all the class had heard from the man so far. "It's the first day and we already have a darling princess who thinks she can take on the system? You're adorable sweetie."

"You're still being an asshole. If you can't do something as simple as teach physical fitness to college age adults without being such an asshole maybe you should look for a career better suited to your talents." James Rachd stopped laughing as he realized the girl was really not backing down. Ty shared a quick look with Erin and Scott. From their expressions both the others were fairly certain at this point that their four person residence was about to have a vacancy.

"Come out to the center of the track then princess. If you don't like my style then you can step up or get the fuck out of my program." Coach Rachd turned and moved about halfway down the track from where the students were gathered. When he turned the expression on his face registered some surprise as Amelia had calmly followed him. Even now she showed no sign of hesitation.

"I may not know how to fight yet, but that doesn't mean I have to just let you be an asshole," Amelia raised her hands in an almost parody of an actual fighting stance. It was painfully obvious to most of the assembled students, and more so to the two Coach's, that the girl had absolutely no training.

"Hey Martinez! This one's one of the strong types right? I can actually hit her and she probably won't break?"

"Yes James, she's a Strength Super, like you," Rachd glared a bit at the last two word from Elena Martinez, but turned to smile at Amelia quickly. "Well princess, at least you're not the fragile type."

Without any further preamble, and with a speed that very few of the students in the room could follow, Coach Rachd lunged forward and landed a vicious cross straight through Amelia's attempt at a guard. His expression shifted quickly to one of complete disbelief as the girl staggered, but did not go down, and in fact stepped quickly back towards him to throw an awkward punch of her own. Rachd deflected the punch and hid a grimace of pain as he realized that this girl was in fact probably stronger than he was. That would definitely be a bruise later, but he ignored it and threw a second punch, this time holding very little back. Amelia was not braced this time and was launched close to seventy feet to impact the nearest reinforced concrete wall with enough force to break several chunks free and set most of the class ducking for cover reflexively from the massive impact.

"Well now that we've worked THAT out is there anyone el..." Coach Rachd cut off again and calmly intercepted a pair of heavy chunks of concrete thrown at him with incredible force. He had to admit, he was genuinely impressed the girl was standing. Her face was bleeding a bit now, but she was still on her feet and coming towards him again. He shook his head as he began to laugh again. Confusing his opponent enough that she stopped.

"What's your name girl?" there was still some laughter evident in the Coach's tone as he gave his opponent a much more critical examination.

"Amelia Jacobson."

"Well Jacobson, congratulations. You are the most impressive Freshman to walk into this room in the four years it's been mine. You've earned the right to be called by name prior to combat rankings making me care. But you're also wrong. I do have to be an asshole in this gym. I have to be one of the biggest assholes in the world every God damned day because if I don't, you won't improve enough. If you don't improve enough you'll either wash out of this program, or you'll somehow skate through without being ready, and you will go out into the world as a Hero and You. Will. Die. I will push you to your limits and well beyond, and I cannot do that in the time allotted to me by being a nice guy. It would be great if the world worked like that, but it doesn't. For today only though, I apologize to my class. It was wrong of me to mock the girl that tried until she collapsed. Don't expect anything regarding the asshole who wore himself out showboating and then argued about needing more breaks until Coach Martinez hauled his ass out of the room." The class was stunned. Everyone had been expecting to see an immediate expulsion, noat to hear the Coach defend his actions to them. Amelia seemed to consider a moment before she nodded, then returned to sit with the group.

"Alright everyone, that's the end of day one! Remember, I will make this harder every day. You will get better faster than I make it harder, or you will not last in this program." His expression as he examined the students became hardened once again. "The bar to impress me this year has just been set VERY fucking high. I sincerely doubt any of you will make it over that bar, but if you stop trying I will throw you out the door myself. Dismissed!"

Amelia was surprised as she stood to almost run into the only woman in the class taller than her, a heavily muscled black woman who reached for her face without warning, followed by an unfamiliar soothing sensation. "That was the most bad ass thing I have ever seen girl. I thought you were DEAD when you hit that wall and you just came right back up swinging. Absolutely hard core!" Amelia remained confused for a moment before the hand came away and she realized she could see clearly and that her face no longer hurt. Her brain finally associated all the facts. The girl was the giant healer from orientation. "And damn, you weren't even hurt that bad by all that were you? That hardly took anything to fix. Amelia right? I'm Tasha." The taller woman offered her hand which Amelia accepted and shook.

"Thanks for the pick me up Tasha, although I think that was a lot more stupid than 'hard core' to be honest. And please, call me Ames," Amelia was finally reviewing the events logically and was more than a little shocked she hadn't ended up expelled for starting a fight with her Coach on the first day.

"Didn't you do any research on these programs Ames? Most of the combat crap is challenge based, and if you beat the instructor it's pretty much an automatic pass for the whole year at least. Although you might want to work on your, ya know, style?" Tasha seemed hesitant to bring it up, but Amelia was well aware that her fighting style at present could best be described as 'non-existent.'

"I'm planning on working on it after the rankings. Somehow I doubt I'll get as much enthusiasm before then, and I'd rather see where I stand now so I can get a better idea of how much I improve from being here."

"Sounds like you have all this figured out girl. I'm mostly making it up as I go. If no one else will help you out look me up. I'm not gonna hold much of a candle to what you can do but I can probably at least show you how to fight less like an awkward white girl. No offense."

Amelia laughed. "I'll keep that in mind, although one of my housemates said she could run me through the basics after I told them I didn't know anything about fighting. We'll see how that goes first. Shorter walk."

 

...

 

Jon Glenn sighed loudly as he and most of the Freshman class made their way towards their second day of Gym. He was going to have to apologize to his father for not believing the General when he told his only son that if he was worried about all the mandatory training the Army would have stuck him in, he was going to truly hate life in the HCP. Jon, of course, had believed his father was only trying to convince him that the HCP was the greater of two evils so that he would choose the Army instead. While it was an activity he had a great deal of practice at, Jon still hated having to admit that his father was right, but he knew it would drive him insane if he just tried to ignore it. I can always call after class. I'll be too burned out to care when he gets that really smug tone in his voice.

The skinny blonde youth was also still having trouble grasping exactly how harsh the pass/fail rating of the HCP could be. Not even two full days into the program, and already 4 of the 63 students had been cut. One was technically not a wash out as he had left the program for a family emergency, two had failed to make it through even a single Gym session with Coach Rachd, and one more had failed out today. A flier that had been gliding around the quad like he didn't have a care in the world, washed out of the program for failing to take the 'Secret Identity' portion of the program seriously. And in all likelihood that number would go up before the end of another Gym period if Rachd was being honest about ramping up the training schedule at all from the previous session.

The class gathered quickly in the main track room, expecting to be quickly directed by Coach Rachd to the various smaller weight rooms to be put through another round of, for those without physically enhancing abilities, grueling circuit and strength training. Instead Coach Martinez simply materialized in the middle of the group of students just as the large digital display on the wall clicked over to the specified start time.

"Everyone hit the track and start running! Cutoff pace yesterday was a nice sedate seven miles per hour, barely more than a leisurely jog. Of course yesterday you had to do all the heavy lifting first, so the cutoff pace will be something to get your blood going a bit faster today. You've all got a minute to get a head start, and you really don't want me to pass you. Now GO!" Coach Martinez's voice was much less harsh, hell she sounded absolutely pleasant compared to Coach Rachd, but when parsing for content it became quickly obvious that the 'nice' Coach wasn't necessarily going to be any easier running the show.

True to her speech, exactly one minute after she finished speaking she headed onto the half-mile track and started off at a solid running pace. Jon had been maintaining what he'd thought was just a bit faster than yesterday, but either Coach Martinez wasn't as good a gauge of her own speed as she was at tracking exact times, or this was really going to be a much faster run. Jon and several of the other students switched over to a sprinting pace long enough to get almost exactly half a lap ahead of their Coach, then dropped speed to try and match her pace as she was now much easier to keep track of.

After about ten minutes Jon felt he had settled into the run well. Coach Martinez was pushing them to just short of a five minute mile pace based on his estimate of lap count and watching the digital clock as it was visible. He noted that a large amount of the Freshman seemed to be doing much better today than they had during the first Gym session. Jon knew he himself fell into that group as a result of taking five consecutive days off from his workout routine while packing and moving onto campus. He assumed that those who were likewise bouncing back had similar experiences, the harsh first day's training had caught several a bit unprepared after taking a break but most seemed to be rising to the challenge. Most, but not all. Jon noted that there were already three students, two male and one female, having difficulty with the pace set by the Coach. The two young men, one a short stocky ginger and the other a very average looking black youth save for a massive afro, were already showing signs that this class was a losing battle for them. Falling behind the pack, then trying desperately to run back up to the group and stay ahead, only to fall behind a little more each time. The girl, a very petite dark haired Latina, was still pacing the group but her gasping alone was louder than the rest of the pack combined. Jon knew that even if any of those three made it through the unknown length of the run they were unlikely to survive the full period if they were already flagging.

Jon pushed the thoughts of sympathy aside for the time being. He'd just reminded himself that the length of this run truly was unknown, and he needed to focus his energy on making sure that he didn't join those who already seemed destined to fail.

 

...

 

"And BREAK!" the vast majority of the Freshman class promptly collapsed as Elena Martinez called a halt to the 75 minute hell run she had just put them through. "Everyone get on your feet and start walking cool or you're not going to be able to move when we start the next phase up. You have ten minutes to cool down and get loose, get some water, then you'll be assigned to rotating drill rooms for cardio, strength, or flexibility training." All things considered, Elena was pleased that she'd only lost two more students so far. It was not an uncommon sight to have already trimmed seven or eight of the least prepared students by this point. Outside of physical training, she and James did not agree on a great many things. Fortunately this was the one thing they needed to agree on, and no Oversight Committee could ever fault their physical training program for being too lax.

As she observed how the students grouped up and supported each other through the cool downs she noted two more that were unlikely to last until the end of class. One was the incredibly petite hispanic girl she had been certain was going to fall at some point during the run. The other was a willowy blonde girl that had seemed to be doing fine, right up until the end, and she was now requiring a friend's assistance to even manage to try and walk through her cool down. Looks like we might yet make that eight student mark by the end of the day. Elena always hoped to see those that washed out of the Freshman program return the next year properly prepared. Unfortunately it was not many an eighteen year old ego that could handle failing that quickly and learn anything from the experience, and Elena knew that it was unlikely those that failed so soon would ever make it back.

 

...

 

"And fuck ALL OF YOU that thought I was going down!" the triumphant cheer from the tiny sweat-soaked hispanic girl drew some chuckles from the assembled Freshman class as Coach Martinez had finally called a halt to the rotating training and an end to the second day of Gym for the class. Elena Martinez was one of those chuckling as she watched the small girl perform a brief victory dance with what little energy she had left.

Louise Garcia completed her brief celebration before starting off in the direction of the locker room and promptly falling over her own feet. Fortunately she caught herself before face planting into the hard floor. "Ow. Little help here?" A slender Japanese girl knelt down beside her and shook her head.

"Lay still a second and I can probably give you enough of a pick-me-up to get to the showers. I'm Kaori by the way."

"Name's Louise, and if you're a healer I'll be fine if you can just turn down the pain for a bit."

"What the hell did you do to yourself?" Kaori was shocked as the feedback from her ability was showing hundreds of small internal injuries. "How could you possibly have pushed yourself that hard? You're almost falling apart!"

"I do the electricity thing. Everything in the body can be moved with the right application of the right kind of current, so when the normal muscles fail me, I have a back up plan. I'll drag myself to the healer's offices if you can just patch me enough to get on my feet."

By this point Coach Martinez had noted the downed girl and the examination, and had approached close enough to hear Louise's last explanation.

"You did what!?"

Both girls jumped a bit as the Coach drew nearer, and the rest of the class that had not already dispersed did so quickly upon noting the apparent confrontation between the coach and the two girls.

"As I was telling my new friend here, my ability is electrical generation, so when my muscles started to give out on me I just kind of puppeted things along with some carefully controlled application of my ability. I already checked the books, using our abilities to make it through the physical training isn't cheating, otherwise the Super Physical ones wouldn't be allowed in."

Elena rocked back in shock at the girl's statement. It took some serious control to effectively maneuver a human body with electrical current. Her lack of being burned to death was likely a result of some level of immunity to her own power. But pushing herself on past the point where her body had tried to shut down took some incredible willpower, or some serious levels of crazy. Or both.

Taking the instructor's continued silence as an indication that she needed to continue, Louise started speaking again, "I'll be fine after I get some rest, the healers put me back together after yesterday's class just fine and the doctor in charge back there told me: 'That's the craziest thing I can recall any of our students ever attempting. On the other hand, your plan seems to be working, and it does seem to be getting you into shape faster than would otherwise be possible so I will wish you the best of luck.' Then he went on a bit about what to do in certain 'worst case scenarios' where I did too much damage to myself, and made me promise to see him after every session until I could make it through without using my powers like this."

Coach Martinez sighed. "You are correct as far as I can tell in that you aren't breaking any rules, and if Doctor Saxena is already aware of your interesting solution to your current physical shortcomings than I suppose that is all there is to it." Turning to Kaori she continued, "I'll get her down to the doctor miss, you can head back to shower up and find something for dinner if you like."

"Thanks Coach, but I'm supposed to start the whole 'healer trainee' thing next week anyway. I might as well introduce myself now and make sure that Louise here doesn't manage to do anything else insane on the way there."

"I'm right here and can still hear just fine you know."

"I imagine she does know Louise, that's probably why she felt the need to explicitly warn you against doing more insane things," and with that Elena let the two girls stagger out of the gym, bickering cheerfully as they meandered in the direction of the healing center. Elena's expression took on a more serious look before she flickered out of the room. She figured she would arrive far enough ahead of the slow moving pair to have a few words about the sort of 'advice' the good doctor seemed to be giving students these days.

 

...

 

"Raines. Out. NOW." Dean Jilles and Walter Raines looked up to where the Dean's office door had opened abruptly to see James Rachd occupying the doorway with an unreadable expression on his face. Kathryn was honestly quite happy for the interruption, but she would need to speak with James regarding his workplace decorum.

Before she could say anything however, Raines took it upon himself to attempt to address the situation. "Now Mr Rachd, as I'm sure you're aware Oversight should have access to all goings on at Overton for the duration, now if you would like to try and rephrase your request more politel..."

"I am completely aware of what Oversight does and does not have access to Raines. Apparently a great deal more than YOU are since your 'all goings on' line is complete bullshit. On to the matter at hand though, this is a simple one: I have a higher security clearance than you, or anyone else on your damned Oversight Committee. Dean Jilles has a similarly high level of clearance. With that being said, Out. NOW." Rachd accompanied his second demand by moving into the office and physically lifting the smaller man from his chair and facing him towards the door.

For just a moment it looked like Raines was going to protest further, but the expression on the Combat Instructor's face apparently changed his mind and he finished his exit under his own power, quickly followed by one of Mirror's duplicates that hadn't left his side since the Oversight Committee had arrived. Dean Jilles was surprised when Rachd followed the political appointee to the outer waiting room door and firmly closed and locked it, a process he repeated as he returned to her inner office as well.

"All right James, you seem to think this is important and I won't pretend that I'm unhappy about you escorting that idiot out of my office while you're the only audience for what would have to be an incredible display of acting ability. What's on your mind that's more important than crushing our new class through your sadistic program to see who fails out?" As Kathryn spoke she depressed several completely ordinary looking bit of inlay on her desk, resulting in the entire room being blanketed in an barely perceptible buzzing hum.

"Elena had plenty of fun yesterday and I'm sure she'll be doing fine again today. Someone's fucking with our program Kathy." James attempted to pace around the small office briefly, realized the lack of space, and dropped heavily into the chair that had been recently vacated by Raines.

"Yes James, we had several meetings about that. And the incredibly annoying little man you just threw out of my office..." the Dean wasn't really in the mood to rehash the whole issue with the Close Combat Instructor again, the man had been going endlessly at the issue like there was still some quick fix available if she would just find it. Her mood worsened further as she was interrupted mid condescension.

"Someone disabled the safeties on all of the High-Mag weight machines in the gym." James kept a level tone, though the expression on his face contained a great deal of rage. "Additionally they found some interesting ways to fuck with the system for anyone going above a 3000 pound lift." Kathryn's expression quickly became as serious as her colleague's at the statement that someone was actively working inside the HCP facilities against them. "I'm also reasonably certain that someone is going out of there way to shaft the Freshman on the whole 'Secret Identity' thing. We've lost six to SI infractions in three days. Normally we don't lose that many over the entire school year. One of them was a complete moron, but at least four of the others were caught and outed in local press with some very sophisticated surveillance." The Dean was already aware of the much higher than normal SI infractions for the Freshman class, it had actually been the topic Raines had come to discuss with her. Or more accurately, the subject that Raines had come to use as the centerpiece for a speech about how her HCP's standards must have fallen on very hard times.

"You're absolutely certain that the weight machines aren't simply suffering from an unusual malfunction? You do keep telling me you want to replace all the High-Mags because they're unreliable and need to be calibrated all the time."

"All the machines were calibrated Saturday. The safeties on all eight of them are GONE. Additionally the field generators in the damned things all do something creative and moderately destructive if you push them one pound over three thousand." Rachd's expression shifted to something almost pleasant and he smiled as a though occurred to him. "And now I'm almost appreciative of the sabotage because it means we can get rid of the damned things. Gutting them and replacing everything that's tampered with would cost more than new machines."

"And how do you propose we make a budget modification to replace nearly two million dollars worth of equipment in the middle of an Oversight investigation? Everyone involved may actually know that it's most likely one of the damned Oversight people themselves that did the damage, but unless we can prove that there's no way this plays without making us look less than competent."

The large man simply shrugged as he stood up. "The political spin is your job boss. I'm just letting you know what needs to be done. Elena is looking into why some local reporters are suddenly so interested in catching Supers in action at Overton, and Dani and Hai are going to be setting some crazy new shit up around the physical training center and a few other places of interest to make sure that no one can touch anything or go anywhere, access or not, without it being recorded about a dozen ways." With that James turned and headed towards the door, the background hum paused briefly while the door was opened, then resumed once it was closed.

Dean Jilles sat back from her desk a moment to consider the situation before alighting upon an obvious solution. A quick tapping of a different random series of spots along the surface of her desk and the hum faded out completely this time, as the Dean picked up her phone and dialed.

"Riley, with regards to that donation you were planning for the new HCP equipment, would you be free for an early dinner meeting to discuss the particulars?" The man had promised to help with anything Kathryn needed after all.

 

...

 

David Matters leaned heavily against the wall as he caught his breath and looked around the gym. Day four of the HCP was completed, and he could hardly believe he was still standing. In fact for the first time no one had failed to make the cut for the day. Since the workouts hadn't been reduced it was a good sign in his mind. Those that were still here probably had what it took to clear the basic physical hurdle to be in the HCP at least. The relatively scrawny young man was more than a little proud to find out that he would be counted in that group.

"Everyone off your asses and get over here!" David sighed and headed in the direction of the class drill sergeant. Though he smiled a bit again as he realized that no one had actually been off their feet this time.

"Congratulations children, you've finally made it through a day without anyone falling on their face and being unable to continue. We'll pretend that's progress for now." The man had to get off on people wanting to kill him. It was the only explanation that made sense to David. "Just five short days ago at orientation there were 63 of you. 13 lucky souls have managed to get dropped from our program, leaving a nice even 50. Any bets on how many of you will still be here after the combat rankings?" This question drew even harsher glares from some, and a few startled looks from others, including David. Combat rankings involved more cuts? What was the safety line there? Smiling at the looks of fear interspersed with those of rage around him, the Coach continued after a long pause. "You can untwist your panties children, WE aren't going to be cutting any of you for your combat performance against your peers. I personally don't care if you finish at 50th out of 50, because no matter how many or few we throw into this, someone will be first and someone will be last. On the other hand I have yet to see a class where some of the students didn't drop out after their first taste of real Super on Super combat. Saturday will be the day when all of you TRULY find out if you have any chance at surviving in this program. With that in mind, we do have something extra special planned for Friday's class, so look forward to it kids! DISMISSED!" As he strode from the room, nearly all the expressions following him showed more concern than anger now. After everything they'd already gone through, what the hell else were they going to put them through the day before the rankings?

 

...

 

Erin was surprised as she made her from her bedroom towards the common area and the small workout room set up in the townhouse/dormitory she currently called home to see that she was not the only resident awake at 4am. Making her way into the larger common room she noted some bizarre Japanese cartoon playing on the flat screen and leapt to the obvious conclusion.

"Dammit Ty do you really think an all night cartoon marathon is a good way to prep for whatever they're throwing at us today?" Erin was a bit more surprised when the head that popped up over the couch to look back at her came attached to a long dark blond braid and much paler skin than her long time friend.

"Sorry Erin, wrong guess. I think both the boys are still unconscious. I don't sleep as much as most people though. Why are you up so early?" Amelia sounded far more awake and alert than should be allowed at four in the morning.

"This is when I do my normal workout. I don't sleep as much as most people do either, but that's more training than physique I guess. I'm surprised I don't see you more often if you're up this early?" Erin headed off of the main room to collect several of her free weights before returning.

"Normally I just read in my room. I'm not used to having a lot of things that I'm allowed to touch around all the time and the novelty was nice." Noting her roommate's confused expression she added nervously, "I had some problems learning to control my strength when I was younger. For quite awhile actually, I didn't have a real great childhood to be honest." Erin noted hesitation in her roommate's tone for the first time since she'd met her, and simply nodded in acknowledgement of the explanation.

"I can imagine an ability as huge as yours must have had an adjustment period," the two lapsed into silence for a time, the Erin's slightly strained breathing from her workout and the cheerful Japanese characters on the TV screen providing a strange, but pleasant background noise.

"If you don't mind me asking Erin, what is your actual ability? All I know is you're stronger than normal but not strong like me, you seem to have incredible endurance but I don't know if that's just from ridiculous all night training," Erin giggled a bit as Amelia gestured at the collection of weights that she had brought out into the common room with her, "and that you can change your hair and eye color whenever you want to."

Erin finished her current set of lifts before setting down the weights and stretching, a contemplative look on her face. "I believe the current commonly accepted term for my ability type is 'Super Freak.'" Erin noted her roommate's expression showed complete non-comprehension. "Not familiar with that one? You must not have had to deal with too much media exposure growing up. I believe the current politically correct term is 'non-standard supernormal physical anatomy.'"

"Wait, like the supers that have horns or claws and stuff like that but without shifting?" Amelia finally showed some recognition at the more scientific terminology. "Are you messing with me? I mean the non-standard colorations are pretty common but I don't think getting to change them at will woul- YEEP!" Amelia actually tumbled off the couch as her roommate's entire body went from appearing like a perfectly normal, though very tall and athletically fit, caucasian woman to some sort of near transparent specter with gossamer white hair. As she fell to the floor the specter began to laugh at her with Erin's voice.

"Wow, OK, so that's what I get for not believing my roommate. That's not a Shift? That's what you really look like?" Amelia's startlement over her friend's rapid change in appearance past, she actually found the partially transparent look to be a rather stunning one. Erin's body seemed to re-solidify before her eyes as her coloration returned to a normal human tone, though her hair had apparently decided to be a deep shade of purple now. "So... I'm confused? How do you do that?"

"My natural body is almost completely transparent to the normal spectrum of light while in a relaxed state. I can consciously control how my body refracts and distorts light, and most of the rest of the EM spectrum as a fun bonus, and after a few years of practice I could manage a pretty normal opaque skin tone. I can also perceive in a much wider spectrum than the normal visual light range. I mess with my hair color because it's fun, and it's something I don't have to take seriously." As she spoke Erin's skin color shifted seemingly at random, then her entire body seemed to distort radically in an effect that Amelia found truly disconcerting, and a little bit disorienting as she tried to see past the optical effect and realized that Erin was apparently standing completely still, simply making her location appear to shift and distort with her ability.

"Ok, that's a neat trick. How do you get around your clothes not doing the same light distorty thing though?" Amelia blushed almost as soon as the words were out, realizing the most obvious answer to that question, and pressed on quickly, "Or how does that make you stronger than normal if all you're doing is bending light?"

Erin giggled again at Amelia's blush. "In answer to your first question, not the first answer either of us thought of. Originally coming here I was going to go with option B, just getting a very small form fitting sport bikini and use that, but Ty came up with some crazy polymer material that does similar light distortion to what I can do. It took some getting used to making it do what I wanted since it doesn't work exactly the same as I do, but it's a better solution than option A or B, it's actually opaque until I mess with it and it covers more than the legal requisites." Both girls laughed again and Amelia's blush faded most of the way. "As for why I'm stronger than a normal human, whatever weird way my body is put together to make it transparent left me with a lot more flexibility, and I'm a lot more resilient than an average person. The result of that extra resilience is that I don't have the same muscle density limitations as a normal person. I have to work out for every pound I can lift, but as long as I keep pushing, I keep getting stronger. It's a lot slower building up than Super strength, but I'm already up to being able to dead lift about four times my body weight. I'll never catch up to someone like you, but I should be strong enough to handle things when it counts."

The conversation seemed to have reached a natural break at that point, and Erin continued with her training while Amelia turned back to her cartoons. Erin found herself increasingly bothered by her roommate's earlier nervousness and the evasive reference to her childhood had struck a bit of a nerve. Erin had only really gone into detail about her own childhood with her two closest friends, Scott and Ty, shortly after deciding that she would become a Hero with those two. Something told her that whatever was lurking in Amelia's past was even worse than what she'd gone through. Erin also knew that if she hadn't told someone about her own past by now she would probably have gone quite messily insane from the pressure of keeping everything bottled up. Amelia needed someone to open up to, and Erin could only think of one way to build that kind of connection.

"My parents wanted their kid to be a Super, more than anything," Amelia turned as her roommate began speaking in a very quiet voice. Erin was not really looking at her, or seem to be speaking to Amelia at all, but the tone of voice told the taller girl that her friend was sharing something that did not come easily. It was a tone she was intimately familiar with. "They both came from big Super families. No Heroes, but my grandparents on my father's side practically started the whole Corporate Sponsored Super Humans thing that turned into PEER and a few of the other big money making programs, and mother's side all went for various celebrity gigs. They were the black sheep of their respective families. Father was a normal, and mother was a Powered, but a harmless type. The families both had money, but my parents wanted power to go with it. So they came up with the brilliant idea to have the perfect Super child to raise as the perfect Super Hero to use to get them into politics, corporate connections, everything they could want. Instead they got me." Erin paused for a moment to move onto a different sized weight set in a different position.

"Mother actually went to one of those quack clinics, only a REALLY expensive one, that would guarantee inheritance of powers in utero. There's even a chance that all the insane treatments are the reason I came out a Super Freak instead of a normal Super or anything else for that matter. See that was a problem for my parents. Not many Freak-types can make it in the Hero business. Secret identities and fitting into society and all that, but I was normal sized and shaped, just not normal colored. So as rapidly as they could bribe their way around normal child safety laws to do it, I was started on training to determine what my powers were and how I would help them fulfill their dream." Amelia noted that though Erin's voice hadn't wavered or showed any real sign of emotion, tears fell gently from her cheeks as she continued. "But all I could do was bend light. After all of four years, their daughter was a failure. So they threw me away." Erin choked a bit on the last sentence and Amelia's grip on the armrest would require another patch to the rather worn furniture in the future.

"Father drove me and a bag of clothes out to the Force Ops base at Fort Meade. My uncle was in Force Ops, and really the only family member that had more than a passing acquaintance with responsibility. Father got Uncle Dominik's current address from base housing, but my Uncle was on a training exercise and wouldn't be back until the next morning. So my parents drove me out to the officer's housing where Uncle Dominik's home was, unloaded me on the curb and pinned a Permanent Guardianship form, a five line note, and a check to my shirt and told me to wait there until my Uncle came to pick me up. Then they left. I cried and slept on the curb that night. Some MP's found me, they brought me into the Fort admin building and someone called my Uncle in from the field. The first time I met my Uncle I was terrified of him. He looked like he was about to kill someone, I'd never realized anyone could look that angry." Had Erin been facing towards her friend at this point in her story she likely would have recognized the expression. "But then when he talked to me he turned into the nicest man I'd ever met. And he held me all night until I cried myself to sleep. Then the next day, he told me that he was being stationed overseas with his unit, and I cried some more because I thought he was going to throw me away too." Erin paused her story again and took several breaths before continuing.

"He kept trying to shush me, but I wouldn't let him and I cried until I couldn't anymore. And that's when he finally managed to tell me that I needed to get cleaned up so we could go shopping because the clothes in my bag were all too small and I was going to need something to wear on the flight over. I still can't remember another time when I was so happy. My Uncle was going to take me with him, he wasn't going to throw me away. That's when I decided that I wanted to be just like Uncle Dominik, and I started pestering him for six months straight until he finally gave in and started training me to be like him." Erin smiled for the first time since starting her story. "And I kept training to follow in my Uncle's footsteps for the next nine years. That's how we found out that I can train right past the normal human limits. Then we finally came back to the US, and he enrolled me at East Coast Diplomatic Academy. It's where really famous politicians and Supers stick their kids to keep them properly babysat and to make sure no one kidnaps them. And I met Scott and Ty, and had friends my own age for the first time that I could remember. And Scott with his crazy obsession over becoming a Hero. No matter how much people made fun of him for it, he never wavered even a little bit. Ty was right there with him, although at first he was just going to be Scott's supply guy since they hadn't classified 'Mad Science' as a Super ability yet. And as I hung out with that crazy optimistic kid I felt like I wanted something more than following in my Uncle's foot steps for the first time that I could remember." Erin actually giggled a bit at her own story at this point, though there was still evidence of the earlier tears on her face. "I was so scared when I went to tell my Uncle that I wanted to be a Hero instead of joining Force Ops like him, but he just smiled and hugged me and told me he always knew I could be something more than what he had managed. He was happy for me no matter what my dream was. And then I ended up following my two best friends into the HCP in Texas, and I met a super skinny girl that can bench press pickup trucks and watches silly cartoons at four in the morning." Amelia giggled along with Erin at the conclusion of her story. Signs of the tears she had shed listening to her friend quickly wiped away.

As Erin finished her workout and started gathering her equipment to put away she noticed Amelia offering her a bottled water from over the couch, the tall girl facing away and looking at the TV again as her arm was extended towards Erin. As Erin took the bottle and twisted the cap free her friend began speaking in a familiarly quiet and emotionless voice. "On Christmas morning when I was four, I almost killed my big sister..." Erin quietly made her way to one of the chairs and sat down listen to her newest friend's story.

 

...

 

Scott stretched his shoulders as he made his way with a group of other students from the Ethics of Heroism lecture room down towards the physical training center. It had been a weird morning. When he and Ty woke up they had found Amelia and Erin dozing in the common room, both barely dressed with the cartoon channel on in the background and Erin's weights all over the floor. When awoken both pretended nothing was out of the ordinary and went about the morning as if nothing had happened, but they kept sharing meaningful looks. Scott's instincts were somewhat divided on those looks. On the one hand everything he could observe told him that those looks had nothing to do with him, they were some new connection the two girls shared. On the other hand, history and high school had taught him to be wary any time females in his vicinity seemed to be sharing knowledge he was not privy to.

As all the students made their way into the gym a bit ahead of schedule he was surprised to see Coach Martinez materialize before the digital clock indicated the exact second at which class was to begin. "Welcome to Friday, Freshman! In celebration of your first Friday, and in light of the combat rankings being held tomorrow, today is a free day! There are only two requirements, you must work out in some way for the entire duration of the class period, and all students that wish to use any type of supplemental equipment for the matches needs to see myself or Coach Rachd by the end of our office hours, that's within the next five hours for those of you staring at the clock and trying to do math, to get approval. Enjoy your relaxation day, and look forward to tomorrow!" With that Coach Martinez vanished, leaving the Freshman class to stand looking dumbfounded at the spot where she had stood.

Scott shrugged and headed onto the track at a brisk pace. He noticed a few students doing celebratory dances, but most were either headed to the equipment, the track, of towards the two offices. It was amazing how much of an impact just four days of training with the two Coaches had made on the work ethic of the Freshman class. Or perhaps they had simply fostered such a deep seated paranoia that no one really believed in the possibility of such a 'Free Day' in the world of Coach Rachd. Scott figured he would get his normal workout in before heading off to see the Coach's about getting all of his extra metal approved for tomorrow.

"Dear Lord, please let me get into see Coach Martinez instead of Coach Rachd. I would truly by grateful of that sign that you intend to fuck with my life just a little less severely." Several students close enough to hear Scott's quiet prayer laughed, although a few of them decided that similar prayers were in order as well. Scott let his mind wander as he continued to pound his way around the track. He wondered what the hell Amelia and Erin had been up to last night, and if he and Ty should be making a run for it or pretending nothing had changed. He wondered if his dorm-mates wanted to head off campus tonight to celebrate surviving the first week together. Mostly though he wondered what kind of powers he was going to have to face in the rankings tomorrow.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4:
Step Up or Ship Out

 

"Welcome to your first ever Combat Rankings!" a large portion of the crowd of students gathered in the HCP auditorium cringed at Coach Rachd's booming shout. "And welcome to 6am on a Saturday morning, I understand that it is not a thing most college students like to be acquainted with." Several glares came from those students awake enough to summon the energy to change their expressions. Most of the assembled freshman class just continued to blink sleep out of their eyes as they waited for the Coach to get to the point.

"Here's the way this works. On the large monitors found in this auditorium and the main gymnasium you will see a list of paired HCP ID numbers and combat room numbers with a start time. As you can see on the monitor behind me," the Coach jerked his thumb in the direction of the large display. "This should be simple enough for even the zombies in the room to figure out," some affirmative sounds came from the students in response to this statement. "After you complete a match you will report immediately to the infirmary to be checked out by the healers. If you are unable to get there under your own power don't worry, we have plenty of ways to get you there. Keep an eye on the monitors once you get checked out because your next match will start thirty minutes from the time when both participants have received a green light from Doc Saxena and his people. The format for out Combat Ranking is double elimination. For anyone not awake enough to figure that out, it means that you fight until you lose twice, or until there's no more opponents for you. Everyone with special equipment, report to myself or Coach Martinez in the main gymnasium to confirm that it has not been modified prior to the start of your first match or you will be disqualified and probably expelled from the program." That announcement snapped a few students to a more alert status. "And lastly, there are only two rules for these matches. FIRST! You will cease immediately if your opponent loses consciousness or becomes otherwise incapacitated or submits. And SECOND! You will hold back from the handbook described 'Lethal Force' levels of conflict or you will be punished severely, expelled, and possibly face actual charges for your actions. Good luck children!"

 

...

 

A brief cry and a muffled crash brought several people in medical scrubs running into the room. An embarrassed looking young man attempted to extricate himself from a tangle of clothes and bedding as most of the group dispersed with shaking heads and a few carefully concealed grins.

"Are you feeling okay Mr Rocke? Do you have full movement in your arms and legs?" the man that remained behind to ask questions of the young student was middle aged, sharp featured, and of apparent middle eastern descent.

"I'm fine, just, what happened?" the younger man, one Melvin Rocke, finally extricated himself from the sheets of the infirmary bed he had recently been occupying and pulled himself to his full six foot height.

"Do you remember where you are Mr Rocke? What you are doing? You suffered some injuries and it's important that you can answer the question you just asked so we can insure that your head is functioning correctly."

"I'm at Overton, it's the combat rankings day. And..." Melvin's voice trailed off as he ran through recent events in his mind. "I lost my first match. Bad." The young man looked away from the doctor as he fought to keep himself from crying.

"Yes Mr Rocke, you did lose your first match. As did twenty four other students. Please, try not to become so disheartened. As I am certain James Rachd explained to you all, the ranking format is double elimination. If you are able to continue, there is every possibility you can redeem your loss in the first round before the end of the day. Now please, move your arms and legs a bit and let me know if my healers did their work properly." The doctor's tone was encouraging, but still quite businesslike.

"I'm sorry doc, I don't remember your name?" Melvin began to stretch out as he asked the question, suppressing more than a little shock that he truly did feel completely recovered. That guy nearly ripped both my arms off. They're damned good at what they do here.

"I am Doctor Raj Saxena. Feel free to use any sufficiently polite combination of those three terms to address me," the tone was now more joking as the doctor appraised his patient and smiled. "I believe you are fully recovered? Your next match should be in half an hour then. We just recently finished reassembling your opponent." Melvin took a little comfort from knowing that whomever he was facing next had apparently fared at least as poorly as Melvin had in the first round.

"Thanks Doctor Raj. I guess I'm off to get ready then."

Melvin made his way out of the infirmary and into the central area to determine where his next match would be held. He moved without the absolute confidence he'd carried with him throughout the first week. He found himself replaying his first match in his head over and over as he stared at the screen seeing his student number next matching up in CR 19-A. His opponent had been a shifter like himself, and seemed an overall decent guy. A brief pause before the fight had gotten underway where his opponent had explained he was unable to speak while shifted and that reverting would signal surrender for him. Melvin had just worn a cocky smile and nodded, absolutely certain that he would emerge victorious. His match had lasted less than two minutes. His opponent was impossibly strong, incredibly durable. Melvin's claws had broken without penetrating, his left leg had been crushed by a casual stomp when he had attempted to grapple and take down his opponent. Both of his arms had been wrenched out of their sockets as he had refused to give up, howling in pain until he had finally blacked out.

Coming to himself he realized that it was nearly time for his next match. He had been spaced out in front of the monitor for nearly twenty minutes already. Moving at a quick jog now Melvin made his way to his appointed room and found the entry door displaying his ID number to make his entrance through. As the door opened and he walked down the short entryway before coming into the massive 80' x 80' x 40' room he saw that his opponent was already waiting for him. Melvin caught himself to keep from laughing out loud as he recognized his next opponent. The tiny hispanic girl that had barely held on through the physical training this week. He smiled widely as a loud beeping drew both students' eyes to the digital display on the wall counting down from thirty.

"I'm Melvin, I don't think I caught your name in class!" he called out to the petite girl, condescension obvious in his tone.

"My name is Louise furry boy. You should remember it!" Melvin was a little surprised at how confident the girl sounded, but she had made it into the HCP after all.

As the beeping tone grew louder to signal the final seconds of the countdown Melvin triggered his ability, shifting into a hulking bipedal canine form. He knew he was vastly stronger and faster than any normal human in his shifted form. He knew that his opponent had no exceptional physical abilities of her own from seeing her during the long hours of 'Gym' during the week. Louise didn't stand a chance. It had just been a fluke that he'd gone up against such a monster in the first round.

As Melvin charged his wide muzzle broke into a toothy grin seeing that his opponent was charging right back at him, seemingly planning to take him head on. He cocked back both arms as he closed, trying to plan how much he would have to hold back not to execute his opponent and get himself expelled, when suddenly the small girl catapulted herself at him, closing the distance much faster than he had expected and catching him unable to intercept her. His grin didn't waver as she crashed into his waist, barely enough of an impact to break his stride. Then Melvin's world exploded in agony and everything faded away.

Melvin awoke in a familiar room, staring at a familiar ceiling. He jerked upright to see one of the student healers watching over him.

"Hey man, slow it down. You got shocked like crazy in there, give it a minute before-" Melvin simply forced himself to his feet and strode angrily out of the room, ignoring the healer entirely.

He felt the tears in his eyes as he walked but couldn't bring himself to care. This place was insane. The people were insane. He couldn't even beat a girl smaller than his fourteen year old sister. Fuck this place. Lots of better things I can do with my life. Tears fell as he made his way to the elevators leading to the surface.

 

...

 

Antoin was not looking forward to his second match of the rankings. He had managed to somehow defeat his first opponent, a stroke of pure luck in the match up. Wilma Perez's ability was to produce various types of venom and poisons and deliver them by touch. As a healer Antoin was somewhat specifically suited to be able to counter that ability, and with about a hundred pounds of weight advantage it had been a short battle. He had not expected to make it to the winner's bracket as a healer, and he was growing increasingly nervous as he waited for his next opponent to arrive.

When the large display on the wall of the combat room began it's thirty second beeping countdown, the door opposite him finally opened and his opponent strode in. Antoin's jaw dropped and he stared at her. The shifted form in front of him was about 5'6" be his estimate, and he found himself unable to describe her form as anything except 'succubus.' Slate grey skin, short but sharp looking black horns protruded from her forehead, platinum blonde hair, wings that had to stretch better than fifteen feet when fully extended were somehow curled tightly against her back, and a long spade tipped tail waved almost playfully from side to side.

"You should close your mouth and get ready for this," the voice finally broke him from his gawking stare and brought Antoin back to reality. He found her voice quite pretty, but while she didn't exactly sound angry there was a very serious tone present.

"Sorry, I bet you get a lot of stares. I should be a better man than that, on behalf of my species I apologize," Antoin completed his statement just before the buzzer signaled that their fight had officially begun. His opponent simply smiled and strode towards him, seemingly completely unconcerned for his superior size or combat stance.

"I'm used to the stares. I still stare at myself in the mirror sometimes," her tone was quite a bit more playful now as she drew closer. Antoin recognized the distraction for what it was though and kept his guard up, wondering how enhanced her physical abilities were as she continued. "But we aren't here to stare, we're here to FIGHT!" And she lunged forward, mouth suddenly open and hissing to reveal several very sharp looking teeth, fingers splayed and outstretched towards him with some very vicious looking claws tipping each one.

Antoin reacted as he had spent years training to do, he simply stepped forward and threw a hard front kick directly into his unguarded opponent's lunge. He stumbled badly off balance as his kick passed straight through the snarling visage in front of him, and was caught completely off guard as a massive wing came slamming into his head from the right. As he attempted to recover his wits he felt a cold weight on his throat and looked up to see his opponent standing over him, heavy boot resting lightly on his neck. Meekly he tapped the floor three times to indicate his surrender. His opponent smiled at him again, then turned to head back for the door she had entered through.

"You know you could have been disqualified if you actually crushed my throat!" He called after her, wanting to find a reason to prolong the encounter with the incredibly attractive female.

"You're a healer, it wouldn't have been lethal damage unless I was stomping hard enough to take your head off."

Antoin actually shook for a moment in startlement. "How did you know I was a healer? Have we met?"

His opponent turned and gave him a hurt look. "You mean you don't remember me? After all the time we've spent together? I'm hurt Antoin. Forgetting someone so quickly must make you a disgrace to the Montaine family name!" As his expression of confusion grew more pronounced his opponent's hurt look deepened until finally she dropped the facade and burst out laughing. Antoin remained as confused as ever though.

"Did one of my dorm-mates put you up to this? Is that how you know about me?" Antoin was desperately trying to figure out who this woman could possibly be, the fact that she didn't necessarily look ANYTHING like her current form while un-Shifted didn't help matters.

After laughing for a few more seconds his beautiful tormenter finally stopped and walked close to the confused Canadian, leaning in to whisper before turning again to leave. "I did tell you that I would definitely win the 'Swimsuit Competition.'"

Antoin stood staring blankly in the room for several minutes after his opponent had left before finally collecting himself enough to go learn where his next match would take place. He'd always thought of himself as an open minded person, but the possibility of what had happened had never remotely occurred to him. Antoin found himself smiling as he sought out his ID number on the monitor for his next match. Ramón's speedo didn't stand a chance.

 

...

 

Scott Jameson found himself waiting impatiently to learn who his opponent was for his third match. He'd found himself similarly waiting after his first match, his combined one win and one loss had seen him inside the combat rooms for less than a full minute. A girl of apparent middle eastern ancestry with teleportation abilities had been his first opponent, but she had been wearing a lot of metal jewelry when she jumped in to try and take him off guard, and in his surprise he's nearly torn both the poor girl's arms off at the forearm when he'd reflexively yanked the metallic jewelry he'd felt appear behind him away from himself. For the life of him Scott could not remember the girl's name, though he'd been glad that she had taken her loss as well as she did, actually seeming more upset with herself for forgetting to remove her jewelry than with Scott for seriously injuring her.

His second match had been similarly quick for different reasons. Collin Gauge, one of the biggest assholes from East Academy, had apparently also chosen Overton's HCP. I thought he was always talking about going to Lander with his brother. Good thing you remembered to fuck with my life instead oh Lord.. Scott had known he had no way of combating the incredibly powerful shifter, so he had simply clumped all the metal on his person into a single heavy mass at the start of the match and chucked it into Collin as hard as he could. When his opponent quickly regained his feet, Scott signaled his surrender. Better to take one shot than no shots. Would have been even better if you'd have let it work Lord..

Finally the screen flashed and a new student ID appeared on the line where Scott's own number was already present, along with a room number. Scott hurried off towards his next match. It didn't officially start for half an hour but he'd learned at his second match that if both participants showed up early, they could start early. Scott saw no sense in delaying the inevitable. Fortunately for the small young man, neither did his opponent.

"Ah, I hope I have not kept you waiting long? My name is Antoin," Scott couldn't quite place his opponent's accent. French but not? Maybe Canadian?

"Only a couple minutes. I appreciate your punctuality Antoin. I'm Scott," the smaller man tried to stifle a sigh as he noted he was at least six inches shorter than his opponent. Dear Lord can't you just let one guy here be smaller than I am. Just one?. Aloud he asked, "Are you ready to start or do you need a minute?"

"I am as prepared as I think I can be. We might as well get this moving then!" his opponent assumed a relaxed combat stance, as the timer on the wall switched to a ten second countdown with both fighters indicating readiness.

Scott quickly floated several of the high density magnetic bands he kept concealed in his sleeves out to slowly orbit his arms and hands as he assumed a similar stance. The sudden presence of the floating metal seemed to give his opponent pause.

"You are telekinetic?"

Scott smiled as his opponent's apparent nervousness. "Something like that."

"You are going to hit me with those?"

"That is the plan."

"Well then, I fear I must give up," and with that his opponent raised his hands to signal his surrender. Scott felt his jaw drop open as his third match finished in less than fifteen seconds without a single blow thrown by either side. "I am just a simple healer you see Scott, it would not do me much good to be beaten up by someone that has an actual combat ability when it's unlikely I could do anything except recover enough to prolong my own pain."

Scott nodded along with his opponent's logic, still having a little trouble processing the win. He found himself headed back out of the combat room with a wave to Antoin, still a little in shock. Lord, I know you're setting me up for something awful here. But I still appreciate the free win!

 

...

 

Lisa felt confident as she entered the combat room where her third fight of the morning would take place. So far she'd been able to overwhelm both of her opponent's, a Shifter with a weird giant bird person form and an insanely fast speedster, with a purely offensive blitzing strategy. Hopefully her third opponent would be similarly overwhelmed. The heavily tattooed asian girl was glad when she didn't have to wait long in the huge room before her opponent, a tall, lanky blond man made his entry from the opposite side.

"Hi, you're number 141? I'm in the right room? I'm Jon."

"I'm Lisa, and I'm 141 so you seem to be in the right place. Are you ready to start Jon?" Lisa was eager to get underway, and hoped that Jon wasn't planning on using the full allotted time for a rest.

"I'm ready when you are."

"Ready then!"

With both fighters confirmed as ready, the countdown clock began beeping its way towards the start of the match. Lisa noted with some curiosity that Jon kept his hands partially clenched, almost like he was holding something, as he assumed a ready stance. Lisa simply spread her feet and braced as if she was expecting to be bowled over.

The second the buzzer hit Lisa's curiosity as to why Jon's hands were held as they were was sated as a glowing staff materialized as the lanky blond immediately charged towards her. Lisa smiled briefly at the realization that she was facing another melee combatant, before sucking in a deep breath, and locking eyes with her opponent.

Jon must have realized something was wrong from her stance as he skidded to a halt and a wall of light materialized in front of him just in time to intercept a blast of flame from Lisa as she forcefully exhaled. Her opponent was driven a few steps back by the heat, and his wall quickly dissipated, but her fiery breath had been equally short lived as she had quite taken to heart the warning about not engaging in lethal levels of force. Lisa quickly blew several more brief gouts of flame at her opponent, but all were intercepted by the rapidly materializing walls of light. The small girl found herself wondering what the hell her opponent's ability was actually doing as it might lend itself to be countered if she understood it better. Switching tactics the girl took in a much deeper breath and noted with some interest that her opponent responded by throwing up a trio of barriers this time, before she exhaled a blast of super compressed air.

The first two barriers shattered almost instantly, the last held just long enough to disperse most of the energy of her attack before it similarly came apart. Lisa smiled as she inhaled again. She had learned that the barriers were indeed a physical presence and not simply inhibiting the passage of energy. Jon again materialized the triple barricade, but this time it wasn't a blast wave of air the girl exhaled, but a frigid stream of rapidly freezing moisture. The barriers again withstood the attack, but as the girl had hoped the physical presence had allowed her to form a large ice wall in front of her opponent. She saw him charging around the barricade, attempting to close some of the distance before she could attack again. Gotcha

Lisa's next attack was not targeted at her opponent as he formed more barriers in front of himself quickly in response to her inhalation, but instead a far more sustained blast of fire spewed forth to crash into the icy barrier that was now slightly behind her opponent. She heard him cry out as he was quickly engulfed in a rapidly expanding cloud of scalding steam. Her final attack was an almost half hearted air blast, slamming her opponent off of his feet but also dispersing the scalding cloud before it could do him serious harm. Lisa prepared herself in case another attack would be required, but her opponent only groaned weakly from the floor where he lay.

"Healers to CR 7B!" she yelled for the room's recording system to pick up. The Dean's voice had instructed all of the students via the PA system just prior to the first match that they should immediately call for healers if their opponent was incapacitated. The girl then allowed herself a brief victory dance. Three and zero! Maybe I can bring home the gold!

 

...

 

"Dean Jilles, this is absolutely insane!" Kathryn Jilles massaged her temples in a vain attempt to rub away the oncoming migraine brought on by occupying the observation lounge at the same time as Walter Raines. "You must intervene, your students are going to be killed, are you even WATCHING this savagery?"

"Mr Raines, I understand that you aren't used to seeing combat between Supers that is unscripted by a director or unedited by the media, but I assure you, AGAIN, that combat rankings are a vital and STANDARD practice in all HCPs." Maybe repeating herself for a fifth time would finally get the point to sink in to the man's skull.

"But Dean, are you actually watchin-" Raines attempted to continue his protests, but was cut off by an unexpected party this time.

"Shut up Walter. We're here as Oversight, that means we watch, not try to do the Dean's job for her. You were briefed on what the combat rankings and challenges would be like, so either watch quietly or go and bother someone else." Kathryn was overjoyed to see that Mirror's duplicate had been replaced by the woman herself just in time to cut off Walter's sixth round of complaints. Having someone who technically outranked him on the committee giving instructions seemed to finally get through to the man, who sank back in his chair muttering angrily, but quietly. Turning from the simmering politician the Hero addressed the Dean.

"Anyone particularly interesting today? Or any major upsets?" Having come through the program herself Mirror knew full well that most of the Overton HCP instructors would have filled out a bracket with their picks for the combat rankings by now, though by long tradition the Close Combat instructor was not allowed to participate, and sadly betting was not permitted.

"Actually more than a few. The tiniest girl in the program eliminated the eight foot 'werewolf' shifter in the second round, and the young man took it so poorly he's already withdrawn from the program. Also if you'll look right now at the monitor for room 13A you'll see Mr Finne and Ms Montez continuing what is approaching a University record match length in the fourth round undefeated bracket. Montez is a teleporter and Finne is the gentleman creating the very mobile kinetic barriers."

"There's still a teleporter in the fourth round undefeated? That seems at least as interesting as the ongoing match. Wait, what did she just do?" Mirror noted the action on the indicated monitor a hispanic woman of average build was facing off against a tall, rather chiseled blonde man. "Is she throwing things at him?"

"She's teleporting them. Apparently the intricacy of her particular variant of that power allows her to put a decent amount of acceleration on objects she teleports away from herself. She can do a similar thing to her opponent's directly if she can get close enough to touch them, hence her current standing."

"That is an impressive trick, so does i- OOHH, that had to hurt. I think Ms Montez is down." Indeed, the image on the monitor showed the muscular blond had finally predicted where his opponent would pop back into reality and intercepted her with an invisible wave of power before she could react. "Anything else of interest so far?"

"Laurence has been keeping a mental ear over the proceedings, and as per usual a large number of the two and out students are considering dropping, or have already dropped in the case of Mr Rocke. Oh, and another of our dark horse students appears to have just won her fourth straight match." Dean Jilles indicated a monitor almost directly in front of her where a tall extremely skinny girl with long braid had taken hold of her opponent's shoulders, but was not apparently making any further moves.

"Are you sure that match is over? She doesn't look like she knows what to do now that she's caught her opponent. What's the power match up?"

"Mr Carrera is a moderate strength minor speed Super physique type. Ms Jacobson is an extreme strength and durability Super physique."

"Jacobson? Is that the girl that Rachd put into the wall on day one?"

"The same. Also the girl that came right back up swinging after bouncing off the concrete hard enough to remove a significant amount of said wall."

"So how strong could such a scrawny looking gir- Oh. Oh my, I think I'm going to be sick." Walter Raines fled the room with a decidedly green look to him as the monitor displayed Carrera's cheerful refusal to submit to his opponent, followed by Jacobson calmly snapping both of his arms by simply squeezing them tightly. Even the two combat experienced women in the room winced at the sight.

"So to finish Raines' question, how strong is that girl?"

"We don't know her upper limits yet. We're getting some new top of the line equipment that Riley Walker is generously donating to our program to replace the extremely outdated Hi-Mag machines we were using for the high end strength Supers. We're hoping to get a max out evaluation on all the strength enhanced students on the holiday Monday when we post the rankings."

"Anything I can do to help Kathryn?"

"Keep Raines out of my hair for a few extra hours a day."

Mirror laughed. "No promises there Kathryn. If I keep him out of your hair, then it will be ME that gets stuck with him."

 

...

 

Tasha took a deep breath as she faced off with her fourth round opponent. The massive, muscular black woman had surprised all of her opponents so far, though she'd still lost her second round match. How the hell does someone fight an anthro bear shifter anyways? But her incredible self healing had taken all of her opponent's off guard. It allowed her to practically ignore pain and push through injuries that should have leveled her, as well as letting her largely ignore the normal limits of what was intelligent to do with regards to her own musculature and bones. After all, she could recover from having her chest ripped open by bear claws in a few seconds, muscle tears and cracked bones were hardly even noticeable inconveniences.

Her opponent was a black man nearly as large as she was, although the young woman smirked a bit as she still stood a solid three inches taller than her opponent. The buzzer went off and her opponent assumed a very standard boxer's pose as he advanced. Tasha charged full out, as she had in all her fights. Her style was a hodgepodge of things she'd been able to beg from local martial arts trainers built around a core that was more or less traditional Karate, the only martial art her parents had actually allowed her to officially participate in, if only briefly.

Tasha landed the first punch, avoided her opponent's quick retaliatory jab, and then crushed a full force heel kick into the cocky grin he was wearing, knocking him off his feet with the weight of the hit. Unfortunately for Tasha the man bounced right back to his feet seeming none the worse for wear from having just taken a kick that would likely have killed an average man. Tasha was not quite fast enough in evading his counter attack and as a right hook grazed her arm she grimaced as she felt the bones separate and the muscles in tear.

Rolling away Tasha came to her feet realizing that her opponent had not pursued. "I'm Ben by they way." Tasha would have given a great deal to wipe the arrogant smirk off the man's face. "And I think you just lost this one. I'd prefer to find something nicer to do with such a beautiful woman than beating her til she can't stand if you don't mind."

"It's Tasha, and this?" Tasha pulled her arm back into its proper position, and with a brief surge of energy it was whole once more to wave at her no longer smirking opponent. "You have to do a whole lot better than that if you want to win this one."

"You're a healer then? That's cool, but you know you can't win this fight."

"Entirely possible, but I'm not going to give you a free pass either, so let's do this!' Tasha charged her opponent again, catching him off guard and managing to knock him off his feet for the second time. "C'mon Ben, work for it!"

Ben's smile as he stood was no longer the arrogant smirk he'd worn a minute ago. He nodded to Tasha with something resembling respect, and came at her. For real this time. Tasha threw everything she could think of at the man, but the fight ended quickly from that point.

 

...

 

Collin found himself looking somewhat incredulous as his opponent entered the arena for the fifth round of the undefeated matches. He'd thought he'd recognized the girl in Gym during the week, but had dismissed it at the time as the person he thought he was seeing hadn't even had powers back at East Academy. There was no mistaking it now though, Erin Casse was in the HCP.

"So how was your summer Erin?" He shook off his surprised look and tried to smile at the attractive girl. "Develop some super powers when no one was looking?"

"Fall in a hole and die Gauge. You were an asshole at East, and you weren't even a smart enough asshole to figure out which of your classmates had abilities and which didn't." Collin wasn't terribly surprised at her response. He had definitely not been the nicest of people towards those at the school who had not had powers, and even worse to those with 'worthless' powers like her two friends had.

"I was an asshole for most of the time at East. I'm trying to do a little better here though. Can we get a blank slate?"

"Spend a semester not being an asshole and we'll talk Gauge. You ready?" Collin noted his opponent was slipping on a pair of very heavy looking knuckle guards as she spoke. He smiled at the idea of her taking him on in hand to hand combat.

"Just one thing to clear up, I can't talk while I'm shifted. So if I revert during the fight, that's me surrendering. OK?"

"I think I can remember that."

"Ready then!" And as the countdown beeping started Collin shifted, from a muscular 5'11" man, to a monstrous sculpture of living crystal and obsidian standing nearly half a foot taller and more than five hundred pounds heavier. The surface of his 'head' was expressionless, but he definitely registered surprise when Erin's entire form became transparent in front of his eyes, then everywhere around her was swirling, disorienting, shifting color and shape. She was definitely going to be hard to keep track of.

Collin stalked his opponent as the fight began, having learned not to simply rush in during one of his earlier fights when he'd faced off against a huge hispanic super strength male that had nearly cost him his current undefeated status. His crystalline torso still bore a network of cracks from the heavy impact of that fight. Erin came at him quickly, or at least Collin thought she did. Her form was constantly shifting, and he found himself unable to get more than a general idea of where she was even standing. Finally deciding his only option was to close to where her distortion wouldn't be as effective Collin attempted to lunge the remaining distance to his opponent in an impressive leap, but as he pushed off her entire body pulsed a blinding flash of light and he found himself disoriented by the brief visual overload. A heavy impact met him on his left side as he landed off balance and staggered away. In spite of his failure to close with the girl, he grinned inwardly. Even with the heavily reinforced knuckles she hadn't been able to land much of a blow against his extremely resilient form. This would just be a matter of endurance until he closed with her.

Fifteen minutes later, Collin began to accept the horrible truth. He was losing. Every time he tried to attack, Erin slipped effortlessly through or past him and landed a solid strike to his upper left arm. The individual blows did almost no damage, but the girl had to have landed more than a hundred heavy hits by now. His arm was completely covered in a spiderweb of cracks, some of them deeper than he liked to think about. In desperation he charged full speed, and spun to flail wildly and what he hoped was unpredictably as he did not attempt to slow his run at all towards his infuriating opponent, attempting to pass in and out of range before she could land another hit. A shattering crunch informed him that his plan had failed as a reinforced boot slammed into his flailing arm, and the sickening crack that followed shortly thereafter rendered his left arm unable to lift at the shoulder. He bit back his disappointment, and tried to accept what he'd already accomplished as a solid start. Hopefully not the sign of failing as Jeff had, as he reverted to his normal appearance.

"You're done?" Erin's tone held more than a small note of surprise at his surrender, but reinforced his decision in Collin's head as she showed no signs of fatigue yet.

"I can't catch you, and eventually you'll break me down. I'm already going to be walking into my next match down an arm, no sense in getting dropped completely in a single loss. I'll quit while I have a chance to continue. You are a truly frightening woman Erin." Collin's voice was threaded with disappointment, but he hoped the sincerity of the compliment made it through.

Erin accepted his handshake as she seemed to re-solidify into her normal appearance. "You really are trying to be less of an asshole Gauge. Keep it up and you might actually have friends by the time we go on Winter break."

"You know you're going into the last undefeated round, right? Any idea who you're fighting?" Collin wasn't sure why he felt the need to prolong the moment, but something was urging him to talk to the woman walking away from him and he couldn't think of anything else to say that wouldn't just sound stupid.

"I have a guess. See ya around Collin. Time to go get my ass kicked." and with that Erin continued out of the room without another backwards glance.

The tone had been joking, but Collin was a little shocked that her expression had been much more serious. It was a little scary to think that the woman who had just dismantled him with so little apparent effort seemed to think there was someone she couldn't beat. Collin found himself wondering who it could be as he made his way back to find out the details of his next match.

 

...

 

Amelia stepped into the combat room for her sixth match, feeling an unfamiliar nervousness as she waited for her opponent. She'd been amazed at her own success so far, even with her absolute lack of fighting ability she'd managed to overwhelm all five of her opponents up til now. Fortunately her wait didn't stretch too long, as a familiar girl entered from the door opposite her.

"Hi Ames!"

"Hello Erin," Amelia found herself smiling back at her friend's cheerful greeting, the two temporarily appearing not at all as if they were about to engage in brutal combat with each other.

"I need you to promise me something before we get started Ames." Erin's expression was more serious, but she was still smiling at her roommate.

"I promise I won't get angry if you beat me up, as long as you buy me dinner afterwards."

Erin laughed at her response. "Winner buys dinner sounds like a good deal, but no, I wasn't worried that you'd be mad." Erin took a deep breath as her body relaxed to its natural transparent state. "I need you to promise me that you won't hold anything back in this fight. Don't kill me please, but don't be afraid of your strength today. If I win I want to know it's because I beat the best. And if I lose I want to lose to the best there is. I'm going to be very upset if you try and baby me Ames."

Amelia's expression showed fear for the first time that Erin could remember seeing on the taller girl. "I don't know if I can do that Erin. I could really hurt you. I could-"

"Aim for the limbs Ames. Limbs and the lower torso, don't take hard shots at the upper chest, neck or head and I'm durable enough to live. If you get a grip on me I'll give up because there's nothing I can do to stop you from slamming me into a hard surface or pulling me apart at that point. I'm not stupid Ames, just proud. I want your best. Please?"

"All right Erin. Although I still think you're going to be the one buying dinner tonight." With a final shared smile and a ready signal to whomever was monitoring the room, the two girls adopted far more serious expressions and stances, and closed quickly to decide who would be the last undefeated student in their class.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5
Reviews, Discussions, Dinners, and Introductions

 

"This is WAY better than pay per view. Seriously. This job might actually end up not sucking nearly as much as we thought it would." Bert Rivera's sentiment was echoed by two of his three colleagues as the four Oversight investigators reviewed the video records of the day's matches.

The large observation lounge currently hosted half of the Oversight Committee as well as all six primary Overton HCP instructors and Dean Jilles. The instructors had already reviewed the matches extensively and were quietly arguing over minor adjustments in the students' combat ranks, with the exception of James Rachd and Dani Reyes, who lounged near the monitors being used by the Oversight group and called out highlights to the two men and two women watching the replays.

"Not to discourage the play by play Mr Rachd, Ms Reyes, but aren't the two of you supposed to be ranking your students right now?" Celia Watkins found herself more nervous than she cared to admit sitting in what amounted to an underground bunker surrounded by people possessing incredible superhuman abilities. She noticed the elderly British Focus Instructor grinning at her as she realized what she'd been thinking in a room with at least two telepaths and found herself blushing with enough embarrassment that she almost missed Dani's reply to her question.

"Jim and I don't agree on a whole lot of things Ms Watkins, but combat rankings are easy. We use a solid tournament system to run these match ups, tournament system says the winner is first, everyone else ranks out by overall record, head to head comparison, same opponent comparison, and strength of schedule." Dani paused for a moment to cheer at the large monitor, something the woman continued to do even after having seen most of the fight replays at least four times now, in addition to having watched as many of them live as possible. "So the two of us don't bother quibbling over the details of the individual matches, we just let the system do what it's supposed to and if the kids think they deserve a better spot, they have the whole year to earn it."

Rachd nodded in agreement, but did not otherwise indicate he was paying attention to anything other than the action on the monitor in front of him.

"What about the students that lose out in the first two matches? Do you just randomly shuffle them into the bottom ranks by strength of schedule?" The questioner this time was Allan Riley, the youngest and most physically active of the AG investigators that comprised the bulk of the Oversight team.

"We don't rank the two and outs until Monday when the ranking board goes up to be perfectly honest." James Rachd still didn't look away from the screen as he answered the younger man's question. "With the notable exception of healers, who themselves made a notable exception this year by not having a single one of the three go straight out of the rankings, the straight outs tend not to stay in the program. Some come back, some don't." All four of the investigators turned somewhat incredulous looks at the Combat Instructor. "The trend goes back with only a few notable breaks all the way to when Dean Hallen switched Overton to a gender integrated double elimination ranking format to account for what he referred to as 'a gross misunderestimation of the capabilities of female Supers and a ridiculous limitation on the progress of students who's entire ability must be evaluated in as little as a single match against a vastly superior opponent.' Turns out most of the kids we get in here haven't ever gone toe to toe with someone else with abilities, hell not a lot of college kids of any variety have ever been in a fight where your opponent beats you unconscious before it's over." James paused to take a sip from his water bottle, and offer the beverage a glare indicating he wished the contents of the bottle were something else, before he continued. "As a result, we get a lot of freshman that were king of the heap back home because they had the powers and no one really messed with them, and they get here and other people with powers stomp them into the ground at the end of the first week of pretty exhaustive physical conditioning, and you don't need to be a psych major or a telepath to figure out that a lot of them discover they don't got what it takes to make it in this program."

There were nods of understanding from the Oversight group at the end of the large Instructor's speech. Overall it was probably a kindness to expose the new students to the harshness of the HCP's requirements early on. It gave them a chance to get out and truly prepare for a second attempt, or to move on to something that they were better suited for before they'd invested too much of their time and selves into it.

"Queue up the sixth round undefeated match Darlene! It's the best!" Dani was eagerly motioning for the Oversight member closest to the controls to hasten her compliance, drawing a brief chuckle from the much older woman.

"Haven't we already reviewed the top rank match four times Dani?" Darlene's question was however accompanied by several quick selections on the keyboard in front of her, bringing the requested match onto the monitor.

"Yea, but we've reviewed all the matches at least twice. And this is the best one by FAR."

"I think that must have been before I managed to get myself sent down here. Who's the participants in the main event?" Bert sat up a bit straighter in his seat to get a better angle at the monitor as he spoke.

"Jacobson and Casse. You'll enjoy it Mr Rivera, it's about the best example you could ask for of the complete skill fighter taking on the raw power fighter." Rachd's position didn't change, but his focus on the monitor seemed to intensify.

"Amelia Jacobson is the tall barefoot girl, Erin Casse is the almost as tall girl that's about to turn transparent." Dani was practically bouncing in her seat with excitement as the replay started.

"Why would one of them be fighting barefoot?" Bert asked as the match started, both fighters closing with incredible speed. "What the hell... Is that girl ripping into the floor with her feet?"

"That would be why she's not wearing shoes Bert." Celia was less enraptured by the fifth replay of the match than the others, and as such had enough presence of mind to pause the action and zoom in close enough that it could be clearly observed that Amelia's feet were actually gouging into the reinforced floor as if it were nothing more than soft turf as she charged her opponent. "Until the girl can get in contact with one of the DVA licensed vendors to make specialized equipment for someone of her strength, she'll just shred straight through them when she flexes her toes hard enough."

"Why can't the camera focus on the other girl?"

"Because her primary ability is EM distortion." The six watching the monitor looked up at the new voice to see Kathryn Jilles had joined the viewing. "Even on the non-standard spectrum feeds, she's still completely distorted, just in new and fascinating ways. Pinning down that girl's precise location if she doesn't want you to represents quite a challenge."

The action continued to unfold as the now seven spectators watched in silence. The hugely distorted girl stayed mostly in extremely close proximity to her incredibly powerful opponent, seeming to effortlessly evade the clumsy grabs and flailing strikes thrown at her. The necessity of such avoidance was abundantly clear to those watching the recording. When Amelia missed at such an angle that she contacted the floor or a wall as the incredibly mobile battle made it's way around the room the area she struck was left shattered to rubble or gouged completely out and flung across the room by the follow through.

Bert finally remembered to breathe again after several minutes of watching the seemingly impossible battle. "She didn't fight like that in any of her other matches. She must really hate that girl."

"Actually they're roommates, and while only recently acquainted they seem to be good friends." All four of the Oversight members turned expressions of patent disbelief towards the Dean as she spoke again, causing the woman to chuckle. "If you watch from the very beginning when both girls first entered the room and turn on the audio they have quite a pleasant conversation before they got started. Ms Casse essentially asked Ms Jacobson to promise that she wouldn't hold back, as she wanted to face the best opponent possible, win or lose. She even gave Ms Jacobson some pointers on how to aim her incredible strength in such a way that a blow would not be instantly lethal, and thus disqualifying."

"She gave her opponent advice at the beginning of the match after asking her to go all out? Is she nuts?"

"She knows her opponent is incredibly strong. She knows her opponent doesn't have any real training. Which is crazier, hoping she goes easy on you and doesn't accidentally splatter your skull all over the room if she does step things up, or her approach?" Rachd looked calmly at Allan as he posed the question in response to the younger man's own query. After considering for a moment, Allan smiled and nodded his agreement with the Combat Instructor's logic.

"How long does this go for?" Bert had noted that the counter in the corner of the screen had just passed the ten minute mark, far longer than most of the matches they had reviewed since his arrival.

"The end of the match comes at 17:44. Almost six minutes short of the new match length record that was set earlier today in fact." Dani had finally stopped bouncing with energy while watching the match, but still seemed about to vibrate through the chair she sat in. The woman had far too much energy.

At the conclusion of the epic match between the two freshman Bert gasped a bit as he realized he'd forgotten to breathe again for awhile at the end. It was almost impossible to wrap his head around the concept that a pair of normal looking eighteen year old girls were capable of the kind of battle those two had just waged against each other. And at the end the two had simply hugged and headed off to the infirmary together as if they hadn't just engaged in combat that had almost destroyed a room that was heavily reinforced specifically to PREVENT fights between Supers within its wall from doing too much collateral damage.

"Is the room repaired or can we still see the damage?"

James Rachd smiled widely as he stood and stretched before answering. "We're going to post the rankings in that room and leave it as is until Winter Break. Should be a great reminder of what those kids have signed themselves up for."

 

...

 

It was quite a bit later than Kathryn would normally choose for dinner, but it was an important meeting with the Walkers as well, and most importantly occurring at a venue where the Oversight Committee wouldn't be present. She smiled slightly as the maitre d' of the expensive restaurant met her at the door to escort her to a private booth already occupied by her co-conspirators.

"Sorry I couldn't get you good news any sooner Kathy, but it turns out that the few companies that make the things we're looking for are a bit shoddy in the customer service department." Riley didn't even bother with the normal pleasantries as the Dean joined him and his wife at their table, though he definitely projected a pleasant demeanor. "Fortunately with a little perseverance, we were able to get through to someone who realized how much money was represented, and things went smoothly from there. Your program's new machines will be delivered Sunday, and I am assured they are top of the line."

"I'm sure James will be happy to hear that we aren't just replacing the Hi-Mags with the same old thing." The conversation paused for a moment as the maitre d' reappeared to take Kathryn's order, before continuing. "And it's nice to see you again as well Janette. Elena tells me that you believe you've solved our problems with someone providing incentives for the local press to try and out our students as Supers?"

"Lovely to see you as well Kathryn, and yes Elena is quite correct. It didn't take much digging but a local news station has received quite a generous cash inflow that quite conveniently traces back to Humanity Forever, I'm sure you've heard of them?"

"It's an anti-Super and Powered extremist group. I believe they went mostly underground after claiming credit for bombing a Powered care clinic in Portland last year."

"The radicals in the group went underground, but they've still managed to keep a small 'legitimate' lobby going the whole time. Sadly the overall picture here goes way past that little groups abilities. They were set up to be the cutout in this I'm afraid. The good news is that the paper trail was plenty wide enough for a very aggressive lawsuit against Frank Tremes and his little local news empire. No one ever remembers to claim the 'anonymous' cash contributions as income, and with a little pressure from a few local interests that are NOT particularly happy about anyone selling the news to extremists, and that particular media outlet is now owned by someone more sympathetic to us and harder to bribe."

"Anyone I know?"

"I believe we have been acquainted Kathryn, so yes." Janette's smile was pure innocence as she finished her happy description of how she had ripped a business away from a rival in less than three days. Kathryn was again thankful that fate had provided her with such effective allies for this particular war she found herself fighting. She knew Elena had no trouble tracking down the source of their SI problems, but the various staff members were extremely limited in how much force they could bring to bear on such an opponent. The Walkers had no such limitations and seemed to be more than adequately armed for such a conflict.

"You and your husband are definitely an efficient pair Janette."

"We all have our specialties Kathryn. Is there any other business to get out of the way before our meal arrives?" Riley's expression remained pleasantly attentive, though Kathryn knew that he did not expect any further serious conversation for the night.

"Actually, I had one additional, somewhat personal question for your wife. I don't suppose I could trouble you for a moment of privacy?" Riley's expression betrayed a very slight amount of surprise, before the heavy man shrugged it away and stood from their booth.

"I believe I will ask for a brief tour of the wines to select the most appropriate vintage for each of our dishes. That should take me about ten minutes?"

"More than enough time I'm sure dear," Janette's face hadn't even betrayed the flutter of surprise that her husband's had shown, but to the telepath it was quite obvious that the calm, collected woman sitting next to her was extremely on guard.

As Riley left Kathryn took a sip of her water before beginning. "Please relax a bit Janette, I'm really only looking to get a personal curiosity satisfied if you don't mind. You don't even have to answer me if you truly don't want to, and I won't even go rummaging in your head for the answer if you ask me not to." Janette relaxed a little, but not so much that Kathryn believed her word was trusted at face value. It truly was amazing that anyone had ever mistaken the incredible woman for nothing more than a vapid dilettante. Then again, at the time that had been the point she supposed.

"Why Amelia?" Kathryn didn't know quite what she expected, but the vast maelstrom of emotion that suddenly engulfed her companion was definitely not on the list.

"She needed help, and Overton needed positive publicity with the people likely to know the whole story from Chicago. What else would there be?"

"Janette, I was honest when I told you that you didn't have to tell me if it's something that makes you too uncomfortable. But please, don't bother lying to the telepath after all the time you've spent thinking about how nice it is not to have to observe all the political niceties with her."

Janette locked her gaze on the older woman at the table with her, and after several seconds seemed as if she was going to invoke the privacy that Kathryn had offered, when suddenly her whole posture seemed to deflate a bit. She leaned her head back against the plush rest behind her, and took a deep steadying breath before she began to speak.

"Did you know I had a younger sister? We were only born a couple of years apart, unlike all of my older siblings. She was my best friend growing up. We always stayed close after we grew up, and she even got married before me and had a daughter. That would be almost twenty years ago now. She got married at eighteen and had a daughter the next year, and she was somehow fantastically happy the whole time despite all of her older sister's cynicism. When her little girl, Janie, was five, she set their house on fire. My sister Kylie, and her husband Tim almost died in the fire. My little niece was a Powered it turned out. A very dangerous one, as she apparently burst into flame whenever she got too excited." Janette paused to take a couple of more breaths before continuing as Kathryn sat riveted, already expecting where the story was leading. "A very convincing man came from a very prestigious institute, claiming that they would be the absolute best chance for little Janie to live any kind of life without having to be afraid for herself and everyone around her. Kylie wanted to keep her daughter, but Tim thought it would be for the best, and of course our parents, Janie's grandparents, wanted such a terrible potential embarrassment out of sight as quickly as possible, so arrangements were made in spite of my sister's protests." There was another pause as Janette took a sip of water and leaned forward to stare at her hands on the table in front of her.

"Could you guess, but I tried to convince my sister it was for the best too? They locked my niece up in a cell, no matter how nice you pretended it was that room was a prison cell. And she never even got to touch her mother or father again from that day on. She wasn't even six years old, and I actually thought that this was the right solution. She lived in that place, not being able to touch anyone or have anything too valuable for seven years. Making it seven years ago this Thanksgiving that the girl finally stopped fighting her depression and killed herself. Tim just seemed to accept it as a natural conclusion, Kylie couldn't handle it. She and her daughter had needed her family and we didn't give either of them any of the help they actually needed. My sister followed after her daughter on New Year's Day." Janette turned to look directly at Kathryn, both women seeing eyes' shining brightly with unshed tears. "Would you like to guess what the name of the man who came to my sister's home to tell her that she had to lock away her only daughter was? When I heard that there was a scandal at Powered Haven as a tiny blip on a news channel, I pulled every resource I had into uncovering what went on there. Francis Leroe had already fled the country by the time Amelia Jacobson and her sister had made the case solid enough that his lawyers couldn't delay the investigation any further. Believe me when I say that it was NOT the hand of fate that delivered him to the Chicago prosecutors office in handcuffs two days after the warrant was filed. His lawyers would have held that girl's life, and all those other lives, up in continuances and stalling tactics for a decade or more. I made sure that none of their bullshit had anything to stick to. I made damned sure that man ended up in the worst prison imaginable for the rest of his natural life, and if anyone ever suggests letting him out I will make damn sure that it does. Not. Happen. Why Amelia?" Janette blinked as a single tear made its way down her cheek before being gently dabbed away with a napkin. "Because I fucked up beyond forgiveness once, and I saw a chance to make just a little bit of it right."

The pair lapsed into silence for a few moments before Janette spoke again. "I saw that in some of the interviews that I technically wasn't supposed to have, that the girl wanted to be a Hero after everything that happened to her. Her life was hell up to that point and she still wanted to spend the rest of it helping people. Please tell me Kathy, does she have a chance? Can she do it?"

Kathryn offered her most genuine smile to the woman who had just bared more of her soul than the Dean would have thought possible a few minutes ago. "She's amazing Janette. She's going to be one of the greatest Heroes ever."

 

...

 

"Jeremy! It's so good that you finally made it. Dealing with some of the people here has been a nightmare without your assistance. Everyone! This is my assistant, Jeremy Kreid!" the assembled Oversight Committee turned to see what had the political appointee of their group so excited to see a very average looking man in a business suit bearing a rather thick file.

"Dammit Raines, this has been discussed, you can't invite your PA to come into the HCP investigation with you because he doesn't have clearance!" Mirror's tone held only a great deal of exasperation, and none of the surprise that the first several days of dealing with the antics of Walter Raines had engendered.

"Apologies Ms Mirror, but the reason I am only just arriving now is that this particular issue was finally resolved. I have significant background in both DVA and HCP Budget Committee business to be considered an asset for the Oversight Committee, and sufficient existing clearances that I have been cleared to work with you. Jeremy Kreid, pleased to make your acquaintance." the last line was offered to the room at large while he extended a hand towards the Hero in front of him.

Instead of shaking it Mirror simply continued to look directly at the man until he fidgeted a little uncomfortably before finally dropping his hand and offering the file instead. "You can verify that all of my clearances have been updated to allow for this transfer, additionally..." his voice dropped off briefly as Raines collected his briefcase and strode quickly towards the exit, a wide grin present on his face. "...additionally I am paid quite well by Walter Raines Senior to keep his son from doing anything exceptionally stupid. I will endeavor to keep this Mr Raines out of your way as much as possible so that you will have fewer distractions in the performance of your duties." the last was said with a somewhat sardonic half-smile on his face.

Mirror accepted the proffered file and reviewed the paperwork quickly, before passing the file to one of the investigators. "Get this officially vetted as quickly as possible, with the holiday tomorrow that likely means Tuesday as the parts of the government that aren't actually WORKING seem to think that things like weekends and holidays are times when they need to be unreachable. Mr Kreid, I will ask politely exactly one time that you remember NOT to attempt entrance to any of the HCP areas until after your clearances have been confirmed and the Overton staff has a chance to get an ID badge made up for you. If you choose to ignore this polite request then in all likelihood terrible things will happen to you, and we will be stuck dealing with Walter on our own again."

"I'm quite happy to have a few days to sort through all of Mr Raines' paperwork until everything is properly settled. I imagine I will be fully occupied with that task for longer than it takes to verify my clearances and acquire appropriate ID's. If you ladies and gentlemen would excuse me?" and after a polite pause to see if anyone spoke up, Jeremy Kreid turned and strode briskly after his employer, or possibly his employer's son.

"If that man can actually keep Raines out of our hair I say we nominate him for sainthood." it was the youngest member of the Oversight Committee that spoke the words, but the eight others present all echoed the sentiment.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6:
The Shortest Long Weekend

 

Iris Todd helped the last of her new dorm-mates transfer in the final box of the girl's belongings before making her way to the common room to collapse on the well worn sofa. The tall blonde girl had been somewhat sad to see her roommates wash out of the program. All of them had seemed like genuinely nice people for the brief period that she'd known them, but there had been a guilty undercurrent of celebration to her feelings as she had found herself the sole tenant of an entire townhouse dormitory. Then came the unexpected call at 8am on Sunday morning. Why the hell was anyone in an office anywhere at 8am on a Sunday morning anyways? University policy requires that the townhouse dorms have a minimum of three occupants, and in order to keep HCP students rooming with other HCP students that meant that girls in the residence hall with newly single occupancy rooms were being offered the opportunity to move into vacancies in the townhouse dorms. Iris had been yanked violently from a wonderfully pleasant sleep after having lost the first day of the three day weekend to hours of grueling combat matches. Now, feeling she had to make a good impression, she had lost all of her sleeping in time and half of her Sunday helping three new roommates invade the space she had briefly thought would be her own private fortress. Oh well. Some dreams are simply not meant to be.

It didn't take long for the other three girls to gravitate towards the common room as proper introductions had been put off to expedite the move-in. Iris managed to pull herself up to a proper sitting position in time to launch the conversation.

"Welcome all to my lovely home away from home," she gestured expansively at the well worn furniture and cheap carpeting that were near universal dorm staples. "I'm Iris, please don't steal my food! I'm a speedster, and if you steal my calories I may have to eat my roommates in order to survive!" She smiled as she provoked a few giggles from the new arrivals.

"It's a lovely place you have here Iris. I'm Wilma Perez, and I will endeavor not to eat your food," the speaker was the young woman to Iris' left, a rather buxom hispanic woman sporting a pixie cut and a Cowboys jersey. "However should you find your calories vanishing, eat the white girls first. I would probably give you indigestion." Wilma trailed a finger along the end table next to her chair accompanied by a brief sizzling sound as something on her finger scored a few new grooves into the heavily scarred wood.

"Tara Warren here," the next speaker was to Wilma's left as the introductions continued around the room, the somewhat plump redhead with freckles and gold wire frame glasses waved as she introduced herself. "Since it doesn't look like anyone has a car, can I take over most of the garage? My ability is classed under the new 'Abnormal Technological Brilliance' category, I'm a mad-Chemist." The other three girls found themselves briefly picturing the redhead cackling maniacally with a hunch backed assistant trailing behind her. It was a surprisingly easy image to conjure of the overly cheerful redhead.

"I have no objections to you taking over the garage as long as you're not going to do anything illegal or noxious in there," the last speaker was another blonde, slightly taller than Iris with very plain features save for her startlingly bright purple eyes. "I'm Gretchen, please don't try to abbreviate it. It's a terrible name but all the nicknames are worse, trust me. And it's somewhat ironic to be rooming with a speedster as my ability is creating partial stasis fields. Or in simpler terms, I slow things down."

"Well now that we all know each other, let's order some celebratory takeout for surviving the first week and look forward to an almost normal length weekend with the holiday tomorrow!" Gretchen and Wilma nodded their assent, but the strange expression on Tara's face forced a pause to the planning of the impromptu celebration.

"Did you guys not see the posting after the combat trials yesterday? We're supposed to report to the HCP Physical Fitness Center as 10am to review our rankings. It had a four hour block marked out so I assume they're going to have our Gym class on Monday as well."

Iris' expression was almost comically depressed as she processed the information. "So we're going to get less weekend on our three day weekend than we get on a normal one?"

 

...

 

Beulah Abbot had the look of someone marching to their execution as she rode down the elevator to the HCP sections with her petite roommate. "I'm going to be in dead last rank Alex."

Alexandra Andrews found herself fidgeting nervously as she was in the unfamiliar position of trying to console someone else for their failings instead of being on the receiving end of such consolations. "I'm sure it won't be that bad, and Coach Rachd told us that it won't matter who's first and last today, because the rankings can change. I'm sure by the end of the semester you'll be one of the top students in the class Be, you've been training your whole life to do this!" Alexandra hoped her speech sounded less awkward to her friend than it did to her.

"It will be an embarrassment to be last place. I can't believe I was so stupid. I forgot to take off my jewelry and then I fight a magnetic controller. Then I tried to launch a surprise attack on an opponent without any information and I find myself struck unconscious by a single punch from a telepathic girl. If my parents learn that I performed so poorly they will pull me from the program. Mother will probably demand that I move with her back to Israel. I will never be a Hero."

Alexandra tried to find more words to reassure the depressed girl, but this situation was entirely outside of her expertise. Beulah had been so collected and composed the entire week, not even phased by the hellish physical training that the coaches had subjected the class to. Alexandra only made it through by borrowing abilities from the physically enhanced students to keep her own endurance from running out. Before she could think of something new, the elevator doors opened as they arrived in the underground complex. Beulah resumed her trudging walk towards what she seemed to very much expect to be her own doom.

"At the very least Be, I don't think they send home progress reports in college. I'm sure you'll be able to improve your ranking before your parents get a chance to find out, and even if they don't you're eighteen, you can just stay anyways!" Beulah spared a brief smile for her smaller friend as they continued walking.

"I suppose we'll find out if that will be possible or not, huh," the two entered the Physical Fitness Center nexus room to find it empty. "I didn't think we were that early."

"The screen Be," Alexandra pointed at the large display that two days ago had shown the students their matchups. The brief message on the display read simply: 'Report to CR 1-A for rankings and today's instructions.'

"If they were going to just send us to a combat room why did the notice say that the meeting was here?" Beulah extended her hand to her roommate. "Come, let us take the shortcut. I don't wish to be late for my own demise."

Alexandra took her roommate's hand somewhat tentatively. Teleporting still creeped her out a little bit, but there was just a brief moment of disorientation as the world around them seemed to shatter and reform almost instantly, and they were in a different room containing a large crowd of students. Alexandra promptly fell as she appeared slightly off the floor as Beulah had appeared right at the edge of what appeared to be a large crater in the floor.

"Eeep!" the small girl let out an involuntary shout as she stumbled, but her roommate's grip and quick reflexes kept her from going all the way down.

"Dear God, what happened in this room?" Beulah's tone held only wonder and disbelief with no trace of her earlier depression, and as Alexandra opened her eyes she realized why. The combat room, composed of specially reinforced and hardened concrete and plasticrete, was torn apart. The crater she had nearly fallen into was probably eight feet across, though on closer inspection appeared to be more of a semi-circular section of pulverized floor than the blast crater the small girl had originally thought it was. In addition there were gouges all throughout the room's floor and walls, some of the ones in the walls had to be at least a foot deep and several feet across.

"Maybe some of the students have a highly explosive power? Or maybe the instructors had a fight in here?" Alexandra couldn't believe how damaged the room was, a point driven home even further when she realized that there were metal support braces along the wall behind her that seemed to have been brought in to prevent it from collapsing further. Probably half the length of the wall between the floor and about six feet up showed massive cracks or more rents in the material where sections were just missing. She also noted that a tall girl with light pink hair standing nearby seemed to be giggling in response to her suppositions, and the slightly taller girl with the braid next to her was blushing for some reason.

"Be, do you know who those two are?" the shorter girl tried to subtly direct her roommate's attention to the two tall girls.

"I didn't have a match with either, and I don't think I have any normal classes with either. I know they are both in very good condition as neither has shown real signs of exertion in training last week."

Before Alexandra could ponder the mystery further, her train of thought was derailed by the sudden appearance of Coach Martinez in the midst of the crowd, and the booming voice of Coach Rachd from the nearer entryway.

"Welcome to your second week in the HCP kids, and I would like to sincerely congratulate all of you that are still here. We are going to lose some more of you by the end of the year, have no doubt, but those of you that have made it this far have demonstrated that you do have what it takes to do this. It might not be in the four years you planned on, but if you truly get into it and work harder than you ever thought possible you will graduate from this program someday." the Coach's speech was perhaps the nicest, most sincere tone that any of the students could remember hearing from the man. Alexandra felt her jaw drop open and repressed the urge to squee in delight.

"I'm sure a lot of you are wondering what the hell happened to the room we are all standing in, and the answer to that question is a simple one. Two students had their match in here on Saturday." He looked around the room to see several expressions of surprise as he confirmed that the damage had been done by the freshman class. "All of the Instructors thought that this room in its current state would make a very good visual reminder of exactly the sort of thing you have signed yourselves up for. Consider carefully, a freshman student in the HCP did this. If you graduate you will be expected to go out and take on criminal Supers that will actually be trying to kill you. This room is simply the result of a 'friendly' match." There were a few more nervous looks around the room. Who could possibly have done that kind of damage in a friendly match?

"Now, without further delay, I present to the surviving freshman, your current combat ranking." Coach Rachd reached into a pocket and produced a small remote, clicking on a projector that displayed a huge list across the least damaged wall in the room. Most of the students immediately noticed two things: The list only showed 41 students remaining in the program, and the first, second, and third rank slots held no names at present.

"Well at least I'm not in last place," Alexandra heard her roommate mutter quietly and the short brunette absently noted that her roommate currently occupied rank 39. She was somewhat pleased to note her own rank of 31st, in spite of winning only one of the three matches she had been in yesterday.

"And now for some special introductions, Casse, Gauge, Jacobson, get your asses up front with me NOW!" the crowd of students parted where needed to allow the three called out to move forward to assemble between the two coaches, Alexandra noted that the two tall girls she'd seen earlier were among those moving forward. "This man here is one Collin Gauge. He is a Shifter, his alternate form being a very large rock monster of some kind." the male student frowned a bit at the description of his power but didn't interrupt the coach. "He is currently ranked third in this class. In order to secure that rank during his last match against another student, he literally tore his own arm off to use it as a club and extend his reach enough to surprise his opponent. Are any of you willing to go that far?" the question met a wall of shock and silence, and left Collin turning an interesting shade of red with the embarrassment of being put on the spot.

"The shorter of these two women is one Erin Casse. She's above human average strength, and she bends light. With nothing but abilities generally considered to be non-combative and some obviously extensive training, she has earned the second highest rank in your class. Of the opponent's she faced on Saturday, every single one of them is ranked in the top fifteen in the class, so the few of you in the back thinking it must have been a fluke for her to climb so high need to stop being damned idiots right now. This room is where she fought the strongest person in the class to try and claim that title for herself." There was another pause as the assembled students again looked around the room. Alexandra definitely saw the destruction in a new light. If the Coach's description of Erin's abilities was an accurate one, then all of the damage to the room had been done by her opponent, meaning she had lasted a very long time against an obviously superior power.

"And lastly I present one Amelia Jacobson. Many of you remember Jacobson from the very first day of class as she was the only one in the room with the balls to step up and call me out for being an asshole. She is the top ranked student in your class, and everyone who matched up with her other than Casse can attest that she beat them with virtually no effort in spite of the fact that she has absolutely no combat training." Alexandra noted that there were a few students nodding sullenly at the Coach's last declaration. "Right now these three students are nearly as far beyond the rest of you as the Instructors are beyond them. That is why they have to stand up here and let everyone memorize their faces. In spite of the gulf between all of you and them, if you make it to the end of this program you will have far surpassed the level they occupy now." The quiet in the room had taken on a more contemplative feel than it held a moment ago. "And now on to one of my favorite things. Elena, if you would do the honors."

"Thank you James. LISTEN UP!" Several of the students jumped a bit at the smaller Coach's sudden shout. Rachd yelling was a near constant occurrence, Elena rarely did more than pitch her voice up just to the level needed to be heard. "You all have your ranks. Some of you are happy with those ranks, some of you are not. Some of you think you deserve better. Well I have good news for those of you who feel that way: You get a chance to prove it. All year long." Elena Martinez definitely had the absolute attention of every student in the room at this point.

"The system is relatively simple. If you want a better rank, you challenge the person who has that rank and attempt to take it from them. You can only challenge another student up to five ranks higher than you unless they are currently ranked in the single digits, in which case you can only challenge a student three ranks higher than you. ONLY the second ranked student can challenge the top ranked student. You can only issue or defend one challenge each week. Higher rank gets priority on issuing challenges, but you cannot challenge to improve your rank on consecutive weeks. Lastly if you lose two challenges you've issued seeking a higher rank, you cannot issue another challenge until the next semester, so choose wisely when you challenge someone. You will receive extra credit to your overall HCP grade for successfully improving or defending your rank. Questions?" Coach Martinez looked around the room carefully for signs of inquiry from the students, but she saw mostly comprehension or calculation in their expressions. Both were good signs in the opinion of both coaches.

"The final bit, is when you issue your challenges," Coach Rachd reentered the discussion as the students were still processing all the information Coach Martinez had just inundated them with. "Every Monday at the beginning of our Gym class we will walk through the rankings from top to bottom to determine who will be calling out who each week. The matches themselves will be scheduled at the end of the class period the same day, and all will occur over the weekend so as not to interfere with your normal classes and SI requirements. So, with that said, CASSE!" the second ranked girl turned towards the Coach. "You challenging Jacobson for her spot this week?"

"No Coach," there was a surprised murmur through the crowd at the refusal.

"And why the hell not?"

"Because nothing's changed since Saturday. I only have two chances to move up, I'm not going to waste one of them before I'm ready."

Rachd let out a genuine laugh at Erin's response. "Well at least that actually makes sense. Gauge! You challenging Casse for her spot?"

"Not this week Coach," the surprise was a bit more muted this time, and Rachd simply moved on down the list instead of questioning Collin for his refusal as well.

Alexandra settled in next to her roommate, Beulah was nearly vibrating with excitement at the prospect of being able to advance her rank so quickly. Alexandra sighed and wondered if she should try to challenge herself or wait out the first week and see if she could hold her position. Fortunately she had at least a few minutes to figure it out.

 

...

 

"Gerard my friend, you need to stop glaring at our friend Kyle, you are making the restaurant people nervous," Ramón leaned in to stage whisper to the blonde man as the four roommates occupied a booth at a steak house just off campus. Ostensibly the group had all agreed to the dinner outing to celebrate their survival of the first week in the HCP, and the two residents of their dorm holding top five rankings. Gerard, however, seemed unable to move past his ire at being surpassed by one of his roommates.

"I still can't believe you're ranked above me and you STILL won't tell me wha-" Gerard's rant was cut off as Antoin 'accidentally' knocked his glass off the table with a clumsy gesture, the sudden motion and noise causing him, and most of the other nearby diners, to start involuntarily. Ramón leaned in close again, but this time the whisper was pitched low enough to be intended for Gerard only, and did not contain the humor that was generally omnipresent in the large Mexican's tone.

"Gerard, if you keep this stupid shit up and get any or all of us outed on an SI infraction, all three of us are going to beat you in the parking lot until you cannot walk and leave you out in the desert somewhere. Shut the fuck up and eat your dinner, you can angst when we're not in a public place." Gerard glanced at the normally cheerful man with a surprised expression, but Ramón had already reverted to his normal carefree expression and tone as he began ribbing Antoin for his 'clumsiness' in breaking his glass.

Gerard sat back in the booth and allowed the little scene to play out as waitstaff arrived to clean up the mess, Antoin apologized profusely while Ramón continued to tease the Canadian, with Kyle joining in by making very dramatic movements to protect his own drink and plate whenever Antoin's arms moved. Letting out a deep breath he hadn't realized he was holding as the waitress finally delivered a new drink to Antoin and moved off to another table, Gerard spoke again. "I apologize for not being in a very good mood. You are right Ramón, it was a stupid thing to bring up at our celebration dinner," he stood and fished out his wallet as he continued, "I don't think I'll be good company for the rest of the night, so I'm going to head back early. Kyle, I would appreciate a word when you get back." Then leaving several bills on the table to cover quite a bit more than his portion of the check, the tall blonde man strode out of the restaurant.

"That man is way too tightly wound." Kyle and Ramón both nodded in agreement with Antoin's assessment.

"I didn't even realize he hadn't figured it out at this point. I might have to apologize for that bit," considering that nearly everyone had seemed to know who he was at the ranking announcement Kyle hadn't considered that the most straight-laced of his three roommates wouldn't also have learned his 'secret' by that point. Kyle was forced to wonder if the angry glares had been motivated more by the perceived continuation of being slighted in not sharing his ability or if his original assumption had been correct and it had been simply motivated by the fact that he outranked his blonde roommate.

"I do not believe that will be required my friend. Let Gerard have his time to cool down, have your discussion with him when we return, and we will hope that he grows more relaxed in time. Or at least less stupid." Ramón sifted quickly through the small stack of bills left behind by their roommate. "Ah, but good news! Gerard has apparently offered to purchase desserts for all of us as way of apology!"

 

...

 

"A hell of a lot nicer than the dorm room isn't it Barry?" Barry Jeung turned his attention from the window he had been staring blankly out of towards his roommate, now housemate he supposed, pausing a moment before answering.

"I think it will be nice to have more space and less sharing of the facilities. But moving here also saddens me Matt."

"Why's that?"

"The only reason you and I had an opportunity to move here, and why Aaron and Miguel could also move here with us, is that all four of the house's previous tenants are no longer in the program with us," the lanky Korean youth stood and gestured at the room around them. "It will be far more comfortable for us, but at the same time it will be a constant reminder of how easy it is to fail in our chosen endeavor."

Matt Jason, the stocky brown haired man who had initiated the conversation looked around the new living space with a slightly different expression before shrugging and turning back to his friend.

"If you're going to be all depressing about getting a bigger place why did you decide to move in the first place?"

Barry smiled as he answered his roommate, "For the same reason an eighteen year old man does almost anything Matt. Because I am far more likely to get a woman to come back with me to a house than to a small dorm room."

 

...

 

James Rachd's face showed an expression that would have shocked and possibly terrified his students had any been present to see it. As he walked briskly up the short path to a moderate sized ranch-style house just off campus, he wore a deeply unsettled, nervous look. Bordering on genuine fear. He hated having to bring work into someone's personal residence. He knew how much he despised it when others couldn't keep work matters focused at work, but some things were too important to be left for office hours. The muscular man arrived at the front door and knocked sharply three times, then waited impatiently, the large bag he carried with him shuffled from hand to hand as he tried to school his expression into something more neutral. Not that there was a lot of benefit to controlling what he looked like he was feeling in this case.

The door opened in front of him with no one present on the other side. James strode through without hesitation, then turned and closed the door carefully behind him. "I'm in the kitchen James, and if I disagree with what you're thinking about the importance of this matter I am going to float you up to roof level and leave you out there all night," the voice of Kathryn Jilles contained a decent amount of irritation, but the Dean seemed more amicable than James assumed he would be in the reversed circumstances.

Making his way into the kitchen he found the Dean of Overton's HCP cleaning up the remnants of her evening meal. Carefully setting the bag he carried on the floor next to the nearest chair, he waited for his host to indicate if he should be seated or not.

"Yes James, you can sit down, and while I appreciate the bottle of Trago Añejo you brought me you really do need to get to the point of your coming to see me in my home QUICKLY." Kathryn turned away from washing plates and strode across the room to sit across from her Close Combat Instructor.

"Ever since the ranking matches we've had Raines going off about how Jacobson has to be a ringer we brought in to make our program look better," Rachd steeled his expression to look his boss directly in the eye. "I need to know if he's actually managed to be right for once."

Kathryn rocked back in her chair a bit. She had not expected James Rachd to be listening to the ranting of the annoying career politician their program had been saddled with for potentially the next four years. That stopped her train of thought. There was no way the man sitting in front of her would possibly believe that Raines had a point on his own. She also recalled the extracurricular events that were suppose to take place today for the physically enhanced students after the rankings were revealed. "What happened when you tested Ms Jacobson?" To have Rachd coming to her home in the late evening instead of waiting til the next morning it had to have been something significant.

"As you know we decided to figure out where our current crop of Super physical students stand in terms of their present limits today. Most of them came in about where we would expect, Owens is a hell of a lot stronger than we thought she was from watching her matches, but other than that about what you'd expect. Pelley and Gauge are pretty impressive for never having had proper equipment, both can press almost two full tons. Carerra's only about half that but you know he can do a one minute mile? Todd's 6 second mile is a little more impressive but that girl can barely lift her own body weight, so there's apparently some trade off." James reached down into the bag next to him as he spoke and slid the expensive bottle of tequila, a short glass, and even a bottle of Kathryn's favorite lime chaser across the table. Kathryn accepted each item as it arrived in front of her. It was unusual for James to be so indirect in approaching something, usually the man felt no need to work up to any sort of big reveal.

"And you know that I like to keep the 'Jaws of Life challenge' alive from back in my days in Basic, when my first drill instructor had all us newbie Super soldiers try it out. It went about as expected too. Pretty much all the strength powers thought they'd be able to easily hold the little thing closed, and found out that eight tons of spreading force is quite a bit. It's good to try and keep them a little bit humble sometimes. One of the students almost managed it, she came so close to pulling it off that she burned out the entire hydraulic pump. I'm out about five grand to get it replaced now." Rachd reached again into his bag and produced the remains of the hydraulic spreader, holding it towards the Dean until he felt it plucked from his hand by her telekinesis so she could examine it. "The interesting bit is, that student didn't quite do the test the way all the others assumed it was done. She didn't clasp the spreading plates between both hands and push." Kathryn gasped and almost lost her mental grip on the tool as she saw the marks on the outer plates and realized what the Coach's long winded reveal was just before he said it aloud. "She gripped the plates together with one hand and tried to squeeze it shut with just her fingers. I see you've already noticed that between her grip and the Jaws' spreading she left her fingerprints perfectly preserved in a hardened steel plate. I can also tell you that same student was tested on those wonderful new machines that Riley donated to our program. I must say, the man has taste. Pinnacle Hydraulics makes some excellent equipment. And with a twenty five ton maxout for the press and squat exercises, it's got almost twice the capacity of those old piece of shit Hi-Mags we got rid of. But do you know what's funny Kathryn? I cannot tell you what Amelia Jacobson's maximum weight limit on any of the exercises we performed today is. Because she maxed the entire stack on day one. Now please tell me Kathy, is the girl that you and Janette Walker went on a special field trip to make a special exemption for entrance to the HCP on the last possible day to do such a thing a genuine student, or is she a ringer?"

Kathryn sighed at the question. She could definitely understand where James' doubts were coming from. She had known the girl was far stronger than most HCP freshman students after everything she'd been through, but it hadn't occurred to her that she might be THAT strong. "Did you read Amelia's file James?"

"I read through all the files before the year begins so that I can participate in accepting or rejecting students applying to the HCP. Since Jacobson got to skip the review portion I just read the summary on her powers and family history."

"You should read the whole file James. The girl isn't a ringer. Her life from age four up through a few weeks ago was pretty much a living hell though. You remember the news a while back about some kind of scandal at Powered Havens?"

"Some shit about the guy in charge embezzling a bunch of money and trying to run off or something like that right?"

"That too. The director of that agency wasn't just embezzling money, he was targeting wealthy families that had young children demonstrate dangerous abilities and convincing them that only his clinics could possibly keep their precious child from harming themselves or others."

"And how does some asshole fucking over a bunch of Powereds that might not all have needed the whole lockdown thing affe-... Wait. Oh fuck no. No one could fall for that." Rachd's expression showed his dawning realization, and absolute disbelief in where that realization had led him.

"The man was a gifted con artist James. He used combinations of drugs, corrupt psychiatrists, and an apparent natural gift for theatricality to con a lot of people. Amelia was actually the victim of those talents that finally pulled the whole thing crashing down on top of him." Seeing the somewhat predatory smirk on the Combat Instructor's face she continued quickly, "Not literally James. She got to one of the counselors that was actually there to do his job, demonstrated genuine control, then got out to her sister who was an assistant DA in the same city as the institute she'd been stuck in for twelve years. A lot of people are in jail now, she didn't actually kill anyone."

"That would explain how the girl has the guts to stand up and take on the instructor on day one, but how the hell does that equate to having abilities at the level she does already?"

"If you'd looked through the file I suspect you would already have the answer to that question. After her parents died in a car wreck when she was nine, there was no reason to try and pretty up her cage quite so much. That girl spent seven years wearing the kind of restraints they would strap someone with your ability set into when they got shipped off to Sanderson for an extended visit. Waking and sleeping for all those years, that girl was wearing probably four to five thousand pounds of high density restraints. Instead of just locking her down though hers were attached to movement restrictors since unlike an actual prisoner she's supposed to have some freedom to move around her own room. All the technical specs were shredded when the whistle was blown, and Amelia personally ripped her restraints to pieces in order to get out of that cell, but I would conservatively estimate that every time she wanted to move into something other than the fetal position she was pushing against six tons of counter force." Rachd was staring blankly at a point on the wall behind the Dean at this point, trying to process the absurd and horrific situation the top ranked student had lived through before entering the HCP. "To be honest I thought she would be about as strong as you are after all of that. For her to be that much stronger as a freshman, if she improves as much as most students do..."

"That girl is either close to the limit of what her ability can do after that many years of some truly hellish endurance training. Or she's going to be among the most physically powerful Supers in the world when we're done with her." James frowned again as something else occurred to him. "I almost wish she was a ringer now Kathy. That history also explains why that girl has no idea how to properly move or stretch herself. And why she has no clue how to fight. Now I have to figure out how to train her without getting any of the other students killed by her learning curve."

"You've got some time to work with there James. She'll be here for four years. Meanwhile I'm going to have to rummage through the discretionary fund to get some extremely custom training equipment ordered."

Meet The Freshman Class

Since as the writer I have a hard time keeping track of who everyone is and what they do, I assume that some of the readers might have similar struggles with the ludicrous number of characters that my brain decided, for some reason, was a great approach to my story. So everyone, meet the Overton HCP Freshman Class by rank!

 

#1 Amelia Jacobson - 6'2" extremely skinny white female. Has long dirty blonde hair that she keeps in a single large braid. Extreme super strength and durability

#2 Erin Casse - 6' athletic and attractively built white female. Has shoulder length hair that she wears in several random styles and colors with her ability. Light and EM distortion abilities as a result of a Supernormal anatomy which also grants her extreme flexibility and increased muscle density

#3 Collin Gauge - 5'11" extremely muscular white male with crew cut reddish orange hair. Shifts into a crystaline humanoid form with Super strength and extreme durability

#4 Kyle Sawara - 5'9" skinny and somewhat androgynous Japanese/American male with stringy black hair just shy of shoulder length. Shifts into 'succubus' form with illusionary abilities

#5 Gerard Finne - 6'2" athletically built white male with short carefully styled blond hair. Can generate highly mobile kinetic barriers

#6 Ben Pelley - 6'1" muscular built black male with short curly black hair. Super strength and durability

#7 Marilyn Simmons - 5'8" average build white female with long black hair. Shifts into a somewhat anthrocized bear form with super strength and heightened senses

#8 Rorie Samuels - 6'3" heavily built Samoan male with short spiky black hair. Creates handheld orbs that can be thrown to explode on contact.

#9 Aaron Sexton - 6' average built white male with short wavy blonde hair. Generates an aura that induces disorientation and hallucinations

#10 Lisa Shang - 5'3" stocky build Chinese/Irish female with significant body tattoos (mythical creatures) and a multi-color dyed pixie haircut. Can exhale multiple various elemental force types (fire, cold, air, etc)

#11 Teresa Montez - 5'5" petite framed hispanic female with nearly knee length straight black hair (worn in various styles during training to prevent entanglement). Teleporter with ability to teleport touched objects/persons away from herself and accelerate them while doing so

#12 Mark Jansen - 6'3" athletically built white male with short curly auburn hair. Air manipulator (can direct blasts and fly limitedly)

#13 Susan Owens - 5'10" average build white female with medium length reddish orange hair. Shifts into a terrifying looking black skeletal marionette with freakishly unnatural movement patterns and super strength.

#14 Zach Snider - 5'8" lightly built white male with extremely short dark brown hair. Can create some form of nearly invisible force whip/flail

#15 Kenneth Kaufman - 6' heavily built white male with a shaved head. Can reflect energies that strike his body but still suffers from any associated physical impact

#16 Iris Todd - 5'11" skinny white female with shoulder length blond hair. A speedster capable of clocking an approximate six second mile.

#17 Ramón Carerra - 6'4" muscular hispanic male with messy medium length black hair. Super strength with low end super speed

#18 Rodney Plankett - 5'10" average build white male with short brown hair. Can induce severe fatigue and disorientation by maintaining eye contact

#19 Roger Colton - 6'5" extremely lanky black male with slicked back black hair. Fire elemental projector

#20 Wilma Perez - 5'4" very busty hispanic female with very short brown hair. Generates and secretes various contact venoms and poisons in her skin

#21 Jon Glenn - 6' skinny white male with shoulder length blonde hair. Creates various 'hard light' constructs

#22 Liam Mathews - 6'1" average build white male with very short curly red hair. Shifts into a tiny draconic form with very fast flight and self-described 'laser breath'

#23 Miguel Trujillo - 5'10" average build hispanic male with medium length curly brown hair. Earth elemental controller/manipulator

#24 Barry Jeung - 5'9" lanky build Korean/American male with short black hair. Can enlarge handheld objects and distort their shape while doing so. Ability causes obects to degrade rapidly with repeated use and objects revert rapidly to original size when contact is lost

#25 Tara Warren - 5'6" slightly plump white female with tightly tied back red hair. Technological Brilliance class super, chemist type specializes in 'combat drugs'

#26 Louise Garcia - 4'11" extremely petite hispanic female with short black hair. Generates electricity internally with a great degree of precision, can discharge with physical contact

#27 Tasha Johnson - 6'6" very muscular black female with crew cut dark brown hair. Exceptional self healer that's still working on the 'healing others' part of her ability

#28 Maryann Copeland - 5'7" slim white female with long dark brown hair. Can charge any object small enough to completely cover with her hands to cause it to explode a few seconds after she releases it.

#29 Scott Jameson - 5'6" small framed white male with messy light brown hair. Can generate extremely powerful magnetic forces at extremely short ranges

#30 Eloise James - 5'4" average build white female with short white hair. Can make herself invisible and effectively intangible but cannot perceive her surroundings while intangible

#31 Alexandra Andrews - 5'2" petite white female with dirty blonde hair. Can mimic powers from nearby supers for limited durations

#32 Michael Karl - 5'10" average white male with medium length black hair. Advanced Mind telepath + telekinetic

#33 Kaori Kimura - 5'5" petite Japanese female with short blue/black hair. Healer with added ability to induce pain or fatigue by touch

#34 Alvera Batiz - 5'9" average build hispanic woman with medium length wild brown hair. Nearly impervious to physical harm, no super strength or endurance though

#35 Antoin Montaine - 6' average build white male with short very light blonde hair. Healer.

#36 Matt Jason - 5'10" stocky white male with short brown hair. Can manipulate materials around him to be harder, softer, sticky, bouncy, or permeable

#37 Catalina Blake - 5'10" athletically built hispanic woman with medium length auburn hair. Telepath, non-telekinetic. Can 'piggyback' for aural and visual stimuli from people in a wide area around her and can project telepathically.

#38 Gretchen Newton - 6' average white female with short blonde hair and extremely purple eyes. Can generate stasis fields that slow movement

#39 Beulah Abbott - 5'7" athletically built middle-eastern female with very short dark brown hair. Teleporter

#40 Ty Rodins - 6'1" heavy built black male with messy black dreadlocks. Technological Brilliance type super specializing in polymers and alloys

#41 Sean Tannen - 5'11" heavy built white male with short dark brown hair. Can manipulate and rapidly grow plants

Chapter 7

Chapter 7:
Wait, There's Real College Too?

 

Collin practically collapsed into the worn dorm chair that had become officially 'his' over the past week and a half and stared at the ceiling. "How the hell am I supposed to keep up with all of this crap?" unfortunately for the heavily muscled young man, the ceiling did not seem to have any sage advice to offer, so after a few more moments of blank staring and an attempt to relax out the feeling of being completely overwhelmed Collin hauled himself to his feet to retrieve the items he needed to shower. His probational acceptance into the HCP with Overton's new tutoring program for freshman meant that every day after the grueling HCP Gym period, he had barely half an hour to make it back to his dorm, shower, and meet his tutor for a two hour session.

Properly cleaned and no longer smelling like a gym bag, Collin made his way at a brisk pace to the student Union building for his scheduled meeting. While he might lament the time drain the mandatory program placed on his schedule, he had to admit that so far the limited material he'd had to absorb in his classes had come far more easily with the assistance.

As he arrived and dropped his pack next to the table currently occupied by a tall woman with spiky pink hair and a wardrobe that looked like it belonged at a punk rock concert instead of an academic institution, he also allowed that it was a huge bonus to the program that his tutor was incredibly hot.

"Right on time as usual Mr Gauge," the older girl had already produced far more worn versions of the textbooks for Collin's two Wednesday classes. Noting his freshly showered appearance she grinned at him. "I see you're still prettying yourself up for me everyday as well. Didn't we cover back in the first week that I don't date anyone I'm tutoring?"

"I'll get you to call me by my first name yet Nicki, and I might as well make sure I leave a long lasting good impression for AFTER you've finished tutoring me," the younger man tried to adopt a suave, seductive attitude, but as Nicki responded with only laughter he figured he had probably missed the mark slightly. "After all they tell me that women love a man that can make them laugh!" Take what you've got and roll with it after all.

Nicki took almost a full minute to recover her composure and they began reviewing the material for the day. Collin tried to remain as attentive as possible, but Algebra and Intro to Psychology were not courses that held his attention well. Unfortunate since the psych course was an elective he had picked mostly because it was the only course with a viable time slot that hadn't looked completely terrible. Maybe I should have gone with Anthropology 111 instead.

Eventually the session came to a close, Collin's attempt to convince Nicki to join him for dinner "It won't be a date!" failed miserably once again, and the two confirmed their next session for tomorrow, same time and place.

As Collin wandered off campus looking for something a little more edible than the offerings of the Student Union cafeteria he found himself lost in thought again. He couldn't decide if he'd rather have an uglier and less distracting tutor, or if he was better off with a hot girl that he wanted to impress, at least a little bit. He was also not looking forward to returning to his room and roommate later in the evening. Ben had challenged him for his rank on Monday, and the two men would have their match Saturday morning. Ben treated the whole thing like it was the most exciting thing ever, but Collin was seriously worried about how well the two men would be able to live in the same room after having fought each other. They hadn't matched up in the initial combat rankings, and Collin had been grateful not to have to deal with that drama. As absorbed in his own thoughts as he was, Collin almost missed the sound of a car rapidly accelerating behind him, and looked over his shoulder just in time to see a sedan jump the curb angled directly towards him.

Fortunately Collin's reflexes didn't seem to be suffering too greatly from his internal conflict, and he threw himself to the side in time to almost completely avoid the car, but he felt a jarring impact as the driver's side mirror caught him in the back and turned his dive into a tumble.

As Collin fell he saw with surprising clarity the two men in the car, both white, and the one in the back seat with a camera phone trained on Collin as he fell away from the car and it sped off down the street.Great, and now I have to worry about some assholes who want to run people over and post it on YouTube.

Collin pulled himself to his feet, wincing at the forming bruise on his back, recovered his own phone quickly and punched the emergency call button. As the phone rang he noted the direction the sedan turned as it pulled off the campus drive and into a nearby subdivision. He also quietly recited the license plate to himself over and over to make sure he didn't lose any of the numbers while he waited impatiently for the 911 operator to pick up. I hope that county lockup in Texas is as awful as it is in some of the movies I've seen.

 

...

 

Catalina Blake had a definite spring in her step as she made her way from her last normal class of the day towards the elevators that would take her down to the HCP areas for Ethics of Heroism and another round of intense physical training to look forward to. She already felt like she'd absorbed so much material in her normal classes that she could ace the finals if they were presented to her today. She found the Dean's Ethics class genuinely intriguing as much for the material itself as getting to watch dozens of variations of each scenario play out in the minds of everyone around her. She even found herself enjoying the exhausting Gym periods as a way to bond with her fellow students in shared misery. Okay, maybe I don't actually enjoy Gym. she thought to herself with a brief giggle as the elevator opened to take her below ground.

Catalina received a brief hostile look from the petite Japanese healer as she entered the auditorium, but the other girl made the effort to push her expression back to normal and also to scold herself for being upset, an effort that the telepathic girl was in a somewhat unique position to appreciate. It wasn't particularly surprising, none of the students that had been challenged on Monday had responded with a great deal of fondness to their challenger. The least negative emotions probably came from the students in the top ten ranks that were challenged, as they had accepted the inevitability of such challenges after learning of their own high rankings.

The auburn haired hispanic woman found her way quickly to her seat as the Dean's entrance signaled that the class was about to start. It was somewhat impressive how much presence the petite woman managed to project, as all the assembled students quieted almost immediately when she took her place behind the lectern.

"Today we are going to start a bit of a class project. This will be an ongoing project throughout the year, and it will involve teamwork, research, and public speaking." the final portion was met with a chorus of groans from the assembled class. "All of you are going to have to get used to public speaking sooner or later. You've signed up to become Heroes. Speaking in front of your class will likely be a memory fondly recalled by those who graduate when they find themselves staring down a rabid mob of reporters with dozens of cameras and microphones broadcasting everything they do or say. And of course these days immortalizing every moment in the spotlight on the internet," the Dean's expressions held a trace of almost sadistic pleasure as several of the previously groaning students were now slightly flushed and several had slumped down in their seats as far as possible.

"I'm going to list off your groups for the start of this project, and you will need to co-ordinate with those students assigned to work with you on your own time. Each group will be assigned a city and time period, all within the last twenty years or so, and will be given access to the same kind of information that active Heroes in the same circumstances had available to them. You will study the information and discuss things that stand out to you with your assigned groups. Then I will randomly select one or two groups in each class period, beginning next week, and I will give you a scenario very similar to one that actually occurred in the time and place you are representing. Your group will then present to the assembled class how you would deal with the scenario given to you, and quite likely defend your decisions to cross examination very like what you would experience in an actual after-action debriefing. After each group has had an opportunity to be tested, new teams will be assigned and the process will start over. Are there any questions before we assign the first teams?"

Several hands shot up quickly. "Mr Jansen," a tall athletic male with short cut curly rich brown hair stood as he was called.

"We will have to co-ordinate with random groups for the entire year with no class time? In addition to everything else we have to do in this class?"

"Yes Mr Jansen. In most of your other courses it's simply called 'homework' and the only real difference between this and that is that in other classes you usually have the luxury to do it on your own at any time that works for you. Considering that I am certain every residence on campus is capable of video conferencing with any other residence I don't think this will be that large of a burden." A smile grew on her face again. "And you can always try to work on things during your Gym period after this class. You all will be present at the same time I have to assume. Next question? Ms. Garcia." Several of the students had actually flinched at the suggestion that they use Coach Rachd's gym time to work on the project.

Louise Garcia also stood as she was called but with her extremely small stature, the only student in the class actually smaller than the Dean herself, it was somewhat difficult to tell. "Are we allowed to research information in addition to the material we will be provided? You said that these are all going to be scenarios based on historical events and I think it would probably be easy to find most of the actual events given a location and a range of dates."

"Gathering additional information on the time and date in question is encouraged. The material that will be provided for you to study is primarily concerned with data that is not publicly available, so having additional background is beneficial. I would caution anyone attempting to predict the future with this assignment. The scenarios you will be tasked with resolving are only based on actual events, and you would probably all be rather shocked at how large an event can occur without receiving any noteworthy attention from the media or historians. Anyone else? Good, let's move onto the pairings now so we can get our normal class back underway."

The remainder of the class passed quickly for Catalina as she considered the group she had been assigned. Scott Jameson, Tasha Johnson, and Susan Owens. A magnetic manipulator, a giantess healer, a monster shifter, and a telepath. If Scott had the range for it, or if Catalina could ever develop the telekinesis the so-called experts kept telling her she should have, they could have been a very balanced Hero team in the real world, instead they were slightly overweighted in the close combat aspect. She also pondered the time and place they were studying up on. She couldn't think of anything major that had happened in Cheyenne in '95. Though that was probably the point. As the class filed out Dean Jilles called for Mr Gauge to remain behind a moment. Catalina picked up the undercurrent of concern and saw to her surprise that the number three ranked student had apparently been nearly killed in a car accident the previous night. I hope he didn't blow his SI requirement, but at least he looks okay. And with that final thought Catalina made an effort not to pry further into Collin's and the Dean's minds for a bit.

 

...

 

Sean Tannen relaxed in the standard weight room of the HCP fitness center as he had just successfully completed his second week of classes. He didn't have to worry about reporting for his mandatory tutoring with the constantly condescending senior he'd been assigned until Sunday evening. As the bottom ranked student in the class he had no worries about anyone challenging him, and he knew he wasn't ready to challenge anyone else yet either. With a sigh he pulled himself to his feet to collect a specially designed bag and head towards the currently empty combat rooms. He needed to figure out how to make his power work fast enough in a completely barren environment to matter. In a field or a park, he figured he could beat half the students in the program without even trying hard. In a heavily wooded area the only students he thought might be able to defeat his power were the insanely strong top ranked girl and the teleporters.

He arrived at his destination, and keyed in a quick sequence on the pad that all the students had been taught the same day the challenge format had been explained. It marked the room as 'In Use' and by which students. Walking into the massive empty space he strode all the way to the center before placing his bag on the floor and opening it, revealing dozens and dozens of green sprouting seeds and live vine and branch clippings. With a fully grown plant it was simple for him to cause massive growth spurts and to manipulate the green matter as if it were an extra limb he'd possessed all of his life. With the tiny sprouts and clippings he could functionally carry he needed to force them to mature first. He wasn't sure why his power didn't work very well on immature plants, but if all the combat evaluations were going to happen in lifeless underground cells he needed to figure out a solution. Coach Martinez's encouragement that not all students would be graded on the same combat scale aside, the husky brown haired youth was completely certain that if he didn't find a way to step up his game he'd be in the group Rachd had spoken of the first day during orientation. The group that wouldn't be in the HCP past Winter Break to learn what was going to change in the second semester.

As Sean began what would be several hours of training far harsher than what the two coaches had pushed the class to physically, he never once considered giving up or even taking a break before he had emptied the entire bag. He was absolutely determined not to fall into the second group. No matter what it took.

Chapter 8

Chapter 8:
Personal Redemptions and Lessons Learned the Hard Way

 

Gerard was barely able to maintain his outward composure as he strode into the waiting combat room, smiling slightly. He'd been a little disturbed when he learned that his fourth ranked roommate had actually been the incredibly beautiful demoness wandering around during the combat rankings the previous week. At least now the carefully groomed blond could understand why Kyle had been so reluctant to let on to his ability. I would be embarrassed too if I had to turn into a woman in order to fight. He shook himself a bit at the thought and turned his focus back to his opponent. Kyle had ended up doing Gerard a huge favor in not challenging for a higher rank this week, it would allow him to make his way all the way into the second place spot where he would only have to wait the single extra week before he could get his rematch with the freakishly strong bitch that had beaten him in the fifth round of the rankings.

The coaches had made the recordings of all the matches available for the students to study at the end of each Gym period, and Gerard was confident that in spite of her obviously excellent training, this girl's powers were simply not sufficient to match his own. Finally his opponent arrived, he noted immediately that she was not wearing the heavy knuckle guards that she had sported in all of her fights against physically enhanced opponents. He supposed it made sense, if she could manage to get to him she would have a substantial advantage with her physical abilities, and the extra weight of the weapon would only slow her down against an opponent where she didn't need the hitting power.

As both students stood across from each other neither spoke. His opponent wore an expression of intense concentration as the time display on the wall began beeping the ten second countdown to the start of their match. At five seconds the girl became nearly transparent as he expected. As the buzzer sounded to indicate the match had begun Gerard immediately began a slow, deliberate stalk towards his opponent.I need to get within thirty feet to hit her hard enough to put her down, just need to make sure she doesn't pull any tricks on the way in. The air in front of him shimmered and warped his view as the incredibly dense barrier he projected in front of himself compressed the air and refracted the light strangely.

Instead of initiating the strange light distortions he had seen in her previous fights and charging forward, his opponent seemed to study his approach before fading even further before his eyes, vanishing completely. Gerard stopped immediately. It had not occurred to him that the girl could manage complete invisibility. Definitely a solid ace for her to keep up her sleeve for after the initial matches. His estimation of his opponent rose slightly, but as he simply gathered a little more of his own energy and spread his barrier to surround himself from all sides he knew it was merely a delaying tactic.

Suddenly the thud of a boot pushing heavily into the floor directly behind him swung his attention around and he blasted out with all the force he dared use lest he risk finding himself disqualified for a lethal attack. He saw the single boot that had just landed on the floor fly away at incredible speed to impact the far wall at the same time he felt a slender but muscular arm slip around his throat and lock in place.

"Gotcha."

Panicking Gerard responded the only way he could think of, he attempted to again blast his opponent away from him with another barrier. However her hold on his neck was solid, and as she was propelled back he felt something crack and the world went blurry. From somewhere a long way off he thought he could hear someone screaming something but he couldn't tell what it was. Then everything just faded out of his view.

 

...

 

Scott found himself seriously questioning his own sanity as he faced the opponent he had elected to challenge to improve his rank during the second week in the HCP. He might have opted to wait out the first week without issuing a challenge if he had known the huge black woman would end up being assigned to his group for the Ethics research project.

"Hi Scott, want to see if Cat and Susan are done after this and go through the files the Dean gave us?"

Scott sighed a little bit at his opponent's incredibly cheerful disposition. Lord, I cannot believe you found a way to make fighting someone from my research team MORE awkward than her hating me. Congratulations, and I am sorry I ever doubted you. Aloud he said, "I was planning on getting a celebration/commiseration lunch with my roommates after this. We could probably drag everyone else along for the ride though."

Tasha nodded her assent as the buzzer went off to signal their match had begun. Still smiling cheerfully the huge woman charged her much smaller male opponent with a terrifying disregard for defense. Lord she looks like the happiest berserker in the world. Scott gathered the various metal rings into their traditional arcs around his arms and legs as the distance closed quickly. It was time to stop kicking himself for not seeing a solution and take Erin's advice on something he SHOULD have tried last week.

As Tasha neared striking distance one of the dense metal rings circling Scott's lead leg seemed to fling itself into her charging path of it's own accord, catching her leg and causing her to trip heavily towards him. Scott narrowly managed to avoid having the large woman tumble straight through him, though one of her hands caught on the black uniform and dragged him heavily to the floor with her.

Scott reacted quickly, and another of the circling bands latched onto Tasha's wrist and wrapped tightly around the skin, before pulling her hand harshly away a few inches. Using the magnetic anchor point Scott quickly scrambled to his feet and dragged his opponent along with him, trying to complete his plan before the startled girl could react. Stepping in close as he pulled the much taller woman most of the way to her feet he latched a second band around her other wrist, and several of the bands seemed to merge together to wrap around her waist and restrain her further. As Tasha struggled to free her hands Scott slid his left leg partly between Tasha's thighs, and genuinely prayed that the girl would later accept that this was a combat strategy and not him being some kind of pervert, and two final bands moved into position to tightly encircle the muscular healer's legs.

Tasha was taken completely off guard when she felt her hand pulled easily away from her grip on Scott's clothing, then more so when she felt herself pulled nearly to her feet. For a moment she thought that her opponent had actually somehow managed the physical strength to manage such feats, in spite of being a full foot shorter and probably more than a hundred pounds lighter than she was. When she saw the metal band snap around her second wrist and felt the pressure around her waist, she realized what the smaller man was actually doing. She had been a little disturbed to feel a light contact between her legs as Scott slid his own leg into position to secure her last two limbs, but she found she couldn't really fault him for the contact. After all, she'd watched a replay fight yesterday where an average looking hispanic girl had laid out a very large fire wielding black man by kicking him squarely in the junk after making her way unscathed through the flames. She did decide to try one last tactic though. "Bondage Scott? Before the first date? You definitely know how to show a girl a good time." She smiled at her opponent as he started and she felt a brief waver from her restraints, but in spite of her ceaseless pulling they still held her nearly motionless.

"Sorry Tasha, but I think you'd break me if we dated. Would you mind giving up so I don't have to start the torture portion of the bondage?" Tasha sighed at Scott's response. He was probably right.

"Okay, I give up, but you'd better buy me dinner after tying me up like that!"

"That's was the plan Tasha," Scott replied as the metal bands slipped off her easily and reformed to fit concealed under the small man's clothing. "The celebraters have to pay for all the commiserators at this lunch."

 

...

 

Beulah Abbot was literally vibrating with excitement as she waited for her opponent to arrive for her ranking challenge. The middle eastern girl had arrived almost half an hour early, unable to contain her excitement at the prospect of advancing in rank so quickly. Finally the designated time had arrived and her opponent entered the combat room. Alvera Batíz was slightly taller than the Israeli woman excitedly waiting for her arrival, but with a slightly less muscular build.

Without any words exchanged the display began its countdown as soon as both women were present, and Beulah fought to calm herself down as the match began. With a loud cracking sound she disappeared and reappeared behind her opponent, far enough away that she should have time to react to any surprises the hispanic girl had in store for her. Alvera simply whipped around as fast as she could, trying to keep the teleporter in her line of sight.

Beulah vanished again with another cracking sound, and Alvera spun again, expecting her opponent to appear behind her but instead was launched sideways as her suddenly airborne opponent landed a plummeting dropkick against her left shoulder and head before vanishing again to appear properly upright a few feet away. Alvera calmly stood, apparently completely undamaged by the vicious kick.

Beulah considered her opponent. Her reflexes were decent but not superhuman, she had been knocked easily off balance and to the ground by the force of the kick so it was unlikely that she was exceptionally strong. Beulah had known that the girl's durability was somehow enhanced as the only opponent she had beaten in the combat rankings was the extremely tall black male after walking unscathed through various blasts of fire he had projected at her. Apparently the hope that her ability merely negated non-physical attacks was at least partly in vain. As Alvera charged her Beulah stood her ground this time, and her extensive Krav Maga training allowed the teleporter to easily counter her opponent's volley of strikes and throw her to the ground in what should have been a debilitatingly painful joint lock.

Alvera smiled at the girl atop her as she simply started pushing herself to her feet, completely ignoring Beulah's attempts to finish the hold and dislocate her shoulder. The Israeli girl again teleported away as she realized that even with all her body weight behind the hold, her opponent with seemingly no physical enhancements simply was not suffering any harm from her attempt. Beulah considered her options as her opponent stalked towards her again with a somewhat vicious smile on her face. The shorter girl could definitely understand how that expression alone could probably win her opponent many fights as those she faced found their effort not able to harm her as she simply wore them down. I was really hoping that I could save this trick for later

Beulah ran quickly up to her opponent, close enough that she completely invaded any concept of personal space, before a loud cracking noise signaled another teleportation. Alvera was slightly disoriented as her opponent disappeared directly in front of her and found it hard to catch her breath for just a moment, but as she spun towards her opponent that had appeared directly behind her and just as close as where she had vanished from the girl vanished again. Appearing to her side for an instant before another crack indicated her departure. Alvera found herself growing dizzy as she was having trouble getting any air into her lungs as her opponent's movement became a blur of never ending cracking sounds and displaced movements.

After about two minutes of continuous teleporting, Beulah finally stopped to catch her own breath as her opponent fell to the ground, unconscious. It was not the most ceremonious of victories, but Beulah was more than happy with her improvement in rank. She felt that she had redeemed her stupidity during the initial combat rankings, and she could finally stop pretending that her phone was broken and actually speak with her parents again.

The middle eastern girl did remember to contact the healing center before anything else however, and waited for her opponent to awaken before she bid her farewell and offered an apology for any injuries she might have caused. Alvera seemed to laugh at the mention of injury, and informed Beulah that there would be no hard feelings from her, as long as Beulah could find some time later to explain exactly what the hell had happened. Beulah found that one condition perfectly acceptable.

 

...

 

Ben found himself slightly less excited than he had been the rest of the week as he faced off against his roommate's inhuman Shifted form. It had seemed like the greatest of fortune when the fourth ranked student hadn't challenged, and fifth had gone all the way for second, leaving Ben open to challenge the full three ranks forward and get in a match with his roommate. Ben had been unable to figure out all week why his roommate hadn't been similarly thrilled to find out which of the two was actually stronger. Now that he was facing the crystalline monstrosity that the slightly smaller Collin transformed into, he thought he might understand it a bit. One or both of the two men was going to be badly hurt by the time this was over. Living with someone you had to fight with might be more awkward over time than the muscular black youth had originally counted on.

Ben pushed his thoughts aside as he closed with Collin's shifted form. Lunging forward his first punch was blocked cleanly by the large obsidian black arm, and Ben winced. His roommate was incredibly solid. Taking a quick step back Ben shook out his hand. He would have to make sure he had a lot cleaner form for this match than he was used to if he didn't want to break his own hands trying to pummel through his opponent's incredibly dense 'skin.'

The two fighters exchanged blows several times, neither seeming to gain much of an advantage, but Ben felt every shot he landed as well as every shot landed against him. He couldn't even tell through the expressionless form in front of him if his opponent could even feel anything. Ben changed tactics and attempted to grapple his roommate instead. The two locked together for several long minutes before both finally pushed away. Their strength was far too evenly matched and neither was an accomplished enough wrestler to find an advantage. Ben steeled himself and rushed in, throwing everything he could behind each punch and attempting to overwhelm his opponent.

Collin adopted a defensive stance as Ben launched his reckless attack. For several blows, Ben thought his assault was working. He saw and felt the hairline cracks forming in his opponent's inhuman body, and redoubled his efforts to pound his way through to victory. He much more clearly heard and felt the next crack, as the bones in his wrist gave way to the onslaught he was forcing them to endure, and he dropped back with a strangled gasp of pain.

Ben looked down to examine his hands. Both sets of knuckles were torn apart and bleeding profusely, and his left hand hung limply as waves of pain radiated from his broken wrist. Looking at his opponent again Ben saw that Collin was waiting. Apparently his roommate was waiting to see if Ben intended to continue or surrender after dealing so much damage to himself. Ben sighed in resignation and raised his hands to signal surrender. After a few seconds Collin reverted to his normal shape.

"C'mon Ben, let's get you to the healers."

Ben allowed himself to be helped down the hallway as he was suddenly exhausted by his exertions. He'd pushed himself harder than he'd ever previously attempted, and he hadn't even come close to standing even with his roommate. He tried to push past the depression he felt with that realization. He had a lot of improving to do.

 

...

 

Erin returned to the table bearing another extra large specialty meat pizza. It was set carefully in front of her taller roommate, as all those gathered at the table looked on.

"I really don't see why we're doing this, I mean I shouldn't even be at a lunch for people who fought challenges today, I didn't fight in one," the tall girl with the long braid tried to protest as the platter was placed in front of her.

"Ames, we all just watched you devour half the food at our table and you didn't even realize you were doing it. No one got to fight you this week, so we want to challenge some of your other limits!" Erin's tone of voice managed to be simultaneously light hearted and absolutely adamant.

"I think the rest of us have already had our fill Amelia, please satisfy our curiosity on this matter?" Catalina was one of those celebrating her successful challenge against the smaller asian healer that morning. When a conflict essentially boiled down to two girls beating each other up it was amazing how much of an advantage five inches, thirty pounds, and the ability to read your opponent's mind added up to.

"It'll be something interesting to do before we've got to work on our projects at least." Susan was in the commiserating half of the luncheon, her challenge against the small Chinese girl with the elemental breath had not gone as well as she had hoped, though the relatively tall redhead had learned a great deal about her shifted form's endurance. Not in the manner she would normally choose to learn such things of course. She was glad that her group had invited her out to this little lunch party after her match had been over. She hadn't had a lot of opportunities to get to know other students in the HCP aside from her roommate, who had washed out, and now the three housemates she was staying with after one of their roommates had also likewise not made the grade hadn't yet fully warmed up to her.

Ty smiled encouragingly at the tall girl sitting behind the massive pizza. He was the other odd man out at the lunch today, having not participated in a challenge and with only a single student ranked below him, not the most likely of students to have to defend his spot either. "C'mon Ames, college is all about experimenting and finding limits!"

"With pizza?"

"With everything!" the whole table managed to chorus nearly in synch in response to Amelia's doubting tone.

"Alright, I'll eat the pizza, but if we go back to the townhouse and there are shackles on ANYTHING I will run screaming from the building and never look back."

"Scott should probably get home before us then," Erin's completely deadpanned response left most of the table laughing, and Amelia nearly choking on a slice of pizza. "Seriously, just ask Tasha. Our little friend here is apparently into some freaky shit."

Scott found himself blushing furiously, as did Tasha, as they were both drawn into the humor. Amelia apparently decided that the only way this was all going to end was once the pizza in front of her was gone. It was a massive 28" pizza piled with toppings. It smelled delicious. The incredibly skinny girl finished the entire thing in less than five minutes.

The joking had subsided at some point while Amelia had been inhaling the pizza at an inhuman pace. Everyone was genuinely shocked that she'd finished the whole thing after the amount of food she'd already devoured. Where the hell had she hidden all the food in her stick figure like frame?

"Seriously Ames, how the hell did you do that?" Scott was the first one at the table to find his voice.

"It was good, so I ate it. Why is everyone surprised, you all TOLD me to eat it!"

"Are you still hungry?" It was Ty that spoke this time.

"I'm never really hungry or not hungry really. I do get thirsty sometimes."

It was Catalina's voice that spoke next after another long pause. "We have a golden opportunity here I believe." there was a great deal of humor evident in her tone. "Texas is somewhat renowned for having a great many eating competitions. I think our friend would make a perfect ringer!" some more laughter sounded at her remark, but everyone at the table also found themselves agreeing completely with the idea. It was Amelia's completely innocent and disbelief filled tone that set the table into truly hysterical laughter.

"There's competitions for eating?"

 

...

 

"Are you awake my friend?" Ramón's voice showed a great deal of concern as he waited in the infirmary for his roommate to show signs of life. There was some stirring in response to his question so the large man continued. "You are quite lucky to be alive my friend, I am thinking that your match did not go quite as planned." The blonde man on the infirmary bed struggled to sit up, but an incredibly strong hand simply pushed him back onto the mattress until he ceased his attempt.

"That bitch should be expelled, she almost killed me." Gerard's voice was hoarse, and Ramón immediately provided a glass of water for him to soothe his throat with. "She broke my neck, didn't she?"

"Do you remember everything that happened at the end of your match?" the newcomer to the conversation, an older Indian man wearing a white doctor's coat entered the room as he spoke.

"I remember she distracted me, then I felt her arm on my neck and she said 'Gotcha,' then everything goes blank. She tried to kill me."

"Mr Carerra, you are going to be late for your own match if you don't leave soon, and after going through the trouble of challenging Ms Todd I doubt she would forgive someone sharing a portion of her own ability for tardiness." Dr Saxena waited until the large Mexican had departed before he turned back to Gerard.

"Mr Finne, that 'bitch,' as you have so wonderfully decided to name her, saved your life. She gained an advantage in your match which she used to apply a chokehold in order to incapacitate you. You attempted to blast your opponent away while she had your head isolated in a very solid grip. The force of your attack actually broke both of her legs and crushed three of your vertebrae." Gerard's eyes widened at the information. "In spite of her own substantial injuries your opponent, Ms Casse, realized that your neck had been broken and held your head perfectly isolated until I and several of my staff could arrive to put things right."

Gerard remained quiet for a long moment after the doctor had filled in the missing segment of his memory. He knew better than to suspect it was a lie, he could probably view the entire event in stunning HD from every angle if he didn't believe it had happened that way. Eventually he spoke again.

"Is it okay for me to get out of this bed now?" waiting for the doctor to nod he carefully stood, then drained the last of the water that Ramón had brought for him earlier. He started towards the door before stopping to turn to Dr Saxena again. "Is Erin still down here?"

"No Mr Finne, her injuries were not as life threatening and she departed to return topside a few hours ago."

"Thank you doctor," and with that Gerard strode out of the infirmary. Even if his opponent hadn't been present to hear him insult her, he felt he needed to apologize, and offer his thanks for being alive after he had done something so monumentally stupid.

Chapter 9

Chapter 9:
Settling in for the Long Haul

 

Lisa found herself dragging ever slower as she approached the Student Union building. Even after three weeks her tutor refused to acknowledge that the rainbow haired freshman did not, in fact, require a tutor in order to get through such stunning subjects as 'Intro to Classical Literature' or even 'Trig 1 with Pre-Calc.' Lisa accepted that she was stuck with the tutoring program as a result of her well and truly fucked up high school transcript capped by her dropping out and getting a GED instead. She accepted that the existence of the program was like unto a gift from God in that it gave her the chance to enter the HCP at Overton, where she felt she was thriving. And it took a little bit more of her willpower every single day to not incinerate the pompous grad student that had been assigned as her tutor.

Jackson Dreis, and don't even consider calling him Jack, had to be the most pretentious, irritating, conglomeration of all things hipster that Lisa could conceive of existing. The only way in which Jackson broke from that mold was in that he was actually studying for his Master's in economics, a strikingly non-hipster area of study if the internet hadn't led Lisa astray.

As usual Jackson had managed to occupy far larger of a study area than he needed to with only a single student to tutor. Likely at least in part due to the slightly too loud to be polite in a public space music projecting from the tablet on the table in front of him. It was some weird not quite pop soundy music with way too many odd instruments and a singer that couldn't seem to figure out the beat or the melody.Please let him remember to turn the damned thing off himself this time, please please please... And for a change her plea seemed to be answered as she placed her pack on the table and the lanky grad student swiped a finger across the tablet screen to kill the volume, and looked up at her through oversized horn rimmed glasses that Lisa was relatively certain had originally been marketed to women. In the 70's.

"You're late Ms Shiang."

"It's 'Shang' Jackson. One syllable is not that challenging and," she made a production of turning to look at the large wall clock not even fifteen feet away. It read 7:27. "If you would like me to come back in four minutes, THEN I will be late. Can we please just admit that we hate each other and get this over with until tomorrow?"

"Very well then Ms Shang, let's review what you SHOULD have learned in your Classic Lit class by now..." God this was going to be a long two hours.

 

...

 

Jon was sweating profusely as he finally signaled he needed a break from the training session. He and his roommate had been making a daily ritual of hitting the combat rooms for at least an hour after Sean finished with his mandatory tutoring program each evening. Jon was still disappointed with himself, but his roommate was borderline depressed. Jon had made solid progress in figuring out the nuances of his ability. He could now make projections that didn't shatter the instant any real force was applied to them, as well as nearly doubling the number of projections he could maintain at once, even if he still couldn't increase the complexity or move them in any way other than attaching them to his hands. Sean was still trying to break through his initial barrier of not having the resource his power needed to be effective in the environment where the students were being graded on their abilities.

The two men had actually driven out to the middle of nowhere the third weekend of the term, worn disguises, and Jon had gotten to see what the heavyset brown haired youth could actually do. There had been nothing but some scrub brush and a few cacti to work with, but the results had been amazing. Even in most urban areas, Sean would have enough to work with to be a fantastic Hero anywhere outdoors. In a completely sterile combat room his ability was a bit less than stellar.

Even as Jon rested against the wall, looking at the remains of the various seedlings and plant life that had been thrown against his own ability, Sean continued trying to master his power in a way to force the plants he brought with him to mature into something he could use at full effect. Fully grown potted plants of various types were also littered around the room, but with such a small starting size to work from Sean's ability hadn't proven much more effective with them. He needed a way to carry more than he was currently capable of, or to make a serious break through with his ability. As things stood Jon felt it was quite likely that his roommate wouldn't be seeing the second semester in the HCP.

 

...

 

Louise Garcia was having a great time. After a little over a month in the HCP training and she was no longer having to propel her body around the track or through the weightlifting exercises using her electrical powers, and as a result of learning all sorts of new and fascinating ways to make her body move after it was supposed to stop, she had dozens of new tricks to surprise her fellow students in combat training. Her classes had all been startlingly easy, even considering she had intentionally picked a course load that was as easy as she could manage and still meet both University and HCP requirements. So good was Louise's mood, that she didn't notice a slim white man in a grey hoodie following her through the Union building with a not too discretely held camera phone trained on her.

Fortunately for the tiny hispanic girl, some other people paid a lot better attention to their surroundings. Catalina Blake was lounging in the Union building after completing her last class of the day and killing time before Ethics with one of her preferred pass-times, people watching. At first the telepath was simply moderately amused at the image of the man following the small Latina with a camera and very little focus on the world around him, but something quickly set her to a more alert mood. The man was recording Louise with the expectation that something bad was about to happen, though she couldn't tell what.

Louise was continuing to jaunt obliviously through the Union when she heard a quiet, familiar voice in her head. "Louise, don't freak out, it's Cat. There's a guy following you with a camera, something weird is going on." Louise started a bit at the unexpected voice but managed to keep her composure and continue as if she still hadn't a care in the world. "On your right, the guy in the blue jacket has a taser!"

Louise calmly noted the approach of the blue jacketed man. Cap pulled low over his eyes, brisk pace, and both hands tucked into the oversized jacket pockets were not quite enough to conceal an extra bulge. Louise sincerely hoped the telepath was accurate in her assessment of the concealed weapon, although it struck her as more than a coincidence that two men would be randomly targeting possibly the only girl on campus who wouldn't be much more than inconvenienced by a taser. "Something tells me it's more than a prank, do you want me to do something?" It was really disconcerting to hear someone in your head other than yourself.

Louise carefully tried to focus her thought, assuming the telepath would hear her. This is going to hurt a bit, but I'm going to mess up someone's plan to get me thrown out. Just promise to make sure the one in the jacket gets it worse than I do and that neither of them get away. And with that, the blue jacket had closed the distance to her and produced a stun gun from his pocket.

Louise gasped dramatically and started an ear piercing scream as the crackling sound emanated from the weapon as the man pressed the trigger and jammed the taser into her neck. Louise unleashed her own electrical current inside her body at the same time, accomplishing two things: The taser sparked even louder and began smoking a bit, and Louise's entire body convulsed spastically as she passed out on the floor.

Both men froze as people around them began yelling and the girl hit the floor. They quickly turned to flee but the blue jacketed man with the taser still in hand turned to walk directly into the metal chair that an enraged looking auburn haired hispanic girl smashed into his face with bone breaking force.

The grey hoodie made it about ten steps before a pair of large male students tackled him to the floor, and judging by the gasping cries he gave out once held they had been none to gentle in wrenching his arms around behind his back and prying the phone out of his fingers to place to the side.

More students gathered around Catalina as she knelt beside the tiny crumpled form of Louise, burn marks clearly visible on her neck and breathing shallowly. "Campus security is on its way. PHIL! If that guy in the coat gets up, break his legs." The man who knelt down next to Catalina was an upperclassmen who gently pulled her away from her stricken friend and began a quick, but very professional examination of the unconscious girl. "I'm Steven, pre-med. Your friend is out, but she doesn't seem to be having trouble breathing and her pulse is good. I don't see any signs of trauma from the fall but there's an ambulance on the way. Is she a friend of yours?"

Catalina found that she didn't have to act in order to manage to visibly shake as she looked down at her friend. It was nearly unbelievable that the tiny girl had realized the entire set up had likely been intended to expose an HCP student, and had actually further injured herself in order to foil that plan. Nearly unbelievable because all the HCP students were by now familiar with the fact that Louise's many unconventional answers to the problems she faced rarely indicated that the girl would shy away from any level of physical agony to accomplish her goal. Catalina forced herself to take a deep breath before 'speaking' in order to not give herself away with a non-shaken voice coming from a trembling mouth. "I have some classes with her, mostly I know her through a mutual friend." Turning to look as the man in the blue jacket began to stir it was again not at all an act when she reached for the discarded chair and moved to strike the man again, only to have several onlookers intercept her, and a truly huge man that she assumed was Phil squatted down over the injured man.

"You are in a world of trouble little man. Now my friend Steven, he thinks I should break your legs if you try to get up. Me, I'm just going to hold you down and let the Latina take another go at you. So you want to lie on the floor and bleed or you want to see what's behind door number two?"

The man on the floor groaned softly, but made no move to get up. Campus security arrived shortly thereafter to take the two men into custody, with paramedics arriving shortly after that to pick up Louise. Once the officials had dispersed, Catalina thanked everyone who had come to the rescue, and received an impromptu standing ovation from the gathered students for her own actions involving a metal chair and the man's face. She finally made her way free of the crowd, saying she had to inform Louise's other friends and then likely visit her at the hospital.

Catalina strode quickly and determinedly towards the nearest entrance to the underground facilities. She needed to speak with the Dean prior to the next class beginning. There were too many little things that had been concerning her and they had finally added up to something that she had to bring to someone with the authority to do something about it. As she headed through the foyer she saw a second ambulance pulling in to the parking lot and driving to meet the campus security officers. Promise kept Louise.

 

...

 

Dean Jilles managed to make it all the way through her Ethics of Heroism lecture without giving away any of the turmoil of emotions she was feeling after her discussion with the young telepath that preceded it. She had contacted James to inform him that Louise would likely be absent for a couple of days and had a perfectly valid reason, and she had requested an emergency meeting of all the instructors, save James who would monitor the freshman class, as well as contacting Mirror and asking the Oversight Hero to join them.

Fortunately the Overton advanced discipline Instructors were wise enough to have at least one assistant each that could handle their upper classmen students while they were pulled away to attend emergency meetings. Mirror was the most surprised to receive the summons, but she had responded just as quickly as Kathryn's staff.

"Thank you all for coming so quickly. I'll get this started immediately. One of our freshman students was attacked in the Student Union today. In spite of the attack in a public place the girl managed to both maintain her identity as well as take steps to insure that her assailants were caught. She's been taken to the East Texas Medical Center for monitoring, though she will likely be released tomorrow." There were several surprised expressions around the room, though lacking on Laurence and Elena as the elder telepath had likely gleaned the whole situation on the way in and the Subtlety Instructor tended to be well aware of events on campus lately. "The men arrested in the incident match the descriptions given in two other assaults on HCP students that have occurred in the past few weeks. The other two assaults both involved solitary students off campus whom were nearly run down by a car. Both students were Shifters, and both noted after evading the car that one of the men had been recording the event on a cameraphone. Today's assault involved tasering a young woman who's ability is electrical generation." She allowed the meaning to sink in a bit before continuing. "Someone is still very much trying to get Overton HCP students outed for SI infractions, and since the 'legitimate' avenue of using the news media has been shut down, they have apparently crossed into far more illegal means."

The Dean turned to Mirror as she spoke next. "Deanne, you must be aware by now that this whole Oversight mess is a giant political power play. I need to know if anyone on that committee could be directly involved with attacks on my students." The Hero started a bit at the use of her given name, but realizing that she was surrounded entirely by current and retired Heroes who were already aware of her identity she recovered quickly.

"Raines is the only person on that committee who's not genuinely investigating anything. Don't get me wrong, no one from the AG's office is stupid enough to think this is a legit thing, but they also accept that it's their job and they are doing it. Raines, however, is so paranoid about telepaths being around that he is never out of sight of one of my static doubles, so every where he goes and every thing he does, I get a report on it at the end of the day."

"What about the new PA, Jeremy wasn't it?" the question came from Hai Nguyen, the Instructor thankful to have had to spend the least amount of time dealing with ANY of the Oversight Committee so far.

"Jeremy Kreid is still working his ass off to do his boss's job for him AND to keep him from doing anything too politically damaging to the rest of the family's political careers. My guess is that whoever is fucking with your students traces back to whoever started this thing in the first place." Deanne's response drew some generally agreeing responses from the assembled group.

"Thank you very much for your honest assessments Deanne, although I'm not certain they are completely accurate." Mirror's expression showed brief surprise again, but Kathryn continued quickly. "Your static doubles do an excellent job in making things difficult for most advanced minds to read anyone in their immediate vicinity. Sufficiently experienced telepaths can of course read through the noise if they don't mind the headache."

"Have you and Laurence actually been snooping on that little rat? I apologize for all the migraines that must have caused you Kathy," but the Dean shook her head at Deanne's assumption.

"No, I actually should have put more emphasis when I said 'most advanced minds have difficulty.' Apparently one of the exceptions to that particular facet of your abilities is attending Overton as a freshman. Catalina Blake is entirely unaware that your duplicate that has been trailing around with Raines everywhere he goes is meant to make reading the man's mind difficult. She doesn't notice the static at all." Everyone around the table briefly froze and stared at the Dean in disbelief as she continued. "She hasn't been making a major point of poking around in his head, but that girl is well aware that he's here entirely for political reasons and that he hopes, sincerely and frequently, to still be here when 'the HCP at Overton comes apart.'"

"I'm going to dismember him all over the facility," the cheerful singsong Dani Reyes spoke in turned slightly guttural towards the end as the athletic Weapons Instructor's baggy clothes seemed to tighten and her average height expanded rapidly into a towering six and a half foot tall form. The bright red cheetah like shifter gave an impressively toothy grin as she stood. "Anyone want to come with me?"

"Dani, you can't kill politicians for being politicians. No matter how much you want to, now please sit down. I do have some excellent news for you" Dani reluctantly returned to her seat at the Dean's prompting but did not revert to her human appearance. "No matter what horrible little fantasies Raines is entertaining about our failure, Deanne can testify that he is not directly involved. That means officially this is an orchestrated outside attack against our facility, and we are permitted to respond accordingly." Everyone perked up quite a bit at that.

"Laurence and I will step up on scanning the campus for aggressors. Hai and Elena will coordinate to drastically increase our above ground monitoring. Talk to the Walker's. I will be wholly unsurprised if they have anticipated this need and have already made arrangements. Dani, you're on collection duty. Anyone that comes onto this campus with an apparent intent to cause mayhem is yours." The extremely toothy grin reappeared. "When Dani is unavailable, it'll be James on collection. Please let your colleague know about the changes in schedule as soon as we're done here. Also it's time to let the students in on part of the secret. Someone is targeting HCP students, after this meeting we're making a formal announcement that someone is targeting them, apparently for the purpose of forcing them out of the program. With their guard up it will hopefully hinder any further attempts quite a bit."

 

...

 

Ty made his way back to the townhouse shared with his three friends in a bit of a daze. The announcement that someone was targeting students in an attempt to force them out of the program had been one of the more surreal moments of his college experiences to date. He found himself paying much closer attention to the people around him as he walked than he could ever remember doing.

Reaching the sanctuary of his taken over garage-lab the heavy set young man sat for quite some time staring at his equipment. The reminder that someone was trying to force students to fail the program had also served as a somewhat poignant reminder to Ty that he likely needed to step up his performance quickly so that he could show off something fantastic by the end of the first term if he wanted to make it in the program long enough to have a CHANCE to be targeted by some nebulous outside group. He set his shoulders and got to work at his design table. His upcoming midterms were all looking to be ridiculously easy, so that was a solid chunk of studying time he could devote to something more useful, like making sure he passed in the one class that really mattered to him.

 

...

 

"What is this? Mace?" Wilma Perez examined the small silver can her roommate offered her like it was going to bite her. The buxom Latina gave her redheaded roommate a confused look. "Of all the things I might need, mace is probably not on the list Tara."

"You heard what the Dean said in the announcement, students are getting assaulted to try and make us break our SI requirements. If you poison someone unconscious be touching them and someone else is recording, you'll get failed out of the program! But anyone can carry a can of mace!" Tara's pleading look finally got the hispanic woman to accept the small can. "I've already made up enough to give out to most of the class. And it's not just mace," the changed expression on the plump girl's face could only be described as 'mad scientist.'

"I really don't think any more students will get dropped for SI's if they're attacked. The staff knows about it now."

"But the staff has an official Oversight Committee all the way from D.C. watching everything they do. There are only a few situations where an SI infraction can be reasonably excused, and if there's a hundred videos of a student on YouTube using their powers on campus, it's not gonna matter what the circumstances are. Best you can hope for is that another HCP will be able to accept you next year."

"Oh just take the mace Wilma," Iris entered the conversation as she breezed through the common room and into the kitchen. "Just don't ask her what's in it, she gets a really weird look in her eye and the explanation takes like an hour."

"It was only forty minutes, tops!"

"I rest my case." All three girls managed to giggle a bit at that. Wilma pocketed the tiny silver can, and Tara retreated back to her lab to work on, whatever it was she worked on.

"So with the inconsequential material out of the way, do we have time for the important conversation?" Iris ignored the withering look Wilma shot towards the stack of snack food she carried into the common room with her and plopped down into one of the chairs.

"What important conversation would that be? Midterms?"

"Nah. Midterms are easy. Halloween is only the week after that though! We've gotta coordinate before we hit the campus parties if we want to find the right hookups."

 

...

 

Antoin felt insanely nervous as he stood outside his roommate's door. He was running into an issue that he'd never expected to at college, in spite of all the claims that it was the time when everyone experimented with EVERYTHING. Antoin Montaine had finally managed to admit to himself that he found his smaller asian roommate attractive. Add in that Kyle's shifted form was quite literally a personal wet dream of Antoin's come to life, and he was stuck with a quandary he'd never expected to have. How the hell did a guy ask another guy out?

He sighed, then took several deep breaths before knocking. Time to find out.

"It's open."

Antoin stepped through the door and closed it softly behind him. He'd made certain that their other two housemates were out before he'd worked himself up to attempting this, although now that he was here he had no idea how to start.

"Man you look like you're about to have a stroke. Are you still trying to figure out how to ask me out?" Antoin literally fell over at Kyle's question, triggering a round of deep laughter from the smaller man as the larger attempted to extricate himself from the unmade bed he had landed on.

"How the hell did you know?"

"The walls in this place are super thin, and Ramón likes to eavesdrop on his next door roommate apparently. You know you talk to yourself when you're nervous?" Kyle was still smiling hugely, and Antoin mostly wanted to find a cave in the wilderness somewhere and hide in it for the rest of his life.

"So, uhm, would you like to go out for dinner or a movie or something this weekend?"




 

 

And with that installment we have well and truly exceeded sixty thousand words. DANCE WITH ME!

 

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Chapter 10

Chapter 10:
Mishaps, Maimings, and Midterms!

 

Teresa Montez wore an extremely smug expression of satisfaction as she made her way out of the HCP combat area. Six weeks of challenges since the initial combat rankings, six successful defenses of her eleventh rank in the program. Today's success against Ken Kaufman had shown the petite hispanic woman that some of the students in the HCP really did not seem to study what their opponents were capable of. A reflector like Ken would have been a hellish matchup for Lisa, the diminutive asian girl who currently held the tenth rank, as her ability set centered entirely around elemental attacks. Teresa had simply teleported across the room to her opponent, then teleported the heavily built man approximately fifteen feet into the air and let him fall. After letting him hit the ground she merely inquired if he wanted to go again. He had declined.

Settling into the lounge area leading out of the underground facility Teresa was quite proud to note that her match had been so brief she hadn't even required a shower afterwards. On the negative side she probably had quite a bit of time to kill waiting for the other matches to finish so that she could get to work with her team on the Ethics project. The Dean had made it clear that there was no official midterm in Ethics of Heroism, however in the test taking spirit their ongoing presentation projects would get quite a bit more time midterms week, with each class session for the five day period devoted to two groups presenting and defending their case before the class. Thinking of her group's composition brought a brief frown to the hispanic girl's face. It was a bit more of a challenge to determine how your group would react as if they were Heroes in the field when half the group represented an ability that had yet to be IN the field officially. As if summoned by her thoughts she noted the jaunty approach of a short, bespectacled redhead wearing an impressive grin.

"23!" Tara Warren greeted Teresa with a cheer as she declared her successful improvement in rank, catching the slightly smaller girl completely off guard with a glomping hug followed by a short involuntary dance that finally drew laughter from Teresa as it helped to restore her earlier mood.

"I suppose we should go meet up with Ty and Liam and get our studying on," Teresa managed to direct the still overexcited and energetic Tara towards the elevator as they headed up. Ty's three roommates in his townhouse style dorm had all ended up with groups that preferred to use the formal studying areas in the HCP facilities, which left his residence as the default meeting place for their group.

As the two girls made their way to the row of townhouses converted to student residences Teresa noted that her energetic companion was scanning their vicinity rapidly and constantly with a look of earnest suspicion on her face. The hispanic girl almost laughed aloud at the intense concentration her companion was putting into watching for the attacks that the announcement last week had warned about. Teresa found herself doubting that anyone would be stupid enough to continue with such a practice once the student body had become aware of it, and judging by the amount of extra campus security plainly visible as well as small roving groups of would be good samaritans, What is it about Texas and forming volunteer vigilante groups to hunt for trouble? she was personally saving all of her paranoia for any trips she had to make off campus.

The two girls arrived to find the door propped open and the boys already waiting inside. The two men welcomed the rest of their group into the common area, a cooler loaded with various beverages had been pulled over to the coffee table to prevent the need for fridge runs. Also occupying the table were a pair of laptops displaying the information provided by the class and several folders full of printed pages likely pulled from the internet for a general background of the area.

Teresa was a bit surprised to see this level of in depth preparation going on. She had assumed that her group in particular wouldn't have a hard time figuring out what their scenario would ultimately end up being. "Do you guys really think we need all the background? Providence, four and a half years ago, I think it's pretty obvious we're going to get some variation of the Rampage for our scenario."

"Ty and I talked about that a bit before you guys got here, and it's definitely possible, but we both think that might be a bit too easy," the 6'1" British student spoke with a remarkably soft voice for the size he seemed to project. "We think it might be a good idea to look for some subtler events that happened about the same time."

"C'mon Liam, what else could have happened in Rhode Island that was Hero worthy in the same time frame? It would be an incredible coincidence that a team would get formed with the only two Tech Brilliance Supers in the class with that time and place and not get the scenario that helped get their ability classed as an actual Super ability." Teresa had been looking forward to a brief, relaxing session where she had hoped to mostly brainstorm how two 'Heroes' would react in the field when their power was only officially three years old and there was literally no existing Hero to use as a template.

"Actually I think Ty and Liam might be onto something here," Tara spoke next, bringing a sinking feeling to Teresa that she was definitely going to be stuck in full on studying for most of her Saturday now. "The Dean's given out... five warnings now? On how we shouldn't try to look too far past the information we're given to try and predict our scenarios. Come to think of it, a LOT of the time periods she gave out this time are very close to an easy to recall major event." Tara seemed to gain more confidence in her stance as she continued speaking. "I think the whole point here is to try and trip us up a bit."

"Also, even if it does turn out that we get some version of the 'Rhode Island Robot Rampage,' that's one that we know pretty well how it went down so it's not like we're going to lose anything other than an afternoon doing a bit more in depth research." With all three of her teammates aligned against her Teresa accepted that any chance of a mostly relaxing Saturday had vanished. And with Sunday booked solid studying for all of her ACTUAL midterms, it seemed unlikely she was going to get much of a weekend. The sacrifices that must be made in college.

 

...

 

A massive crash followed by the rapid echoes of repeated ricochets throughout the large room was slowly drowned out by a truly prodigious display of profanity that eventually faded into silence. Scott Jameson stared at the large target one hundred feet away, standing completely unscathed and mocking his attempts to expand his ability. He could easily pitch a heavy weight that far, probably with sufficient mass and speed to take out the reinforced metal plate with the bullseye painted on it. "Dear Lord, why can't you let this be as easy as Ty makes it sound when he explains it to me? Hell, I'd settle for as easy as it looks in that stupid Japanese comic that gave him the idea."

Scott was attempting to add a genuine ranged element to his ridiculously short ranged power. Ty had worked on the math with him, and everything indicated that it SHOULD work. He had more than enough juice to pull it off. The problem seemed to be that his power didn't work quite like any of the other Supers who'd had similar abilities, at least ones that any reference material was available on anyways. To simplify the explanation Scott usually described his power as making or controlling a magnetic field, but this had proven inaccurate, as his scientifically inclined friend had proven after trying to discern the reason why Scott's power refused to offer any measurable affect at a range of more than eight and one half inches from the surface of his skin. Within that range Scott could exert magnetic forces capable of lifting several tons, but at nine inches he couldn't mess with the needle on a compass. As it turned out, Scott wasn't creating magnetic fields, although there were minute fields present in what he was doing. Scott was actually creating and controlling thousands of incredibly tiny magnetic singularities.

That difference, he had discovered, was likely why his power's range was so short, and why what he was doing was so difficult to control. Scott Jameson was attempting to use his ability to make a rail gun. Other magnetic control Supers had managed something close enough to what Scott was trying to do to demonstrate the definite real world effectiveness of such a technique, but the only Hero who had responded to Scott's inquiry through a public 'Ask Your Hero!' email had described the process as something like creating a magnetic sling shot, using one field to hold the projectile in place while pulling another field on it towards his target until he reached the desired tension and letting go with the first field. Ty had taken Scott's ability and crunched the math to come up with a different solution that would work for his friend's variation of this power. Because his ability created minute singularities instead of wide reaching fields, he needed to form what Ty insisted on referring to as a 'Collapsing Cascade Singularity Series' which would accelerate a projectile hundreds of times with perfectly timed singularity collapses millimeters apart. In Scott's opinion his friend had watched FAR too much Sci Fi for his explanations to make any sense. Ty was completely certain that all Scott needed to do was learn to visualize the sort of timing needed since it was far too fast to consciously control. His evidence being Scott already used 'mental constructs' like that to use his power at rates that the conscious mind couldn't work at, something he did when he used his ability to power a shop saw or a dremel at the necessary RPMs to function properly, but which Scott found completely mystifying as a concept.

"I can make a saw blade or a grinder spin like that because I can see it. I can picture it. I have no idea how the hell a real 'rail gun' works. How can I form a 'mental construct' of something when I don't know what it is? Lord, please make Ty make more sense the next time we talk about this. You've got to owe me one by now."

In spite of his repeated failures to date Scott picked up the next magnetic slug in the stack and prepared another attempt at actually hitting the target. His classes were easy, his Ethic project group was meeting tomorrow, and as far as Scott was concerned he had all the hours left in the day to try and figure this one out. Maybe this would be the day that the hours would finally be enough.

 

...

 

"This is a bad idea Glen," the two well shrouded figures stopped near the edge of campus as the taller man in the back spoke.

"This is $5000 each to prank some stupid Super kids Ian. You wanna give the money back?" the shorter, heavier lead man turned an angry glare on his partner as he spoke.

"If it's just a prank why we gotta bring guns man?" Ian had thought the idea completely brilliant when the posting had popped up on an electronic bulletin board. Six hours of time elapsed in sobriety later were starting to make the taller man question the wisdom of trying to scare wannabe Heroes on camera for money.

"We need something to make the little bastards jump and do their shit if we want to get paid. I didn't hear you come up with no better ideas. You want out, gimme your phone and I'll take all the money when I get back," Glen had been dealing with his friend's colder growing feet for the past hour. This had to be the easiest money he'd ever made that didn't involve running the border. What the hell were some spoiled college brats gonna pull, Supers or not?

"Fuck that idea man, this thing cost three hundred bucks." Ian curled his hands protectively over the new smart phone that was the lynchpin of the two men's plan.

"Then shut up and lets go. We just gotta spot one of the kids they got photos of, I'll fire a couple into the dirt, you upload that shit and we can take the rest of the month off!"

"Gentlemen, I am pleased to inform you that I am restraining you until the local authorities can arrive to arrest you," Both men spun rapidly as a new, female voice came from almost directly behind Ian. In his haste the taller man actually toppled from his feet, dropping the expensive phone next to him as he landed heavily. "If you attempt to resist I will-" the extremely tall hooded woman seemed to blur out of existence as Glen frantically drew his gun and fired in the direction of the apparition. Ian screamed as a hot shell casing landed on his face as he struggled to find his feet.

"You should drop that right now before you give me an excuse to really hurt you." The voice was soft, and spoken directly into the panicked gunman's ear.

With a somewhat less than inspiring battle cry Glen spun to try and bring the .38 to bear on his impossible opponent, only to have his hand intercepted halfway through its arc by a beastial looking hand, complete with fur and claws.

"You really aren't that bright are you?"

Glen struggled to pull his hand free, but his opponent's grip was literally inhuman. With his free hand he produced a straight bladed knife from his belt, eyes wild as he tried to slash at the tall woman's face.

As the knife came forward Glen saw moonlight reflecting off a set of enormous teeth, now visible before him as his opponent smiled hugely at the small man. Then the beastial paw gripping his right hand and firearm squeezed, crushing the hand, and the gun in an impossible grip. Glen felt the knife drop from his fingers moments before the wave of agony traveling up his arm caused the world to fade out.

Dani Reyes watched the first man's eyes roll back in his head as he lost consciousness and released the mangled amalgamation of hand and pistol, noting the blood staining her own hand with disgust. Ever alert she stepped to her left quicker than the average eye could follow as another gunshot sounded behind her from the location of the clumsier of the two men. Someone more familiar with the animated Weapons Instructor would likely have recognized the expression on her face as disdain for the stupidity of the second man. From his position on the ground looking up at the massive shifted catform in front of him, it looked like nothing other than murderous rage.

Screaming and closing his eyes, Ian squeezed off another shot, then felt the gun rip out of his hand leaving a terrible ache and shooting pain coming from his index finger. Opening his eyes he say the huge figure standing over him holding the snatched gun in hand, an expression far more akin to surprise painted across her inhuman features now. Looking down at his hand, the shocked man noted that the pain in his finger seemed impossible, the finger was no longer there.

Dani sighed as the man on the ground began to sob mindlessly as he cradled his maimed hand, examining the gun she held to see the results of her incredibly swift grab versus the second shooter's terrified white knuckle grip on his weapon. Sure enough, his trigger finger was still present, hanging loosely from the metal guard. Dani produced a small plastic bag from one of the many pockets on her outfit and carefully deposited the severed digit inside.

"Oops."

 

...

 

Miguel Trujillo dragged his feet heavily as he made his way to his second midterm of the day. Getting crushed by that stupid redhead without any real powers had absolutely destroyed his focus over the weekend. The remarkably average looking hispanic man hadn't realized how much it had affected him until he'd arrived at his early morning Psych class to take a midterm that he hadn't even begun to understand before the end of class was signaled. Fortunately Psych had already had plenty of busywork assignments over the first several weeks that he felt his score was sufficiently padded that even the absolute bomb he felt he had just dropped wouldn't drag him down below a passing grade.

The class he was heading towards now was a different story. Differential Calculus was not one of his stronger classes, but having done well enough on the entrance exam to test into the highest level required math course for his degree he had opted to get it out of the way early. Now he realized he was marching in to take what would probably be his most hellish midterm of the week, and he hadn't even so much as cracked the textbook in review all weekend. Too busy drowning his sorrows over a fight he shouldn't have lost.

If he failed this test as badly as he thought he'd just managed in Psych, it was going to obliterate his grade beyond any hope of recovery. Professor Veeter didn't believe in giving out busy work, and none of the quizzes were graded. There were four tests all year that determined your entire grade, and Miguel had only managed to pull a 77% on the first one. If he failed here he was going to get cut out of the HCP until next year.

Can't believe I was so stupid. Can't believe I fucking lost. I've got to get it together, if I can pull a 60 or better I can keep myself afloat. Pull it together Miguel. Arriving in the class nearly late he quickly made his way to an open seat. As the papers were passed around he pulled his from the stack and continued it on down the line, staring intently and the problems on the page. The entire test consisted of six problems. Working his way through the first slowly and methodically, Miguel felt his spirits start to lift. Maybe this wouldn't go as poorly as he had feared. Reaching the second problem, he found himself staring blankly. He couldn't even think of where to start. He remembered that the Professor had spent nearly the whole class time hammering home the mantra.

"The Calculus is easy, it's the Algebra that gets in the way of Calculus that's hard."

Continuing to bore into the page with his gaze, Miguel willed the knowledge he needed to spontaneously appear, but apparently this was not one of his abilities. Going through the rest of the test, he felt himself sink further into the uncomfortable seat. Christ, I just failed my way out of the HCP in a fucking math class.

Not even bothering to finish the test, Miguel left the paper on his desk and rose to begin his preparations. He had some goodbyes to say, and he just hoped all of his friends would still be here to give him a hard time about this when he repeated as an HCP freshman next year.

 

...

 

Michael Karl had a wide smile on his face as he made his way into his Tuesday Ethics of Heroism class. All but one midterm down, and the young telepath was confident he'd nailed all of them. Not only that, but he wasn't rated as skilled enough with his ability to yet require the mandated retesting he had learned that Catalina Blake, his fellow advanced mind student, was destined for. Although he did likely have that to look forward to next year.

The young man quickly made his way to his project group, wondering if today would be the day they were put on the spot or if their suffering would be prolonged as the specter of the dreaded 'Public Speaking' loomed over them. Michael personally didn't mind public speaking, but Alexandra seemed completely lost when she had to speak notably above a whisper and both Ben and Rorie were, frankly, not the people you wanted to present detailed information to a group if there was ANY alternative.

As soon as the Dean arrived Michael began gathering notes and nudging his teammates. The woman was not making any attempt to hide the fact that they were up first and seemed to smile approvingly at his perception and preparation.

"Ms Andrews, Mr Karl, Mr Pelley, and Mr Samuels, you're up." The group quickly finished collecting their material and moved up to the table next to the lectern to face the class and wait to hear the scenario they would be responding too.

"Your planning period was for Tulsa, Oklahoma in the fall of 1987. There had been no confirmed major criminal Super activities in that area, however much of the rest of the state had been suffering from the activities of a biker gang with several Super and Powered members for the past six months." Michael smiled as he had researched the potential scenario exhaustively. The bikers had ended up being little more than a straw man opponent that had folded when they realized their antics had drawn the attention of several real first string Heroes, but several of the minor criminal activities could have very easily escalated. Michael eagerly wondered which of the many scenarios would play out as the Dean continued, her mind now carefully focused to avoid giving out hints.

"As your team has been requested to provide a presence in the area assuming the Bikes of Wrath may escalate their activity and presence, you receive an emergency request through the DVA. A bank in the neighboring town of Sandsprings is in the process of being robbed by a small team of Super or Powered individuals. The local police have cut off the criminals from escape, but several officers are down and the criminals have thirty one hostages in the bank. Your team is approximately five minutes away and you are already at deployment ready status. Please explain how you will resolve the situation."

Michael found himself frozen as the Dean had changed the entire scenario on him. He couldn't recall having seen anything in the dispatch papers concerning a bank robbery, especially one that close to their supposed deployment. He hadn't been actively looking for one since the Bikers hadn't robbed any banks, but still. "I'm sorry Alexandra I didn't catch that." The Dean's voice pulled him out of his thoughts as he realized that Alexandra was actually asking questions.

In a slightly louder voice the petite girl asked again. "How many Supers and Powereds are in the bank, and what are the abilities of the Supers please." Michael couldn't decide to laugh at the absurd question or weep at their chances. He knew this wasn't a normally graded class but bombing the ongoing class project during the 'midterms special' was probably not going to do the four any favors. The Dean's response was predictable.

"That information wasn't available in the dispatch request. Just that four or five criminals have hostages, and an unknown number of them have powers."

"Dean Jilles, once we are within two miles of the bank I would know how many Supers and Powereds are present, and a general understanding of what the Supers' abilities are."

Dean Jilles' expression showed a bit of disbelief, but both her and Michael could clearly tell the girl felt she was being completely honest. When no answer was forthcoming the girl sighed impatiently and closed her eyes. She immediately began rattling off abilities and approximate distances while pointing in different directions. Beginning with identifying the powers of every student in the room, then additional powers as she pointed through the walls and floors, finally concluding with, "...and there are five Powereds on campus, but I can't feel what their abilities are." The entire class sat stunned for several seconds before the Dean found her voice again.

"Ms Andrews, you're a mimic if I recall correctly. You can accurately identify and copy a power from that far off?"

"No ma'am, I can only effectively copy powers from someone within about 500 yards unless I've had a lot of time to get adjusted to them. The further away they are when I lock on the less time I can hold onto the power before I have to let it go also."

From there Michael felt a massive relief as the hazardous scenario suddenly turned easy. They had an advanced mind to pinpoint the location of the criminals, of which it turned out there were a total of four, all Supers, and most importantly for their team, all were grouped together to try and figure out their escape plan, none of them had any kind of enhanced resilience, and one of them was a short range teleporter with a decent amount of carrying capacity. Delivering Ben to the group in a single surprise strike to win the day definitely carried their team. Michael was happy as the simulated after-action cross examination focused mostly on Alexandra and her innovative use of her power to gather critical intel on their opponents. He noted that the girl had no trouble responding to any of the questions, and adjusted his mental opinion of the small girl quite a bit. She spoke quietly, and didn't seem to like speaking at all. But there was no trace of hesitation or shyness as she answered the direct questions. Maybe the quiet girl wasn't nearly as lacking in social skills as many in the class, including the somewhat chagrined male telepath, had assumed.

 

...

 

Alexandra felt herself begin to sweat somewhat nervously as she had been pulled aside in Gym today in order to take on what Coach Rachd had referred to as "Special Training." With a rather evil looking grin.

Alexandra hadn't trained in the super weight rooms previously, and was surprised to see that this one, while reinforced like the other she had passed through on the way here, contained only a single massive piece of equipment that she couldn't begin to figure out. Fortunately the petite blonde didn't have long to wait as the Coach quickly brought in the class's number one ranked student. Alexandra's eyes widened as she realized that the coach intended for her, ranked in the bottom ten in the class, to train one on one with the girl that was likely the physically strongest person in the entire school, upperclassmen and Instructors included.

"Alright ladies, you two are going to be training buddies for a few days. Andrews, your job is to try and come as close to copying all of Jacobson's power as you can manage. Based on what you've said the longer you work with someone the longer you can copy them and the closer you can get to the real thing. Jacobson! This is going to be one of your few chances this year to work with someone that you probably won't break by accident. Make sure she's got her juice turned on before you do anything though. I expect you ladies to have a long and productive workout." With that explanation out of the way, the coach immediately stalked back towards the rest of the freshman, yelling at those training in the neighboring super weight room before he had even cleared the door.

"Call me Ames please," Alexandra looked up, and then up some more as the 6'2" skinny frame towering a foot over her own petite frame offered a hand and a friendly smile. "You're Alexandra, right?"

"Alex please. It's going to be... good to work with you Ames." Alexandra wasn't sure if it was the right word as she shook the proffered hand. She was more than a little worried to try working directly with the power standing in the room looking at her innocently.

"Am I making you uncomfortable or anything? I'm sorry if..."

"Please don't do that," the much smaller blonde managed to control her tone enough to not snap at the taller student, but exasperation was plain in her voice. "Everyone assumes I'm shy, or I don't like people, or that I've got stunted social skills or something. I'm just quiet okay? I don't always talk to hear the sound of my voice, and I don't like being loud unless I have to be."

"Actually I was asking because your hands are shaking."

Alexandra looked down to see that Amelia was indeed correct. Her hands were shaking violently and she clenched them tightly as closed her eyes and tried to relax. After a few moments she felt her heart rate go down and managed to unclench her fists without any further tremors. "Well that was definitely a bit bitchy of me wasn't it?"

"I actually kind of understand. I had a lot of people making assumptions about how I felt for a while... I kind of didn't have a great childhood and people kept seeming to think it should mess with me more than it did. So I get being upset when people keep responding to something that's not there." Alexandra found herself having trouble picturing the tall confident girl having any kind of problem like that, but her tone seemed to speak of familiarity with the subject matter. "I would like to know why you were shaking before we start. If it's not personal."

Alexandra began pacing slowly as she pondered how to explain. She hated when people wanted her to explain how her power worked, it almost always made people feel like they were supposed to pity her, and she hated that.

"You know I'm a mimic right?" Amelia nodded and Alexandra continued. "When there's people with powers around, well you heard me do the presentation in Ethics right? I can see these lines of energy when I close my eyes. If I focus on them hard enough I can tell a little bit about what they do. Except with Powereds, where the line is there, but like the edges are broken? It's like it's there but I know it won't work for me." She took another deep steadying breath before continuing. "The stronger the person's ability is, the brighter their line looks. I never ran into any lines that were all that bright back home, but a few of the ones here are so intense they scare me a little."

"I'm one of those lines?"

"Yea, you and a couple others in our class. Coach Rachd is pretty damned bright too, but not like you are. There's a couple others that I'm guessing are the other Instructors, or the upperclassmen, or both, that are scary bright too." Another pause as Alexandra stopped her pacing and turned to face Amelia directly. "When I copy someone's power, it's like I reach out in my mind and grab a hold of it with an invisible hand. Grabbing onto that power line burns the hand though, and the brighter it is the harder it is to hold on. It hurts a lot like getting electrocuted."

Amelia's eyes went wide at the smaller girl's statement. "You mean you basically have to suffer through the equivalent of frying your hand with electricity in order to use your power?"

"That is one way of putting it yes. Once I let go of someone's power I can't see their line anymore for awhile. Usually about an hour. It also takes a few minutes before I can feel my mental 'hands' good enough to try and grab another one. You're smiling now, why are you smiling? No one smiles when I have to explain this shit." Alexandra was a bit confused by the tall girl's apparent lack of sympathy. Usually people were trying to comfort the petite girl and tell her she didn't have to go through this if it hurt her.

"You really want to be a Hero?"

"I hate this training as much as anything I've ever done in my life. But I promised, and you can't break a promise." There was more steel in the tiny girl's voice than Amelia could ever remember hearing before.

"Then you should try and train with Louise after we're done. She probably has some pointers on how to last longer while electrocuting yourself. Now turn on the pain and lets see if you can lift half as much as I can!"

Alexandra found herself laughing. She'd finally found someone that didn't question her unusual dedication, or offer her pity she didn't want. And all things considered, the Louise thing might be a good idea. The tiny girls should stick together afterall.

The small girl managed to lift almost three quarters of the weight Amelia was working herself at before the end of the class. When told that she had just pressed a hydraulic stack with twenty four tons of resistance, Alexandra nearly fainted with shock. Then, in a rare burst of deviousness, she decided to ask for a small favor.

"Ames, could you come to my ranking challenge next week?"

Chapter 11

Chapter 11:
Serious Business

 

Iris was by far the most excited of the four girls as Wilma pulled her small overly packed Focus into the short driveway of the girls' shared townhouse.

"Tara grab the makeup, Gretchen get the garment bags on your side, I've got these ones!"

Wilma watched as the other three girls excitedly gathered everything and dashed inside while the hispanic woman followed at a much more leisurely pace.

"I don't see what the rush is Iris, Halloween isn't until Thursday and there won't be any good parties til Friday. We've got all week." None of her roommates really seemed to note Wilma's lack of enthusiasm, as she rapidly found herself holding the bag with her costume and the matching make up set that Iris had purchased for everyone to make sure that they could accent their dress-up as much as possible. Considering the roommates had decided to do a matched theme across the four of them as simple 'sexy musketeers,' Wilma wasn't sure how much extra accentuating the costumes could possible require.

"We've got to make sure everything fits right, and that we show enough skin without showing too much!" Iris was almost talking too quickly to be understood as she hurried her roommate into her room to change. "I swear Wilma, I have not gotten a chance to have any real fun since I got here, and we are going to look awesome, and after the warm up parties we are hitting the Maze Crawl and I am going to find someone delicious to hook up with!"

Wilma still couldn't share the speedster's enthusiasm for the holiday, but she had to admit the idea of getting to take a genuine break for a weekend and really unwind sounded good.

"You realize, Iris, that if I wear anything that's designed to show as much cleavage as this thing is I probably won't need any extra help right?" The Latina cupped herself to emphasize her more than generous attributes as Iris frowned slightly.

"Then in your case the right amount of skin to show might be a little less than for the rest of us if you want to give us a fair chance. You want to give us a fair chance don't you Wilma?" Wilma found herself laughing in agreement, and laughing harder when she heard a cheer from the other two roommates.

"More for us!"

 

...

 

"Dammit Ben, I told you I'm not gonna tag along to hit an off-campus party with fake IDs, no matter how 'freaky' the chicks there are supposed to be," Collin felt like he'd been having the same argument with his roommate for the entire week at this point, instead of the mere day and a half since the larger man had started pushing him to 'join in the fun!' Collin could understand Ben wanting to really blow off some steam, he really did, but that didn't mean he was going to do anything that stupid.

"Seriously man, you even got a date? It's not like your plans are official, and I told you I found a guy who can get you an ID on short notice, you seriously going to leave me hanging?"

"If you ask again I'm cutting the rope and laughing while you fall. Seriously Ben, I know you're pissed about losing a couple matches, but going on an all night Halloween pub crawl with the frats? You're asking to get thrown out."

"Fine, be a stick in the mud. Can you at least help me with my costume?"

"What kind of help do you need? You said you were going to go as a gladiator, shiny metal jockstrap, boots, and a toy sword. Which part do you nee-... Ah hell no. Not happening." Ben had produced a bottle of oil and a grin. "You can rub that shit on yourself, and please don't get it all over the carpet."

Ben's laughter finally clued Collin in to the fact that the larger black man had been joking, and he had to smile a bit as he realized how close to panic he had come at the idea of oiling up his roommate. "This is why you got to relax more white boy. If you're not going to hit the real parties with me, promise me you'll at least try to find something nice to tap."

Collin rolled his eyes in response. "I promise."

 

...

 

Zach Snider and Rorie Samuels made an interesting pair as they headed down the elevator to the HCP lower levels. The shorter very pale Zach had gone for an easy costume, some gel to slick his short hair back and darken the already deep brown to black, his natural complexion, and some out of date evening wear and he made a perfectly acceptable vampire. The tall Samoan had taken a slightly more dedicated approach to his costuming. Full plated armor that looked genuine enough, half of it badly charred and damaged artistically to reveal extremely high quality body makeup that left most of the man's left side looking charred with massive gashes running through it. The latex mask that carefully matched his real complexion made it difficult to tell that the same horrific looking markings along his face were not in fact terrible scarring from a recent accident, and the contact in the left eye that left the entire orb a milky white with no trace of iris or pupil was just creepy.

"You are making me look bad man," Zach looked up at the impressive costume to see the larger man grinning back at him.

"Not my fault you were lazy little buddy. You want to look this good you have to work at it!"

The elevator arrived at a level lower than any of the freshmen had previously tread. With several weeks into the Overton HCP program most of the students had heard about Overton's infamous Maze, one of the huge tests that apparently they would become acquainted with if they survived to see their sophomore year in the program. For Halloween the faculty turned the students loose in the sprawling level and let them turn it into the ultimate dungeon theme party. A most excellent party by both men's estimations as they noted an impromptu bar had been set up in the main waiting room less than fifty feet from the elevator.

"Holy shit, they're letting us get wasted. You think this is some kinda trap?" Zach was a bit nervous as he surveyed the scene. It was awesome, but how awesome was to awesome to be true?

"It's not a trap fresh meat." The two men turned to see a stunning brunette in a sorceress costume that put Rorie's efforts to shame wave them towards the bar. "The staff know we're in college and we're gonna do some stupid shit. So they give us some stupid shit to do in a controlled environment and hope no one goes off the deep end with it. Nice costume big man."

"That is an epic costume as well m'lady," Rorie unashamedly addressed his response directly to the expanse of cleavage revealed by the somewhat impractical robe.

Zach was still marveling at how the girl's costume remained windswept with tiny lightning arcs along her arms and the ornate looking staff she held. It may have been a waste of a power, but damn if it wasn't impressive to look at.

The brunette made a point to lift Rorie's chin with the end of her staff, pushing his gaze up until it finally met her eyes. "Your costume isn't that impressive freshy." And with that the stunning girl strode away from the still staring freshmen towards another group that were presumably upperclassmen as well since neither of the two men recognized anyone.

"Well, I have a mission my friend. Hopefully I will not be seeing much of you until tomorrow!"

"She's completely out of your league Rorie."

"Entirely possible, but I'm not going to be giving up the chase that easily!"

 

...

 

Susan was overjoyed to finally be out with her roommates. It had taken the other girls awhile to adjust to her taking the spot vacated when Ora Brooks had dropped out of the program following the combat trials. The four girls made their way into the massive dungeon that was the Overton Maze and shared a knowing look.

"Alright ladies, here are the rules. When you bring one home you have to clean up after him and he has to be out of the house by noon." Teresa seemed to take it as a given that none of the girls would be going home alone tonight. She had definitely dressed to about the limits of modesty with a pirate costume that was more of a bikini with an eyepatch and a fake cutlass. "Also if you aren't already occupied and you see one of us in need of a winggirl, step up and help out. We're a team now ladies."

"I'm pretty sure that not all of us came here just to get laid Teresa," it was Kaori who decided to interject a bit of reality into their hispanic roommate's outlook on the evening. She and Lisa had opted to mess with a few heads by hitting up the other Asian girl's stereotype. Kaori was dressed in a 'sexy dragon lady' outfit while Lisa was in a stereotypical Japanese school sailor uniform, complete with pigtailed wig.

"Some of us are here to get some action though," Lisa was already surveying the crowd like she was shopping for something. Susan found herself giggling at the image of the 5'3" girl picking out a man of her choice and hauling him off like a package to take home and unwrap. Then again from the girl's expression, with the exception that she expected her gift to walk under its own power, that seemed to be about what the girl had in mind.

"Kaori and I will wish you two the best of luck with your one night companionship then, and we'll find our own fun for a bit." Lisa had already started off after a fit but skinny blond man who's name Susan could never remember, Teresa hung back long enough to offer a reminder.

"Remember to help out your girls if we need it."

"We will," the two chorused and the significantly underdressed pirate made her way into the crowd around the bar.

Kaori turned to the taller girl with a bit of an odd expression but didn't seem quite sure how to start whatever she was trying to say. Finally the girl seemed to get her mouth and mind on the same page. "Uh, Susan? I actually was planning on looking for some 'fun' tonight too. I just don't want to come off as..."

"Slutty as those two?"

"As long as you remember that you're the one who said it if we have to tell this story later." Both girls giggled for a moment.

"Kaori I fully intend not to leave a party this epic unescorted. The difference between you and I, and our two roommates, is that we do not intend to bring strange men back to our own rooms. That's more of a second date thing for me."

Kaori laughed aloud at that, and the last two roommates headed in to join the groups wandering into the Maze to see what kind of spectacles the upperclassmen had unleashed this year.

 

...

 

Tasha Johnson was more than a bit surprised to find herself lounging in a private corner with one of the top ranked students in their class. She had mostly come out because she needed to get the hell out of her dorm before she went quite messily insane, and Catalina had insisted that the HCP student party would probably be the most fun on campus. Her conversation partner, Collin Gauge, was even managing to mostly look the much taller girl in the eye even though with his shorter height he had several perfectly valid excuses to make a closer visual inspection of her costume, a set of standard looking army fatigues save that they were three or four sizes too small, and did amazing things to the girl's figure as a result.

"Honestly Collin I kinda expected you to be a huge dick, no offense but you come off that way a bit, and you know I hang out with Ames and Erin sometimes right?" Tasha continued to surprise Collin by not slurring a single word each time she spoke, in spite of having had at least three times as many drinks as the shorter man.

"Yea, I kinda earned that reputation in high school. I was a dick, and not many people could call me on it, so I kept being a dick for awhile. Then I found out how close I was to fucking over my chance to get into the HCP and managed to turn my shit around just enough to make it with some weird probation requirements, and found out I have a lot nicer people to hang out with when I'm not being a dick than I did back in the ol' days."

"You know most guys are intimidated by my size," the muscular black woman pulled herself to her full height to really loom over Collin for a moment. "You seem to be handling it better than most."

"You know when you do that I get the best view in the room right?"

Tasha was surprised to find herself blushing as she realized she had just nearly jammed her boobs straight into Collin's face with her actions. She also realized that she really didn't mind the idea as much as she'd thought she would earlier. "What the hell is your costume supposed to be anyways?"

Collin had died his hair brown for the occasion and spiked it up a bit, and was wearing a navy blue suit that was slightly out of date with a nice tie, a pair of fake glasses, and converse sneakers that seemed completely out of place with the rest of the costume as well as a ridiculously oversized silver pen or something sticking out of the vest pocket of the suit, large enough that it was apparently part of the costume.

Collin actually blushed and looked away, and Tasha found herself giggling uncontrollably at the idea that the confident fighter had apparently worn a costume he was embarrassed by in public. He did manage to look back at her and maintain enough of a glare that she stopped her giggling, although he still remained a bit flushed.

"Seriously Collin, you're wearing the outfit in public, and even if it is from something so far out there that no one will get it by looking at you, there's at least one telepath down here because Cat came with me, and I will get her to tell me who you're dressed as if you won't."

"I'm the tenth doctor," Collin's mumbled response was barely audible over the drifting sounds of the party around the two, and Tasha found herself asking the inevitable question before she caught the gag.

"The tenth doctor who?"

"Exactly!" and Collin managed to maintain a confident smile this time even through his embarrassed blushing as Tasha found herself almost doubled over with laughter.

"Oh my god... The musclehead is a closet geek..." Tasha was having trouble getting the words out between continued fits of giggling. She found herself able to get under control as Collin was now looking past her and out of the corner they occupied, an expression of dawning horror on her face. Turning Tasha saw what had caught Collin's attention, and for a long puzzled moment could not figure out what the obviously very detailed and labor intensive costume could be, aside from being able to recognize a unicorn head on the tall athletic frame as the man strode through the room.

"At least I didn't turn out to be a Brony."

Both doubled over with laughter as the passing Pony fan heard them and cheerfully flipped both of them off as he continued on.

"Nothing against Bronies mind you, but some of those guys are crazy serious about that shit and you can't convince them that you really aren't into it too." Collin recovered faster, although he was having a harder time with his balance as he could feel the alcohol hitting him from what had already been a pretty long night.

"There's another advantage to the Doctor over being a Brony." Tasha had leaned in close to Collin again and lowered her voice to almost a whisper. The muscular man perked up as he thought he might be about to steal a kiss from the attractive woman. He leaned in as well to hear whatever else she was going to say. "If you were in a pony costume I would not be taking you home with me."

With that the massively muscled black woman actually scooped up the smaller but also heavily built white man who's expression now held a comical mix between shock and excitement.

I'm taking mine back to the room Cat. Try not to eavesdrop on my fun! Tasha had no idea if her roommate could hear her in a crowd this big, but it was fair warning as far as she was concerned. Collin was also wearing a tie, so she had something to leave on the doorknob as well.

 

...

 

Catalina Blake suddenly burst out laughing as she lounged around a table with Erin, Amelia, and Alexandra watching as Scott and Ty fought a valiant but doomed effort against the vastly superior (and likely using powers more than a little bit) pair of Michael and Zach. Everyone turned to look to the suddenly blushing and giggling girl, who took a moment to compose herself before responding to the unasked question.

"Message from Tasha, it appears I'm supposed to be finding a suitable place to crash other than my room unless I want to be serenaded by passionate lovemaking sounds until the dawn."

This drew some laughter from the other girls around the table, and the four boys returned to the rather lopsided game. Michael's telekinesis and a minute version of the force whip that was Zach's ability meant that while Scott and Ty were actually very good at this game, their opponents simply didn't miss. The fact that this was the second round was probably also not helping the losing side any.

Finally Zach sank his shot in the final cup and Ty finished it for the round. Strangely the much smaller Scott seemed to be holding up much better than his large friend as he helped him back to the table where their roommates awaited.

"C'mon guys, lets go for three!" Michael was apparently just deep enough in to be at the extremely obnoxious phase of inebriation as he tried to convince the two to come back for another round.

"Find someone else Mike, Ty's already way too much of a lightweight for two rounds to have been a good idea. I can't imagine you'll have too much trouble."

"Mmm na' a lightweigh'," Ty's voice was pretty badly slurred already, and Scott sighed again as his friend almost fell off the chair he was sitting on.

"Dammit Ty, am I going to have to carry your ass back to the room already?"

"Don't sweat it Scott, I think it's my turn to deal with Drunky here," Scott was extremely surprised to see Erin volunteering to take care of their mutual friend. Normally she didn't want to leave a party until she'd proven she had the stamina to go all night. Even stranger was he could swear he caught Catalina giving a wink to Erin as she helped the heavy black youth to his feet to stagger away from the party.

"Aww, Ty's crushing the fairie wings," Amelia's comment drew some giggles from Catalina and Alexandra as Scott simply shrugged in response. Taking Ty drinking usually meant getting some clothing ruined at some point during the night.

"He made the costume for her so I think it's okay if he messes it up," Catalina was a bit surprised at how sober Scott was managing to sound, and think for that matter, after the amount of alcohol he had consumed. From her experience scanning the party absently while hanging out with her friends drunk minds were slightly easier to scan, but the output was all kinds of messy compared to sober people.

"How about the ladies step up for a round?" It was Zach this time issuing the challenge as the somewhat obnoxious drunken duo was apparently not having much luck from the crowd at large.

"How about it Alex?" Alexandra was surprised that Amelia was apparently accepting the challenge, and more surprised that the tall girl wanted her to help apparently. "You can cheat at least as good as Mike can, right?"

Alexandra smiled as she caught on to Amelia's plan. "Probably better since he's about six drinks deeper in than I am."

Catalina and Scott observed the game with occasional bouts of laughter as the seemingly unbeatable pair found their current state of inebriation coupled with playing against a team that could use their own tricks a little more than they could handle. It probably was also a bit of a factor that Amelia apparently could not get drunk, though she'd made a solid effort to try tonight.

Catalina found herself and Scott wandering away from the group as the two losing boys started trying to bicker and plead their way out of what was rapidly becoming more alcohol than they were prepared to handle. That Amelia would win the argument was a forgone conclusion anyways, but listening to the whining wasn't something that either found themselves interested in.

"Where is your accent from anyways Scott? You have the weirdest mixture of proper English and Southern US drawl that I've ever heard." It seemed like a good topic to start with as the tall girl dressed in a sexier version of a jester's outfit strolled with the shorter boy dressed as a literal knight in shining armor.

"I was born in London, and Mom's from there, but we moved to the states with my Dad when I was about five. Lived in Georgia since then. I guess I've picked up a bit of an eclectic collection of speaking habits from the two extremes."

The two continued to wander casually through the maze, giggling frequently as Catalina's ability ruined some of the scary surprises the older students had planned for the trip, making small talk about their families and the HCP.

It turned out to be quite a long walk, but Catalina was definitely glad she'd convinced Tasha to go out with her tonight so that she'd had enough confidence to make it to the party in the first place. She was a little less excited about her prospects for finding alternate lodgings or returning to try and block out the tireless healer and whomever she had dragged home with her. Though the night was still young. It was entirely possible that Tasha's conquest and seizure of their room would turn out to be an opportunity in disguise for the telepath.

 

...

 

Amelia found herself wandering the upper levels of the HCP fitness area as the party wound down. The ridiculously endurant girl wasn't feeling particularly tired as yet and she was fairly certain that if she headed back now she'd end up interrupting at least one roommate's attempt at a hookup. So the skinny tall girl in her makeshift mummy costume found her way to the workout rooms and again tried to practice the open and rapid styles of movement that seemed to come so naturally to everyone else.

"Ah, I did not think anyone else would be here so late. Good morning Amelia!" The young woman turned from her workout to see the tall muscular form of Ramón in his rather dashing matador costume entering the room.

"Call me Ames Ramón, I'm sure you've heard."

"Ah, but I didn't want to presume that I was included in those that could call you familiarly my friend. What brings you to the gymnasiums so late?"

"Training."

"I was perhaps hoping you could be more specific? It is possible that Ramón can help!" Amelia smiled in response but paused for a long moment before answering.

"I can't move the way everyone else does Ramón. I never learned how when I was a kid. I'm so used to staying bunched up and being careful everytime I extend in any direction. The only way I can even sort of move freely is to go all crazy feral girl like I did fighting Erin."

"The crazy feral girl moves did defeat Erin did they not? Perhaps there is something there." Amelia laughed at that suggestion.

"Erin lost because she didn't know I could brace with one foot and stomp the floor hard enough to completely crater the area she was standing on. When she fell I just fell on top of her and managed to come up with an ankle. Once I had a grip, it was over. I know she says she doesn't want a rematch until something changes, but I've seen her move. Now that she knows what to watch for she'd probably beat me if we had our rematch now."

"You are still quite durable, perhaps you could wear her down instead?"

"Not quite that durable Ramón. It might take her an hour to do it, but I can tell you with what I can do now, I'd never touch her. It's not the idea of losing to my friend that bothers me though. I feel like I haven't improved since I got here at all." Ramón seemed to consider this carefully before trying a different approach.

"You have mostly been training with Erin, and now Alexandra yes?" When the tall girl nodded in confirmation he continued. "You have difficulty with moving freely, but the two people training with you the most are a woman with literally inhuman flexibility, and another who was in training to be an Olympic Gymnast before she decided to enter the HCP instead."

Amelia boggled a bit at that piece of information, and apparently the expression on her face asked the question before she could get her mouth working properly because Ramón continued before she could speak. "I managed to convince the lovely Beulah to take a chance on a single date with Ramón. It turns out we have not nearly enough in common to be very interesting to each other, and we ended up talking about our roommates for half the time in the restaurant."

Amelia nodded in understanding of that point, but still felt confused as to where Ramón was going with the rest of his point. "Wouldn't training with two girls that are likely the most flexible pair in the class be a good thing for me to learn to loosen up and move right?"

"Over time, definitely. But you are looking to improve quickly, and honestly I do not think that any of us could ever really learn Erin's style. Her body is quite literally put together differently than ours. So I would like to propose you learn something in the interim to improve your combat skills while you learn to become more flexible."

"And what do you propose then?"

With a smile, Ramón unslung the small bag he was carrying and threw a pair of heavy gloves at Amelia, who barely managed to catch them as the bounced off her torso. Also from the bag Ramón produced a pair of very heavy looking but worn target mitts, which he put on himself. "I propose that Ramón teaches you how to box."

Chapter 12

Chapter 12:
The Morning Aftermath

 

Jessica Lienne sat quietly staring at the rhythmic rise and fall of her tall Samoan companion's chest as he slept peacefully. The man had been persistent, charming, and even while asleep he was courteous enough not to steal the blankets or occupy more than his share of the bed.

The attractive brunette rose silently from the sheets and carefully gathered the pieces of clothing and costume from their discarded places on the floor. She hadn't meant to let the harmless flirting with the freshman go anywhere, much less carry through so far as it did. She thought back to her own freshman year with a pang of sadness, all the friends she had made that thought they would go through the program together in spite of the odds, her boyfriend that had promised to be there with her all the way through senior year. All gone now, and they didn't even remember Jessica. Part of the penalty for washing out of the program, the Overton Focus Instructor was called in to cloud out the memories of all the faces and names of your fellow classmates and Instructors. No one that had failed in the HCP would ever be a security risk outside of it. Everyone had signed on the dotted line agreeing to exactly those conditions before they had arrived, but then you watched those closest to you pulled away, and afterwards unable to even recognize you. It wasn't until that point that you really understood what you had agreed to.

Jessica finally slipped quietly through the door from the bedroom to the common room of the two person dorm, and closed the door softly behind her.

"Rorie is damned persistent isn't he?" the quiet voice startled the sneaking girl into a spin that nearly sent her costume prop staff sailing into the wall, but the reflexes of someone trained for over a year in such a demanding environment proved up to the task of maintaining a modicum of stealth.

"You were the lazy vampire costume? I didn't catch your name," Jessica's voice was pitched just as low as the dark haired boy's had been. She smiled to see him lounging in one of the cheap dorm chairs with a bowl of cereal and a nearly silent TV playing awful early morning programming in the background.

"It's Zach. I don't believe you offered your name either when we met briefly last night."

"Jessica," the girl gave a half curtsy drawing a muted chuckle from the boy, before turning to head towards the exit.

"You really sneaking out at five in the morning? Seriously Jessica, that boy may look all big and scary but he's a sensitive guy. You gotta break my roommate's heart?" Jessica stopped again and turned this time to offer a very serious gaze to the younger man.

"How many friends have you lost in this program already?"

"Only two that I was particularly close to. You're talking about the mind thing right?" She nodded in response. "That shit creeped me out, but we all signed up for it right?"

"Yes, we did. But I didn't sign up to see all my friends not even know who I am anymore. Or to become a stranger to the man I thought I was in love with. I don't feel like doing it again."

"You should at least say goodbye to the poor guy."

"Every second I spend talking to him is more pain when he goes away too. Or more pain for him if I don't make it. Why would I want to put either of us through that?"

"What's your rank?"

Jessica paused for a long moment at the abrupt change of topic, but thinking she saw where Zach was going she decided to play along. "My combat ranking is fourteenth, but I'm not specializing in Combat."

"So you've made it over the top twenty bar that the junior class admits in an area that you don't specialize in, and you're worried about washing out? What rank do you think Rorie is?"

"Like you said, he's a really nice guy. I'd guess he's somewhere in the twenties."

"You'd be off by a bit. Initially Rorie was ranked eighth. Now that he's had some time to practice, he's moved up to sixth. You still gonna tell me that you can't trust that one of you won't be here next year? Give the man a shot. He knew you were way out of his league and he didn't let that stop him. Don't prove the man wrong by walking out without saying a word."

Jessica had trouble believing that the charming, gentle giant in the other room could possibly hold such a rank. But a girl as attractive as she was had long ago learned to tell when men were lying to her, and all of her senses were telling the girl that Zach was telling the truth. Turning slowly she saw that the two roommates had a whiteboard on the inside of their door with a 'Chores' list. As was pretty standard for a pair of guys living together, the extent of the listed chores currently was 'Clean.' Walking again to the door and ignoring the defeated sounding sigh from the brown haired boy with his cereal, Jessica grabbed the marker off the top of the board, and carefully wrote her message before taking her leave.

Zach stood as soon as the hallway door had swung fully closed and strode over to examine what the girl had written. The chores list had been obliterated he noted as his expression became a wide grin. There was a phone number followed by two words scrawled on the whiteboard.

'Call Me!'

 

...

 

Teresa felt herself swimming slowly back towards consciousness as a pounding ache in her head demanded her attention, and as awareness returned several more aches made themselves known to her as well. The hispanic woman opened her eyes and immediately regretted the decision as they quickly snapped shut again. She had somehow ended up half on the couch, mostly upside down, and positioned to be staring directly into the rising sun through the common room's only window.

Carefully pulling herself into a new position, Teresa attempted the opening of the eyes for a second time, and surveyed her surrounding. She couldn't believe that she was waking up alone on her own couch after going all out the previous night. She'd been a walking advertisement for a girl in search of a good time, and in spite of all the flirting, no one had attempted to close the deal. Dammit, boys are supposed to be easy.

Dragging herself in the direction of the upstairs shower she discovered that it was already in use, and a careful attempt to listen in revealed that it was currently a double occupancy affair. Apparently Lisa had not been so luckless as her roommate. Needing to feel clean Teresa hauled herself downstairs, though she paused in the kitchen to down a couple of aspirin and a very tall glass of cold water, which caused the hammering inside her skull to recede to a duller throbbing sensation. As the somewhat bedraggled woman arrived in the lower hallway she noticed quickly that both downstairs bedrooms were open and unoccupied, as was the downstairs bathroom. Either Susan and Kaori were ridiculously early risers, they'd passed out at the party, or...

Or I'm the only person in this house that didn't get any last night. God dammit.

 

...

 

Amelia found herself in an unexpected place for an early Saturday morning. Seated in Coach Rachd's office while the muscular instructor glared at her with a slightly greater intensity than he usually managed in class. The tall girl sat calmly in the chair, still wearing the remains of her makeshift mummy costume from the night before, waiting for the man to speak. He'd been the one to demand her presence after all.

"Jacobson, what the hell do you think you were doing in my gym last night?"

"Training."

"Training? Is THAT what you kids are calling it now?" Amelia allowed a little more hostility of her own to creep into her expression at the Coach's insinuation. "And what kind of 'training' were you doing exactly?"

"I was lifting weights and practicing flexibility exercises. Then after that I was learning to box," the annoyance was still present in the girl's expression, but Amelia showed not even a hint of embarrassment or any other emotion except her normal quiet confidence at the Coach's continued questions.

"And it was Carerra that was teaching you how to box?"

"Yes Coach."

Rachd's eyes narrowed and he smiled slightly as he asked his next question, "And how exactly is it that Carerra ended up with a broken hip as a result of teaching you to box?"

"There was a minor accident towards the end."

"Accident?"

"Ramón decided to end the exercise by grabbing my ass. I was a bit startled and shoved him a little. He didn't do too much damage when he hit the wall though, and I helped him get to the infirmary afterwards." James Rachd looked a bit stunned at the ending to Amelia's story. It was quite obviously not what he had expected to hear had been happening in his gym after the traditionally wild Halloween party.

"So you didn't have any interest in accepting Carerra's proposition in my gym, and it was your refusal that resulted in a new crack in one of my walls and a broken hip on one of my students?"

"I don't think that's what I said Coach Rachd. I never said anything about not being interested, I was just startled," Amelia smiled at the taller muscular man as his expression softened a bit in surprise before she continued. "I think he's taking me out to dinner tonight actually."

 

...

 

The ringing cell phone drew first a quiet giggle, escalating into a deep hearty laugh that was partially cut off as it was smothered by a pillow. The Dr Who theme continued for almost a full repetition before the muscular young man finally found his pants half under the bed and pulled them out to retrieve the device, attempting to ignore the now partially stifled laughter from behind him.

"It is way to damned early in the morning for this... Huh?" Collin's complaint to whomever his 6am caller was cut off and he began listening intently, before sighing. "Yes I will." More waiting, and Tasha pulled herself upright to examine the young man that she had literally carried off the previous night. His posture had become tense and his tone suddenly very alert and serious.

After another long wait she watched Collin deflate a bit as he blew out a long exasperated sigh before speaking into the phone again. "This is the part where I say 'I told you so' like fifty times while doing the dance isn't it? No, I really do get to fucking say it because you want ME to help." Tasha continued to watch whatever was unfolding in front of her with rapt interest.

"Where's your wallet? Cause I'm not paying your damned fine, you can put that on your own credit card. Yea, your parents will probably see the bill before you can do anything about it, how the hell is that my problem? Hold on." Collin lowered the phone and turned to the giant black woman who's bed he currently occupied. "Ben got his ass arrested last night. Apparently I have to go save the day." This drew another round of giggles from the woman as Collin turned back to his phone.

"Who's what? Oh, that's proof that my plan for the evening worked out WAY better than yours did. Unless you made a new friend while you were waiting in lockup overnight?" Collin stopped talking into the phone again as Tasha pulled herself off the bed to stand in his line of sight and give him a look that he remembered very well from the previous evening's adventures.

"Look Ben, it turns out that I'm not going to be able to get down there for at least a couple hours. No, I really don't care what you think about it. Because it looks like she's not done with me yet. Bye Ben."

 

...

 

Tara made her way groggily into the common room of her shared townhouse and then into the kitchen, desperately seeking the coffee maker and its blessed sustenance. She let out a startled yelp when she arrived to see Gretchen already slumped over the counter, staring blankly at the machine Tara had been seeking herself. Tara smiled happily as she heard the machine begin its wonderful percolations just as she was wondering if her roommate had been too hungover to remember the intricate workings of the machine this morning.

"Morning Tara," the redhead was a bit surprised that Gretchen was aware of her presence. She had not reacted to Tara's arrival for several long seconds.

"Hi Gretchen, did you, uh, get lucky?" Tara was entirely unsure how to broach this subject with roommates, and took a shot at the direct approach. Gretchen chuckled softly.

"Not exactly what I was looking for last night Tara. I just wanted to unwind and get my drink on. I may have gotten a little bit too much on, but it was a good night. How about you? Mad-chemistry got any awesome sex-potions to try out?"

Tara felt her blush creep across almost her entire body and she knew her face had to be redder than her hair as she shook her head frantically and Gretchen's quiet chuckles graduated into a resonant belly laugh at the smaller girl's discomfiture.

Well, I wouldn't worry too much. There's a lot more to college than hooking up with random hot guys, although I'd be careful not to tell that to our roommates."

Tara's blush still persisted, but her embarrassment had lessened to a degree where she could at least speak again. "Why's that? I don't even think I saw Iris at the party. Wilma left with one of the older students though."

Gretchen smirked at the smaller girl as the light on the coffee marker finally indicated the reservoir had filled sufficiently to get her the first cup. As the cheap off white mug filled with the wonderful brown liquid, she responded to Tara. "Wilma did leave with one of the sophomores. Then she came back to the party after about two hours only she didn't bother wearing the costume tabard the second time." Tara's blush reasserted itself as she realized that would have left the buxom hispanic girl wearing little more than a corset and ultra tight side-lacing pants with some toy props. "The second time she left I believe it was with Roger." At Tara's lack of recognition she added, "the tall black guy that does fire?"

"Wilma had two guys last night?" Tara's tone was completely disbelieving and she remained almost completely red along as much of her skin as the taller girl could observe.

"And I'm not completely sure, but I think Iris might have actually left with two guys at the same time." Gretchen laughed again as she thought her smaller roommate was actually going to pass out at that revelation.

"Yea, but you know it doesn't really count unless everyone's involved at the same time. I only slept with Ron." Both girls jumped a bit as the speedster strolled into the kitchen, collected a cup of coffee, and made her way back to the common area. "Also I picked up doughnuts!"

Tara finally managed to get herself sufficiently under control that she made her own withdrawal from the coffee maker, before slowly heading in the direction of promised baked goods.

Gretchen scowled a bit in the shorter blonde's direction before following. "It is entirely unfair that you don't have even the slightest hangover after last night Iris."

 

...

 

Erin and Ty remained at their vantage point at the corner of the stairs looking into the common area at the strange sight before them. Sitting partially dressed on the couch, staring blankly at the wall above the turned off TV sat their roommate, Scott. On Scott's face was the most exaggeratedly blissful smile either could remember seeing anywhere before. Possibly the most ecstatic look ever worn be a human being was currently occupying their living area. And it was being worn at seven in the morning by a young man who was rather more famous for cursing the Lord for making mornings happen that early at all, which was nothing compared to the state the duo expected their friend to be in on an occasion when he was up so early on a WEEKEND.

"What the hell is wrong with him? Do you think someone slipped him something after you carried me home?" Ty was more than a little creeped out by the unchanging, unblinking, euphoric expression on his shorter friend's face.

"Maybe one of the upper classmen has a really weird ability that makes you super happy?" Erin could only think of one other possibility, and honestly with Scott it was a possibility that was difficult to contemplate.

"Why are we staring at Scott and whispering?" the pair of skulking roommates nearly fell forward in surprise as Amelia had somehow come up behind them with complete noiselessness.

"God dammit Ames, how did you get in without us hearing you?"

"Someone didn't latch the door when they came in. Also that's not an answer to my question." Amelia was whispering quite a bit louder than Ty or Erin, but Scott still seemed completely oblivious to his surroundings.

"We're trying to figure out what happened to Scott." Ty answered after a long pause. "He does not normally look like that. Hell, he rarely looks like anything other than 'unconscious' before 10am at the earliest. You remember how much he bitched about having to be up so early for the combat rankings."

"I'm guessing we could just ask Cat." Both Erin and Ty turned genuinely confused looks at the taller girl with that suggestion.

"Ames, Cat is all the way over in the dorms. I doubt she's picking up much of whatever's going through happy-zombie Scott's head right now." Ty nodded with Erin's statement in agreement, but Amelia just shook her head as she grinned.

"If Cat was in her dorm, I doubt that her Jester's cap would have been sitting in the bushes outside our front door." Ames held up the hat in question from where it had been concealed behind her as she stood on the stairs. Ty and Erin turned to look at each other with dawning comprehension, that was further confirmed as all three heard soft laughter that seemed to be coming from more or less inside their own heads.

"I'm sorry for laughing, but you two were hilarious hiding there and watching Scott like he's contracted some terrible disease. I might have come out sooner but I'm just finishing up with the shower now." Cat's mental voice reached each of the three on the stairs, and Amelia finally pushed her way past the other two and over to one of the worn comfortable chairs in the common room.

"Morning Scott!"

"Morning Ames," Scott's expression barely flickered as he acknowledged the arrival of his roommate, who quickly claimed the remote from it's place on the coffee table and turned on the morning cartoons.

Ty and Erin finally made their way fully into the common room and found seats of their own, still staring at Scott.

"You guys don't have to act THAT surprised. It's not like this is my first time or anything." Scott couldn't even manage to interject any annoyance into his tone as he addressed his two long time friends.

"Scott, last time you got laid you were literally singing and dancing when Ty and I came over to visit the next day. And two weeks later we thought you were going to kill yourself when the bitch dumped you and you swore off all women forever. So yes, little bit surprised."

"You seriously thought I was really going to swear off all women forever? I was seventeen Erin. Forever was like, two months, tops."

"Personally I figured you'd be out here thanking your Lord," Ames response finally drew a change in Scott's expression, slight puzzlement, and a burst of laughter from Ty and Erin.

"Ames, you've been living with Scott for weeks now. You should know better than that," the telepathic voice this time was accompanied by the arrival of the auburn haired Latina, freshly showered and wearing some clothing apparently stolen from Scott's wardrobe that, considering the notable difference in their heights, fit far better than it should have. "How often does Scott thank the Lord for anything? Maybe one time in twenty that something goes right. No, Scott has more of a hate-on for God than love for Jesus. He likes to have someone to complain at when things are going wrong that can presumably fix them." Ty and Erin nodded enthusiastically in agreement with the telepath's statement, and Scott looked as if he would object for a moment, then simply shrugged and leaned slightly over to rest against Catalina's shoulder.

"So Cat, why Scott?" Erin's question finally managed to draw a genuine glare from the blissed out male, though it still proved unsustainable as his expression reverted back to the goofy grin quickly.

"Because he's actually very sweet, and having lived with my family of giants all my life, I was not aware that they MADE real men in this size!" Scott briefly managed a hurt expression in Catalina's direction.

"Why does everyone have to constantly point out that I'm short? Or that I'm not all crazy buff? Or how my power is super short ranged."

"Don't worry sweetie. Most guys would kill to have your eight inches."

"My power works out to eight and a HALF inches thank you very much." Scott huffed a bit this time and Catalina laughed and hugged him to her chest.

"Not the eight inches I was referring to Scott." The hispanic girl blushed lightly with that declaration, but nowhere near as deep a blush as everyone else in the room managed at that bit of information, save one.

"I think I missed that one," Amelia's tone sounded simply curious as she spoke.

Erin considered taking pity on her tallest roommate, but before she could being an explanation Amelia's expression suddenly progressed through several rapid states before settling on a pretty equal blush to the rest of the room. "Alright, thank you Cat. I now know exactly how much information is more than I wanted to know about my roommates." Amelia paused, and then shook her head briefly. "Aw man, does this mean I was the only one in this house that didn't get any last night?"

"What? No, Ty and Erin didn't have anyone to go home with either Ames." Scott failed to notice that Ty and Erin were now blushing much more deeply than they had been a moment ago, as Amelia and Catalina leveled incredulous looks at the shortest occupant of the room.

"He really doesn't know Ames."

"Know what?"

Amelia looked over to see Ty and Erin offer a shrug and a resigned look respectively before she spoke again. "Scott, Ty and Erin have been sleeping together pretty much every night since we moved in. How the hell have you not noticed this?"

Scott just turned to stare at his two friends with his mouth agape, noting for the first time that as the pair sat in neighboring chairs their hands were casually intertwined as they offered nearly matching apologetic smiles.

"When the hell did THAT happen Ty?"

"Well, you remember when you told me that if I wanted to get into the HCP I should see if Erin would train me?"

"Ty, that was a little over two years ago."

"What can we say Scott," it was Erin that responded this time, a great deal of humor evident in her voice. "You aren't exactly the most observant person in the world."

"But why didn't you guys tell me? I'm your friend right?"

"We didn't get too serious until just before the hellbitch broke your heart. After that we figured you didn't want to hear about us getting all lovey-dovey and since then, well, it just kinda was fun that you didn't notice." Ty chuckled at this friend's still disbelieving expression.

"It's not like we were being secretive or anything. Hell, ask your mom!" Erin's remark drew a great deal of additional laughter from the assembled teenagers. Scott's eyes looked about ready to burst out of his skill in shock.

"My MOM knows?"

 

...

 

Dane Samson strode out of the Smith County Jail under the watchful glare of several corrections officers. The lanky white man in the grey hoodie quickly boarded the waiting public bus to ride away from his incarceration. Dane felt bad about throwing Jim to the wolves like that, but he was gonna testify against the man who'd actually tasered the tiny hispanic chick in front of all those people, and he was going to get off with a misdemeanor charge in exchange.

Looking around the bus Dane began to notice that a lot of people were glaring at him. He also noted that nearly everyone glaring at him was hispanic, young, male, and looked a lot scarier than he himself did. As the bus pulled up to a stop in downtown Tyler the increasingly frightened man waited a moment, then catapulted himself off quickly, attempting to evade the group of men that seemed to be obviously waiting for him. He let out a sigh of relief as he realized that no one seemed to have followed him.

Looking around to get his bearing he decided to head in the direction of a nearby coffee shop, but he didn't make it quite halfway there when heavy hands grabbed him from behind and pulled him into an alley too quickly for the startled man to even scream.

Dane found himself surrounded by a far more frightening group of Mexicans than those on the bus. Gang tats were evident on nearly every exposed arm of the group of six men surrounding him. All six also wore bandanas masking the lower halves of their faces and sunglasses covering their eyes. Somewhat surreally he noted that the man standing farthest in the back seemed to be recording him on a camera phone nearly identical to the one he himself had carried.

"So you and your buddy think it's fun to fuck up tiny little Latina Chicas?" Dane shook his head violently at the implication.

"No one was supposed to get hurt man, there was a guy online who was paying for people to mess with the kids at Overton, it was just..."

Unfortunately for Dane, it didn't appear than anyone in this group was at all interested in hearing his reasons. Fortunately they were actually quite practiced at beating a man savagely without killing him, so when he was dumped, broken and bleeding, back onto the sidewalk where passerby could see him, he only WISHED he was dying.

 

...

 

"Hello Kathryn, what can I do for you on this fine morning?" Janette Riley's voice held no trace of any emotion save sincerity and friendliness. Her smile conveyed a slightly different spirit, where fortunately the highly perceptive woman on the other end of the phone would be unable to observe it.

"Janette, there is a truly fascinating piece of news on right now. I was hoping you might have some free time to discuss it. Channel eleven if you aren't already watching it." Kathryn Jilles' tone managed to be polite, though she was not quite as practiced as the other woman at completely removing unwanted emotions from her voice.

The attractive middle-aged blonde dutifully turned on the TV, although considering she had recently become the owner of this particular local network it really wasn't a required step. "Ah yes, it is a very graphic story I must say."

"Janette please don't make me drive out there this early on a Saturday to learn the truth from you. I really would rather have some nice, quiet time. Did you have anything to do with that?"

"Kathryn, I will freely admit that I am a somewhat vindictive woman, however you will note that this attack was violent and very public. Would you say that this is at all my style?"

"It's a bit of a coincidence don't you agree?" Kathryn's tone showed definite strains of exasperation now. "I can appreciate the sentiment in sending a message to try and prevent anyone else from being lured in by stupidity and greed, but between the shape that the last two ended up in custody in and the fact that we've tracked down where the posts were originating, this might be overkill Janette."

"Was it more nonsense tracing back to Humanity Forever?" Janette's tone held genuine curiosity. Whoever had set up the anonymous server to host the pictures and instructions for anyone willing to commit assault for five thousand dollars had been quite a bit more technically adept than those that set up the initial 'attacks' through the local media organization.

"No, it actually traced back to a completely defunct ultra-radical anti Super militia group in, believe it or not, Canada."

"They're definitely defunct?"

"A few months ago they finally stepped over the line of spewing verbal abuse and hatred at anyone who would listen to them for half a minute. They burned down a special education center for Powered children near Winnipeg. Apparently the RCMP and a couple of the Canadian Heroes took serious offense to a group murdering two dozen children and their teacher and sending a video to the CBC bragging about it. Most of them didn't manage to surrender quickly enough to be arrested from what I read."

Janette paused for a few seconds to compose herself. She wasn't sure how she'd missed news like that but it was a truly awful event to contemplate. "Are we guessing that whoever set up these sites didn't know about the group not existing anymore or doesn't care that the dead end makes no sense."

"We're leaning towards not caring, and they're more thorough than the news network attack in that there's a similar site that went up targeting Sizemore and another for Korman. All three are offline now. Overton is the only one that did any active recruiting for people to cause mayhem though."

"Probably not a coincidence."

"No, probably not. I don't suppose you've finished talking around the issue and would like to give me a straight answer as to your involvement with this local news incident?" Janette smiled again. She really hadn't expected the Overton HCP Dean to be thrown off topic so easily and the woman had not disappointed.

"I'll be sure to give your regards to Riley, Kathryn."

There was a long pause then slowly building laughter from the other end of the phone. "You were right Janette, it definitely wasn't your style. Please do give my regards to your husband and be sure to let him know that I will call him if I need ANYTHING."

"It was lovely chatting with you Kathryn." Janette decided to watch the complete news segment after hanging up the phone. She remembered the expression on her husband's face when he had returned from meeting with the county DA to try and block the plea agreement that would see one of the two men responsible for multiple assaults on his students walking free in a matter of days. She sighed. She really did need to keep her husband reigned in a little better, but this time, remembering the recording she'd seen of the tiny girl struck, convulsing, and then collapsing, she found that she couldn't bring herself to fault the man.

Chapter 13

Chapter 13:
Training, Planning, and Home for the Holiday

 

The nearly empty concrete room echoed with the rhythmic alterations of metal clanking against metal and loud grunts of physical exertion. Marilyn Simmons forced herself to push through more reps today than even her demanding training schedule called for. The ursine shifter literally growled as she forced the bar attached to the massive specially designed hydraulic press to its full extension one last time before allowing it to return to its rest position.

With only the briefest of pauses while she toweled the bench dry the feral looking woman moved quickly to the underground track where she forced herself into a grueling pace faster than a normal human's top sprinting speed. Her current inhuman stature was made even more evident on the course as she dropped to all fours to use her arms for extra stability as she rounded the corners of the track.

Can't get left behind. Won't get left behind. The mantra echoed constantly in the driven girl's mind. She had been disappointed to earn only the seventh highest rank in the class after the initial combat rankings. Remembering the skinny blonde that had overpowered her so effortlessly still brought a surge of shame to the woman. She felt she had managed to further humiliate herself as she had attempted to challenge the skinny asian that shifted into some kind of demonic whore for his rank the first week. Never again would Marilyn underestimate the usage of illusions in combat. Two weeks after that failed attempt she had made another bid to take the fifth spot from the arrogant and far too carefully groomed blonde man who currently held it. Marilyn had been confident that her strength would allow her to overwhelm the man, just as the replay had shown the number one ranked student had beaten him during the initial ranking. The girl had learned again the difference between the level of her strength and that of the current class champion, as the force barriers thrown about by her opponent had leveled her with ease. It had taken quite some time before he had managed to put her out, but the conclusion had been foregone from the opening moments of the match.

Now Marilyn had established an exacting schedule. Her normal class schedule did not begin until 10:30 AM each day, so the girl was up at six so that she could study for four hours before preparing herself for her mundane scholastic endeavors. Ethics of Heroism and HCP Gym finally concluded her classes at 7:00 PM. Half an hour was allocated for her to get a quick meal, then four more hours spent pushing her limits as hard as she could in the HCP Fitness Center. Another shower and six hours of sleep before her schedule began again. Each day on the weekend was another four hours devoted to her mundane classes, and eight solid hours spent in the fitness center. Marilyn felt she had set herself the harshest schedule she could that balanced her need to advance as fast as possible with the equally great need to not fail out of the program for something as moronic as failing to maintain her mundane grades.

Even with all the work she was putting in each and every day, nearly sixty hours in the Gym each week all told, Marilyn felt that she was falling behind her classmates. She truly felt the only reason she had maintained her high rank is that neither Aaron nor Lisa, the ninth and tenth ranked students, demonstrated any desire to advance, and both had proven impossible for all comers to unseat. She had watched as the sixth rank student had fallen to eighth, and then again to eleventh. She felt trapped. Having lost her two attempts to improve her own rank, she couldn't try again until the next semester, and no matter how hard she trained the powerful shifter could not shake the nagging feeling that the only reason she still retained her single digit ranking is that no one in the range able to challenge her cared enough to take the spot away.

Prior to coming to the HCP Marilyn's family had provided some of the best training money could buy. Personal trainers that were former Force Ops, a home gym that had equipment nearly the equal of that used to train the super physique students here at Overton, and a string of special tutors to insure that most of her college courses would be little more than review of things she was already well familiar with. Marilyn had arrived expecting to be the best, but as she pounded another lap around the track she couldn't shake the feeling. She was only still in the program because no one felt it worth the effort to remove her yet.

 

...

 

Zach's face held a confident grin as he swirled his arms in a seemingly random pattern before him and another massive blast of air dissipated into little more than a strong breeze. His opponent, one Mark Jansen, circled above him in frustration as the smaller brown haired student continued to effortlessly defeat his relentless offense.

Finally the moment Zach had been patiently waiting for arrived. In all Mark's previous fights against an opponent capable of withstanding his initial barrage he had taken a stationary position and brought his hands together in front of him. Based on the recorded footage of the tall curly haired flier Zach knew that what came next would be a literal tornado unleashed in the massive room still far too small for such an event. However Zach had no intention to wait for Mark's finale. As soon as the flier's hands came up, his eyes had closed in concentration. That meant he was not watching to evade incoming attacks, as indeed he'd only faced one opponent so far capable of attacking his flying form. Zach would make the second as he made a slashing motion towards his opponent with his left hand, a barely visible distortion in the air trailed from his outstretched fingers to impact the distracted man squarely across the face.

Concentration shattered, Mark let out a cry of pain followed by a scream of terror as he plummeted towards the hard floor. Zach knew that technically at this point he was in the clear. His attack had not been at the level of 'lethal force' proscribed by the HCP's rules. On the other hand the smaller man had no desire to watch one of his classmates splatter his brains all over the combat room.

Zach's second strike was precisely timed and angled as he cleanly struck the falling flier's torso with a corkscrew motion that partially arrested his fall and instead bounced him hard into the nearer wall before he collapsed the last few feet to the floor. Not exactly a clean catch, but much better than face first into the concrete. Zach called out to his downed opponent quickly to give him a chance to respond as both his hands vibrated with anticipatory power in case the air elemental manipulator proved more resilient than planned, but when no response was forthcoming he immediately shouted instead to summon the Overton healing staff to aid the stricken loser of this match.

Zach remained in the room while the arriving student healer managed to put Mark in sufficient order to make the trek to the infirmary more or less under his own power, but the taller man was withdrawn and unspeaking. There was still a look of terror somewhere in the back of his eyes that Zach glimpsed as the man was led away to receive more thorough treatment. I wonder if that's the first time he's actually fallen.

 

...

 

Beulah Abbot wore a very eager, earnest expression as she 'ported across the room to block the exit the moment Dean Jilles had signaled the Ethics class period was over. It was early November and the short haired Israeli girl had a plan to cash in on the upcoming holidays.

"Classmates, if I may have your attention for a moment!" The looks of surprise on many of the faces faded to looks of interest, amusement, or annoyance depending on each students' opinion of the athletic brunette. The look on the Dean's face was definitely favoring the second option as the telepath likely already knew most of the details of the plan about to be hatched in her classroom.

"As you are all aware, the Thanksgiving holiday is coming up in only two short weeks. I have been most distressed to hear that many of my fellow HCP students will be unable to visit family members due to the distances involved in traveling to this University and the increasing expense of air travel." She noted with a slight increase to her smile that more of the expressions had shifted towards 'interest' in the crowd. "I would like to offer those of you unable to visit their loved ones a wonderful opportunity. I have visited the capitol of each and every state in this country, in addition to many other major cities. For a fee FAR less than what an airline would charge you for several hours cramped into an uncomfortable seat I would be happy to arrange near instantaneous travel too and from one of those cities near enough to your families to allow for a simple car trip to take you the rest of the way home."

There was a great deal of interest and excitement in the crowd of faces now, although a few of the disinterested ones began pushing their way past the teleporter to exit the room. Beulah felt that was perfectly acceptable, she didn't really need to waste time speaking to people not interested in what she had to sell after all.

"Please come and speak with me after the Gym period today to determine if I am able to get to a location close enough to suit your travel needs, and for a mere fifty dollars I can have you dropped off at that location Wednesday evening, and picked up to return to campus on Sunday morning. A full Thanksgiving weekend with your families without the hassle of mundane travel. Thank you all for your time!"

In spite of her request to find her after the Gym class had ended, several students immediately mobbed the teleporter in order to try and determine immediate travel arrangements. As far as Beulah was concerned, this was also part of the plan. As was her intention to offer the same service for seventy dollars a person for those returning home over Winter Break. They should update the orientation packet. There are PLENTY of opportunities for part time employment for HCP students if they are willing to think creatively!

 

...

 

Iris Todd watched as the very tall, lean African American man that she'd been more or less dating since the Halloween party slammed his already bleeding fist against the wall in frustration. Roger Colton had just lost his first challenge match of the year and dropped down to the twenty first rank in the class of forty students. He was now officially in the bottom half of the combat ranks.

"These restrictions are complete bullshit. How am I supposed to show how good a fighter I am when every way I can really cut loose is forbidden because someone MIGHT die. We signed up to be fucking Heroes, of COURSE we might die!" The fire projector had not been having the easy time of it he'd expected when he had first decided to enter the HCP. Iris had sympathized with the man at first, after all he was, pun intended, HOT. And she could definitely see how having such an obviously dangerous power could actually be as much of a disadvantage as it was an advantage. But Iris had also watched Rorie Samuels take a power that was in essence the ability to make your own hand grenades out of nothing and dial it down to the point where it could be used to safely disable the non-physically enhanced students. The more time she spent with Roger, the more the speedster was convinced that the man had never bothered to grow up before he came to college. It was like dating back in high school all over again. Something that, while it had been fun at the time, was not really an era that Iris felt the need to relive.

"I've gotta get back up before the end of semester challenge babe. It's gonna be big and there's no way I'm going into that in the bottom half." Iris sighed at Roger's declaration.

"We have no idea what the freshman midterm is Roger. Only that all the sophomores were toying with our heads at the Halloween party about how we were not gonna be ready for it. No one said anything about it mattering what your rank was going into it, just that it could change the rankings up big time when it was over."

"C'mon babe, you've got to be smarter than that," Iris decided right there at the condescending tone that she was dumping the tall man, regardless of his hotness. "No matter how much it shakes the ranks up there's no way it's gonna put someone from the bottom on top. That's just not how shit like this works."

"Well Roger," Iris managed to sound convincingly seductive as she reached up to turn the man's head so that they were eye to eye, "I'm still in the top half of the class. So you could always challenge me for my rank."

"Aw c'mon babe, don't tempt me like that. You know I don't want to end up in the doghouse for messing up my girl," somehow Roger was completely oblivious to the further hardening of the blonde speedster's expression as he spoke. "I'd be froze out all year if I did that to you wouldn't I?"

"Actually Roger, I'll make you a special deal." Iris stood on tiptoe to be able to whisper softly into the tall fire projector's ear. "You beat me in a challenge, and I'll give you what you were asking for on our second date." From this close she felt the man's pulse speed up, as well as a few other predictable reactions. "But if I beat you, then I'll be doing it to you instead." His completely dumbfounded look drew a genuine smile from the shorter girl.

"Seriously babe?"

"Completely serious."

From the look on his face, Roger felt there was no way he could lose this challenge. Especially considering the prize that was being offered for winning.

"We'll set it up on Monday then!"

Iris left Roger to get his hand put back together as she strode out of the complex. Having watched all of the tall man's fights, she was fully confident in how this match was going to end.

"Now where would I go in this town to find a nice ribbed surprise for Roger's going away party..."

 

...

 

Scott was definitely more nervous than he could ever remember being before in his nineteen years of life. He found himself staring, unblinking at his girlfriend, mouth moving but no words coming out. One of the many advantages of dating a telepath.

"Oh come on Scott, it won't be that bad. Your mom sounded like she loved the idea and my family is all dying to meet you!"

Scott tried to muster up surprise that Catalina had already managed to contact his mother to invite her and his uncle Jonathon to spend Thanksgiving dinner with her family in the neighboring town of Kilgore. Scott's mother had, of course, been delighted at the opportunity to meet the girl that her son seemed to be settling down with at a remarkable rate for a freshman in college. Uncle Jonathon had begged out, as he had already made plans to attend a dinner with his new girlfriend's family, but he had volunteered to provide transport for his older sister to and from the Blake home.

"Was it Ty or Erin that gave you my mom's number?" It was the first actual words he'd managed for quite a while, and he felt briefly proud of the accomplishment as it would be the piece of information that told him which roommate he needed to end.

"Neither actually. Your mom called yesterday morning while you were still in the shower. I got the number off your phone and arranged the whole thing with just one text message." Scott was briefly confused as he considered her response.

"Why didn't you just answer the phone and talk to her when she called?"

"I wouldn't have been able to talk to her over the phone silly."

"Well yeah, I know you like the whole 'mindvoice' thing but you could just try it the normal way like the rest of us for a cha..." Scott trailed off as Catalina's expression looked caught somewhere between sadness, horror, and laughter.

"I can't believe I forgot to tell you, I'm so sorry Scott, I wasn't trying to keep it a secret or anything, I just forget sometimes and I like being treated like I'm not really all that different even when I really am different and with being inside other people's heads all the times I forget that they can't get back inside of mine so they don't necessarily know all the things that I haven't remembered..." Having had a couple of weeks of practice with his girlfriend, Scott had learned that when the auburn haired beauty panicked, she tended to ramble infinitely since she wasn't encumbered by mortal considerations like needing to stop for breath. Fortunately he had worked out what he believed was a suitable solution.

The much shorter but still athletically fit young man reached up to grab the taller girl by the back of the head and pull her into a resoundingly deep kiss. The mental train of words actually continued for a few seconds, although the words themselves became slightly less coherent as the enjoyable sensation eroded some of the necessary control the telepath needed to project a steady voice.

After holding the kiss about ten seconds longer than was strictly necessary to defuse the never ending torrent of mental words, Scott finally pulled back to smile at the blissful expression on his girlfriend's face. "Just tell me what the big secret is Cat. It can't possibly be that big of a deal."

The girl took a deep steadying breath, then another as she realized she was still a bit disoriented from the kiss. "Well, the thing is, I can't really talk to someone on the phone because I'm kinda..." Catalina trailed off and looked down nervously. Scott simply waited patiently for her to continue, having faith that it would not be a long wait.

"See, the thing is," another deep breath, "I was born deaf. I'm deaf. Completely deaf, both ears, can't hear a thing." Catalina glanced up to see Scott's expression holding a bit of incredulity.

"But, we talk, I mean you listen to people. You watch TV with us, you comment on things that are going on, how can y-..."

"I can hear whatever people around me can hear. Animals too. I learned how to do it when I was about six. I also pick up almost everything that anyone around me sees, but it's not like it's all consciously there all at once you know? It's like when I'm in a crowded room, anything I'm looking at I can see from every angle, even the angles that I don't have a view of myself, as long as someone can see it. Does that make sense?"

"My girlfriend gets super extra 3D vision?"

Catalina laughed in response. "That's close enough. So really, how do you feel about coming to meet me family?"

"Are they really all as big as you keep telling us they are?"

"Actually dad and some of my brothers are bigger than you guys are picturing when we talk about it."

"In that case I feel absolutely fine. If you'll excuse me I need to phone my mom and tell her to have uncle Jonathon bring some of the heirloom plate armor along when he drops her off so that your brothers don't murder the poor sap who dared to mess with their sister."

Chapter 14

Chapter 14:
Finals, Failures, and Preparing for the Ultimate Midterm

 

Antoin sat comfortably curled on the couch of the townhouse's common room doing his absolute best to concentrate solely on the textbook in front of him while ignoring the darkhaired head resting in his lap and smiling up at him as well as the hostile glares from the immaculately groomed and styled blonde currently occupying the dining area. In spite of his efforts the textbook was definitely receiving the smallest share of his attention currently.

"Gerard my friend, if you wish to join our roommates on the couch I'm certain that all you need do is ask them politely," Antoin smiled as the asian youth occupying the floor in front of him as well as a portion of his lap broken into chuckles as their fourth roommate entered the common area.

Gerard turned to the newly arrived tall, muscular hispanic man but had to pause as he visibly worked to control himself before responding, "I'm not even the smallest bit interested Ramón. You should at least try to keep your humor on topics that are actually funny. Your new stick figure girl break any interesting new bones yet?" The neatly coiffed blonde man had not been dealing well with the revelation that two of his male roommates were now in a relationship. The best that could be said of the man was that he was making an effort to work through his issues with homophobia as civilly as possible. The results were mixed but the effort was more than some bothered to make.

"So far we have been moving slowly so sadly Ramón had no new entertaining stories about the things that Amelia has broken or how they ended up that way." Antoin had to give the larger man credit, it was very nearly impossible to come out ahead of him in any war of words. "But if you lack interest in the goings on of the couch, why are you directing so many angry looks towards it? Surely Gerard is not feeling jealousy of our pair of lovebirds?" This drew another snicker from Kyle before the smallest roommate entered the conversation.

"Actually Ramón he's not angry at the couch or jealous of the boy on boy love. He's angry because he challenged for fourth rank and lost the match yesterday."

"Ah, so Gerard is simply worried about his class standing again. Much more sensible than many of the other idiotic things he has managed to do lately." Gerard flushed a little angrily at Ramón's words, but didn't attempt to correct the big Mexican.

"I apologized for reacting poorly when I found out two of my roommates were gay. It was a surprise, and I admit I handled it poorly. Now will you please let me be upset that a man who turns into some kind of satanic porn star kicked my ass in less than thirty seconds? For a day or two at least?"

There was laughter around the room at Gerard's closing plea.

"I'm pretty sure I'm not a porn star until I've actually been filmed doing something you know."

"But did not you and Antoin talk about doing exactly that my small friend?" Ramón's latest comment caused the remaining laughter to die as both Antoin and Kyle blushed a deep crimson and Gerard hurriedly turned to try and immerse himself in the collection of papers and textbooks before him.

"Please, everyone, can we save the banter until after finals?" Antoin's pleading voice took some effort to get out around his obvious embarrassment, but as the Canadian considered that he had yet to turn a single page of his textbook in the last hour, the plea was definitely heartfelt.

 

...

 

"It's like nothing I've ever felt before Doc. You've got to help me fix it. I can't sleep right, my food tastes like crap, and I'm making a complete fucking mockery out of myself in training." Mark Jansen reclined on a comfortably plush couch as he poured out his frustration to the Overton HCP Psychiatrist, Doctor Lane Bertram.

The portly 6'1" doctor examined his notes as the tall young man on his couch continued to vent. It really was a terrible shame to see such a promising Super struck with such a crippling fear after a poor day in a combat room, but as a psychiatrist in the HCP for nineteen years, the last six of which he was the chief of psychiatry at Overton's program, it was sadly a story he had seen many times in the past and expected to see many more times in the future.

"You have attempted all the calming exercises we've discussed?" the young man nodded as the doctor continued. "And based on your descriptions today, you would say that your problems are worsening?" Mark wore an impassively tight lipped expression for several moments as he considered the last question, before nodding again.

"Look Doctor Bertram, there's got to be something you can give me for this. Some kind of healer that specializes in mind stuff, or even just some meds to take the edge off. I know I can do this if I can just have a little more time to get right..." the curly haired youth trailed off as he turned to see the sad expression on the much older man's face. Tears welled up as Mark could predict what was to come next.

"I want you to understand Mark, first and foremost, that problems such as the one you are facing are NOT a sign of weakness." Mark turned a slightly confused look towards the doctor as he tried to blink the tears away before they could fall. "I'm not going to lie to you or sugarcoat it. As severe as this new phobia is, you are not going to be able to continue in the HCP this year, HOWEVER," the young man's tears now streamed freely down his face as he worked to hold himself back from sobbing as he felt his dreams crashing down around him. "I am going to give you a most excellent referral to some specialists I am well acquainted with. You are not the first student to come to me with an emotional wound too crippling to ignore and too deep to heal in only a few weeks time. You will not be the last such student either. But if you truly want to be a Hero, this will NOT stop you from returning once you have healed this injury and are ready once more."

There was a long silence in the room as the younger man struggled to get himself under some semblance of control and the experienced doctor simply waited, knowing that to rush or interrupt the youth in his attempt to regain control would be a harsh cruelty against a fragile ego right now.

"Has anyone... Has anyone actually done it? Failed out like this and then made it back?"

"You are aware that I cannot give you the examples you desire to prove the case as it would be a terrible breach of trust and the oaths I took to keep what happens to my patients confidential." Lane paused to allow the statement a moment to sink in before he continued. "Many who suffer from distress like this never find the courage to return and try again. But every student that I have treated that has managed forcing their way back into this program has graduated a Hero. I promise you this, it can be done. It HAS been done."

Mark nodded as tears continued to fall onto the couch he lay on. His expression held a modicum of peace that hadn't been present before. Peace, and a truly steely resolve that was rapidly beginning to supplant the grief in his eyes.

Doctor Lane Bertram had indeed told the young man the truth. Only four out of all those that the doctor had watched fail as their emotional strength proved unequal to the grueling challenges of the HCP had ever returned to it in the years he had worked with the program. All four were now active Heroes, proudly serving with no trace of the wracking emotional pain, phobias, and failings that had marked their first attempt at the HCP. As the auburn haired youth slowly dried his tears, and rose to offer a handshake and a goodbye, the older man was absolutely certain that this would be the fifth such student of his career.

 

...

 

Two young men lay sprawled haphazardly on the rooftop of an abandoned furniture warehouse, watching the sun sink slowly below the horizon. The much heavier of the two sported a completely shaved head as he reached into the cooler they had lugged up to the rooftop with them and produced another pair of beers, one of which was gently tossed to his companion. The smaller brown haired youth briefly fumbled the bottle, but managed to complete the catch before reclining again.

"This really fucking sucks Ken," the smaller man managed to open his bottle and took a long pull before continuing. "Where the hell did they find all these psychos and monsters to populate this place with? We're supposed to be training to be Heroes, not lunatics!" With a second deep drink the bottle was dropped off the edge of the rooftop, now empty.

"Let's face it man, we're good at what we do. But we're not good enough." Ken Kaufman seemed to have a much more blasé attitude about the situation. "I wanted this, and I thought I was good enough when I got here, but now look at us man. We're plummeting through the rankings near every week, the tiniest chick in the class is starting to look like she's on steroids, and the two of us together couldn't even distract the monsters at the top." The bald man finished of his beer and allowed it too to drop off the side with the accompanying sound of shattering glass from below before producing another pair of beers from the cooler. "We've got to accept that not all Supers are super enough for this shit. You'll give yourself a stroke if you keep obsessing Rod."

Rodney Plankett barely managed to catch the new beer, and directed an angry glare at his companion as he opened it. "You saying it's our fault for not being monsters? Fuck that man, this is a stacked deck. They've pulled in all the god damned ringers because this is the year the government wants to pay attention to how their money is being spent for a change."

"Either way Rod, lighten up a bit and enjoy the funeral. This is a wake for our futures as Heroes. May it have been as bright as the sun, but it was not to be." Ken raised his bottle in a gesture of salute before emptying it in one long pull and throwing it off the rooftop.

"I'm not giving up that easily Ken." The smaller man also finished his latest beer in a single long drink before dropping the bottle and gasping briefly for air and belching loudly. "I'll be back next year when they ain't stackin the deck, and then we'll see who's got whaddit takes to be a Hero."

Ken just smiled sadly at his drunken friend. It had been a good dream while it lasted, but being in the HCP and looking around at all the other students who had made it this far, the bald youth had realized that he simply did not have the level of desire and conviction present in nearly everyone left. He had tried to reach that level, but he knew from almost the start that it just wasn't in him. So rather than drag out the inevitable he had decided to throw a spectacular going away party for himself. He had been briefly surprised when his friend Rodney had asked to join him after he had revealed his intentions. He should have realized the smaller brown haired man was still seeking to lay blame anywhere except on his own shoulders for all the stumbling blocks he had run into in the HCP. Ken knew Rodney's story a little better though. In spite of the rants about unfair systems and ringers brought in to impress this weird oversight thing, Rodney hadn't stepped foot in the HCP facilities outside of class or mandatory challenges. He hadn't attempted to improve his rank, and he hadn't put in a single extra minute to try and improve.

As he fished another pair of beers out of the cooler, noting absently that it was nearly empty, he wondered if his friend would really make another run at the HCP. He figured it really didn't matter at this point to him one way or another. Dad's still got all those contacts with the P.E.E.R.s, that should be more my speed.

 

...

 

The three men occupying the common room of the townhouse dorm all stared more or less blankly at the TV on the wall in front of them. It had switched over to playing late night infomercials at some point a few hours ago and none of them had even noticed. Finals week was over, the Winter Break was nearly upon them. Only the HCP courses remained, with this Saturday being the last of the challenge matches for the first semester, and the special HCP midterm that had first been hinted at by mocking sophomores was now fixed in the schedule to occur on Sunday.

"What do you suppose it is?" it was Barry Jeung who finally broke the silence, startling his two roommates slightly though neither man asked needed any confirmation as to what 'it' Barry could be referring to.

"Battle Royale?" Matt Jason the stocky brown haired material manipulator suggested with a somewhat defeated sounding sigh. His ability was really not particularly suited for an open field one on one combat, much less an open free for all with some of the monsters that occupied the upper ranks of the freshman class.

"If that's all it is after all this build up than it's a lot of fucking trouble for them to go to just to put another crown on Jacobson's head." Aaron Sexton was the only one of the three roommates currently ranked in the top half of the class, and in the top ten at that. Barry had made it briefly across that line but had been knocked back to nearly his old rank shortly after.

"What could it be? I mean really? Scavenger hunt? Labyrinth?" Matt sounded dismissive of the suggestions he threw out as he spoke. "All we've really done so far is pair off to improve our combat usage of our abilities every day, and lift enough weights that I would swear they were trying to make a professional sports team out of us. It's got to be some kind of fight."

"All the sophomores were talking like it's something new for the class. Maybe it's some kind of field drill? Or like the Dean's scenarios only we actually run through them in some kind of simulation?" Barry's suggestion seemed to perk up the interest of both of his roommates quite a bit. All three had excelled at theory-crafting their way through the scenarios presented in Ethics of Heroism for most of the term. If this was simply to be a more realistic application of that skill set, it meant that the less combat oriented students would likely be paired with those capable of pulling more than their own share of the weight.

"Whatever it is, it's gotta be big. Did either of you check where the meeting location is for the test?" Aaron saw brief startled looks followed by shaking heads. "We're meeting in OBS-1. That's the main observation room the professors use to evaluate ALL the combat rooms at the same time. The only reason they'd be sticking us in there is because whatever the kickoff is needs that freakin huge screen they got in there to show it all off properly."

"Awesome. Well after tomorrow we should all know the way, right?" Matt's question was met with a smile and a nod from Barry, but it was Aaron's turn to show a confused expression.

"Why would we be hitting up the observation room tomorrow?"

"Shit man, you're in the top ten. Don't you pay any attention to the rank challenges?"

"Why would I care about watching the last challenges of the semester when I didn't care about any of the dozens of other challenges so far?"

Matt laughed at his friend, and Barry took over the explanation. "Because Aaron, apparently something has finally changed." Seeing Aaron still wore a look of non-comprehension he elaborated. "Erin finally challenged Amelia for the number one spot."

 

...

 

Stay loose, stay fast, read the movement and keep wearing her down. It was a mantra that Erin Casse had been repeating in her head for almost an hour as she battled to overtake the most powerful student in the Overton HCP freshman class. Amelia's attempts at learning proper fighting forms had made her movements far more predictable than they'd been when the two girls had fought the first time. On the exchange, she was much, much faster now that she had at least a notion of how to control her incredible strength and a semblance of technique to channel it into. Erin's right arm still firmly gripped one of the high density tactical batons she'd had approved for this match. The other lay somewhere on the floor of the room which was rapidly becoming more torn up than the site of their first battle. The transparent girl's left arm hung limply at her side as an exchange that had taken place almost twenty minutes ago had demonstrated that the tall blonde girl's incredible strength was even a threat while she defended, as she had smashed the incoming baton aside with so much force that Erin's elbow and wrist were both completely dislocated.

Remarkably even after the incredible fight had dragged on for over fifty minutes, neither girl was yet appearing to be winded. Amelia was, however, becoming quite unsteady on her feet as the precise strikes from her opponent began to add up. Her face was a mask of bruises and blood, her nose was broken, and her left eye had swollen almost completely shut. Additionally she was sporting rapidly swelling bruises along both knees and elbows as Erin had worked as hard as she could to limit the freakishly powerful girl's movement as much as possible.

Amelia continued to come forward in a relentless, yet measured attack. Her jabs and straight punches were getting sloppy as her arms wouldn't respond exactly as she wanted them to, although this wasn't much of a disimprovement from her initial too rigid stances as far as her roommate could tell as they fought on.

Erin felt her heart leap with elation as she calmly wove through Amelia's offense and stuck a resounding blow against the girl's temple, actually staggering her off of her feet for the first time in the match. Fortunately the slightly smaller girl was wary of an attempted trick and didn't seek to press her advantage against the downed opponent, which proved wise as Amelia rocketed back to her feet with no apparent effort and lunged at her opponent with enough speed that had Erin closed, she likely would have been unable to dodge.

As it was Amelia had gotten the angle nearly perfect and was coming in spread eagled with a huge amount of force. Being uncertain if she could completely clear the long limbs of the skinny girl flying towards her, Erin took the opportunity to simultaneously dodge and counter the unexpected attack with her own surprise move. For the first time in the match, Erin leapt completely into the air, her powerful legs easily propelling her into a flip that would clear her startled opponent by several feet without giving Amelia time to react to the sudden change. As she rotated above her opponent the baton came down again on Amelia's impossibly solid skull with enough force that the nearly indestructible material Ty had constructed it from bent visibly, and the taller girl again crashed to the floor.

As Erin came to her feet and waited it was a much longer pause before Amelia found her feet again. The last blow had opened a vicious cut in one of the bruises along her forehead, and blood spilled freely into her right eye. After a few attempts to wipe the crimson fluid away revealed the futility of the endeavor, Amelia raised her hands in the signal for surrender. Erin stared dumbfounded for a long moment.

"I'm not going easy on you Erin. I can't see anything but red right now and I hurt more than I knew was possible. You win." With those words spoken in a remarkably clear voice for all the visible damage done to the girl's face, Amelia slowly sank down to her knees to gently cradle her mangled face in her hands. "Now please, can we go to the healers so they can put me back together again?"

Erin's smile was radiant, but she felt no urge to indulge in further celebration and indeed nearly collapsed as she allowed the focus that had driven her through the battle to slip away and the fatigue of having to fight a nearly perfect match lest she be overwhelmed in an instant finally caught up with her.

"I can lead the way Ames, but I might need you to carry me a bit in order to get there."

"I can probably manage that much. Looks like it's your turn to buy dinner this time."

Erin helped her roommate find her feet, only to end up leaning on the taller girl as they made their way towards the infirmary. Two student healers were actually waiting just outside the combat room entrance, but both girls waved them away. They wanted to finish the whole thing under their own power.

Gathered around a massive twelve foot monitor, the entire remaining freshman class collectively remembered to once again breathe normally as the incredible match ended. Standing at the back of the room, Elena Martinez found herself having to give her body a similar reminder as she had not even realized how caught up in the match she had become until it was over. Beside her James Rachd wore only a broad, sadistic smile as he barked out a statement to the assembled students.

"Alright then! Looks like Jacobson is free to accept some challengers again! Anyone in the top five feeling up to it?"

The three students in question seemed to visibly pale at the thought of taking on the woman they had just watched on the monitor. As Elena opened the door and motioned the students to vacate, they all did so in near complete silence, still replaying the events they had witnessed. As Rachd started to follow the last of the students out he turned briefly to his colleague.

"Elena, do me a favor and remind Dani that when she brings all her junk down here for the viewing party later she needs to remember to clean up the damned popcorn this time." Smiling, the Subtlety Instructor nodded before blinking out of the room. The Combat Instructor gave the now blank monitor one last look before he left.

"In four years, those two are going to be Legends."

Chapter 15

Chapter 15:
Seek, Subdue, Survive

 

"Welcome to your first real test of the year kids!" The thirty five assembled HCP freshmen responded to the cheerful sadism in James Rachd's tone with a blank look that they had all received a great deal of practice with over the semester. Rachd grinned widely at the lack of grumbling or any other signs of distraction from his class. The kids were learning their lessons well. His smile dropped away quickly as a thirty sixth form entered the observation room and made its way to the back of the group of students.

"Todd, what the fuck do you think you're doing here?" the bandaged form that had just entered the room flinched slightly at being called out, but did not immediately respond as the sea of black uniformed forms parted and several of her classmates began to voice their own amazement at her arrival.

It took a few attempts at speaking before Rachd bellowed for the rest of the students to be silent and Iris's quiet voice could be heard in the room. She barely managed to get above a whisper in volume, and her voice sounded raspy and dry as she spoke. "I'm here for the test Coach Rachd."

"You are medically excused from this exam as a result of that incredibly fucking stupid challenge match you were involved in yesterday." the bandaged speedster didn't attempt to respond again as the Coach continued, "Less than twenty four hours ago you were almost burned to death because your boyfriend couldn't handle getting his ass kicked by a girl, and because YOU were too stupid to just win the match instead of taunting the asshole. The Doc tells me you've got at least another day of sessions with healers to recover from the kind of internal damage you took, so I will ask you again, What the fuck do you think you're doing here?"

"I signed up to train to be a Hero Coach. Heroes don't get time off because they aren't at their best. I'm here, I can still move, and I'm still faster than anyone else in this class. After the test I'll go back to the infirmary." The last of the girl's statement came out just as a harried looking Dr Saxena arrived through in the observation lounge, having apparently followed the speedster as fast as he could when she fled his care.

"Young lady you do not need to prove anything right now. You have suffici-..." the Doctor was cut off by a loud question from the front of the room, though not the voice any of the students expected to be asking it.

"Can she make it through the test Doctor?" Elena Martinez had arrived with her usual abruptness and posed the question calmly, but loud enough to carry over the crowded room. "Is her condition stable enough that she can make it through without dying in there?" Iris showed no reaction to her Coach's implication that she might be risking her life.

"She's not in that bad a shape anymore Professor Martinez, but she will hardly be performing to anything near her full capabilities."

"Then if she wants to do it, she gets to do it." It was a very different tone of voice with which James Rachd re-entered the conversation. "Her scores were good enough prior to this that she could afford to miss it without getting cut. Doesn't matter how bad of shape she's in, if she's not gonna die in my test, then she's going to get a better score out of it than she would lying in the infirmary." Raj Saxena held eye contact with the muscular coach for a long moment before nodding slightly and moving to occupy one of the observation consoles in the room.

"All right then! Now that our little class drama is out of the way, I would like to introduce all of you to your HCP midterm exam!" the giant monitor behind the coach came on and many of the students blinked in surprise as they seemed to be looking at a small abandoned office building of some kind, apparently somewhere not near Overton as the vegetation was entirely wrong for the area and judging by the light it was late evening instead of early morning wherever they were seeing. "Some of you appear to be a bit confused by our chosen venue, so I'll allow Elena to explain that part before we get into the particulars of the exam."

The hispanic woman made her way to the large monitor control and made a few adjustments. The picture panned around quite a bit and the students were able to see that the sky appeared somehow off in the image and the street layout as well didn't seem quite right. "What you are looking at is not, in fact, an abandoned block in some small city somewhere in the country, but this is Overton HCP's SR - 1A, the simulation room where the freshman class takes its midterm and final examination. The building and its immediate surroundings are the locale of the midterm examination, the chamber itself is approximately four square miles of terrain," Elena paused and smiled as the announcement was met with several gasps of disbelief. "All the buildings have been carefully constructed and aged to mimic exactly what they are representing, a run-down urban area of the kind that you might expect to encounter real combat in should you successfully graduate from this program."

"Now that the simple bit's out of the way, here's how this test goes kids, so LISTEN UP!" The bald muscular man was definitely enjoying himself as the students' attention was jerked back and forth while their credulity was taxed trying to understand how such a massive simulated environment could exist underground. "We are going to test you all by playing a simple game that we at Overton like to call Seek, Subdue, Survive. There are three objective items concealed inside that building you see on the monitor, to make things easy for you they are all in the shape of shiny metal briefcases. That is what you are seeking. If you manage to collect one of those objectives and make it back to your entry point, you automatically pass the freshman midterm with a sufficient grade to keep you in the HCP." There was a great deal of excitement at that announcement. Nearly a dozen students in the class had received a not-so gentle reminder from the Coach within the past week that their performance between their physical training and assessments in the Ethics class currently had them below the cutoff line they needed to rise above in order to return for the second semester.

"The second bit is Subdue, and that's what you are all fully encouraged to do in there. There will be a pack of wrist restraints waiting for each of you at your assigned entry points into the simulation room. Successfully restraining any of your classmates with those restraints, or in any other way you can manage, will eliminate that person from continuing in the exam. For those of you that do not manage to successfully Seek, this will be a very large portion of your grade on this exam." There was some more shuffling among the students at this point, and several tentatively raised their hands but were dismissed with a wave from Rachd as he continued. "And no, simply cuffing an active student who can break out of the restraints in any number of ways is meaningless. You have to keep your target restrained for a full ten seconds, or render them unconscious, in order to eliminate them." The room settled a bit, with the two teleporters in the class wearing almost comic expressions of depression.

"The final piece of the game is Survive. The longer you last, the higher your score. You have to remain within one block of the objective building for your survival time to add to your score for this test, but believe me when I say that the last students standing generally score just as high as the powerhouses taking out the highest number of students and the lucky ones that manage to sneak off with an objective." Silence in the room now as each individual began to plan how they would approach the exam to best fit their abilities.

"And finally, as an added bonus for your examinations, the building and the area immediately surrounding it will be significantly booby trapped," this statement immediately affixed all attention in the room back to the smaller female coach as she continued the explanation. "None of these traps are particularly dangerous, however some of them might even cause our stronger students to struggle to free themselves in less than ten seconds, and others are simply meant to inconvenience anyone that stumbles into them with chemical sprays or brief sonic blasts to disorient you and alert your fellow students as to your current location." Elena smiled as several of the students realized the significance of her emphasis on the ten seconds to free oneself. "And yes, if you find yourself disabled by one of our traps for more than ten seconds, you will be eliminated the same as if another student had restrained you. Does anyone have any questions before you are assigned your entry points and we get this exam underway?" There was a long pause filled with some quiet murmurs from a few students before a male voice near the back rose loud enough to be heard clearly.

"All the plants around the building, are those real?" both coaches wore slightly surprised expressions at the question posed by a heavy set brown haired man near the back of the room. It was Coach Rachd who collected himself first to answer.

"Tannen right?" at a nod from the boy the Coach's expression shifted to one of comprehension as he continued. "Everything in any of the simulation rooms is as real as it can be. All the plants are the real thing." At the mention of the man's name Coach Martinez also seemed to understand the point of the odd question and offered a nod and small smile to the young man.

Nearly every student remaining still held a look of confusion at the strange question and answer session. The two who did not were a thin blond man who was smiling and shaking his head, and Sean Tannen who had asked the question, who took in the confused expressions around him and began to laugh deeply.

It took a few minutes and two prompts from Coach Rachd before Sean managed to get himself composed once again, and the field of students offered no further questions when pressed again by their two coaches.

"Alright then," the monitor behind Coach Rachd switched over to display a list of names and numbers identifying all the students in the room. "Everyone get your number and report to your assigned entry point. The test will last for a period of four hours or until there is only one student left standing. We start in five minutes."

 

...

 

It was a truly bizarre experience to step into a brightly lit sterile metal elevator and find oneself deposited in the middle of a poorly maintained piece of parkland at dusk. Liam Mathews took in his surroundings quickly as he shifted into his small reptilian form and decided he had sufficient cover to wait things out for a bit. Not knowing how closely the students would be emerging from their entry points into the testing room meant that even with his altered form's ability to fly, dashing ahead this early in the game might reveal himself to one of those with sufficient ranged capabilities to eliminate him before the contest had really started.

Wishing that his tiny draconic form had enhanced senses of hearing or vision instead of simply smell, Liam closed his eyes and focused on that one sense as his most likely to determine if he was alone in the small wooded area. He was quickly glad that he had opted NOT to burst immediately from his cover as he quickly identified five other students nearby. Three were generic enough that Liam couldn't identify them by scent alone, but one was a powerful beastial odor that informed him that one of the highest ranked women in the class, the powerful ursine shifter, was very nearby, and a strange scent that he was only familiar with as he had encountered the man in his initial combat trials told him that the recently number six ranked Samoan was also present.

The transformed British youth remained as still as he could manage and focused all of his attention on his surroundings by scent and sound. There was little discernible movement, he apparently was not the only one that had decided to take the lay of the land before moving on towards the objective. Liam found himself calculating whether he could get high enough fast enough to avoid Rorie's explosive projectiles, and hoping that none of the unidentified students would have the ability to attack or pursue him effectively. He was one of several students that was riding dangerously close to the cutoff line, and he knew that he needed an impressive performance in this test if he wanted to return to Overton for his second semester.

As he decided that it was worth taking the chance, Liam rose to flex his wings only to find that his feet had somehow become snared in the vegetation at his feet. From somewhere near to his right came a sound like tearing wood and a guttural roar indicating he was not the only one to suddenly find himself snared in the local plant life. As if the sound had been some sort of signal the entire park seemed to burst into motion all at once, yells coming from all directions as trees leaned down to engulf those near them with branches become suddenly alive and animated. Liam slashed at the encircling plants with his small claws and tried to burn a path around him with the incredibly intense beam of energy his breath could create on command. For a moment he seemed to have pulled free and leapt to the air in triumph, only to find some sort of vine had managed to ensnare his wings as he fell back to the ground to be overwhelmed by the freakishly violent plant life. Son of a bitch. That's why the heavy kid wanted to know if the plants were real... Liam felt his line of thought derail quickly as a more important realization materialized in his mind. This was probably not the level of performance he had needed to make the cut.

To his side came the continued sounds of struggle and screams of anger from the ursine shifter. Liam managed to pull himself around far enough to view the mighty woman's attempts to free herself, and was somewhat shocked to see the amount of damage she had done both to her surroundings and apparently to herself in an attempt to get free. It was all for naught however, as eventually even the powerful and high ranking Marilyn succumbed to the weight of plants pulling her to the ground. As she was fully restrained Liam found himself shocked to see her revert to her human form in what appeared to be a last attempt to pull free of the vegetation as her size changed and she attempted to leap away from the plants, only to be caught once again and firmly held to the ground. The draconic shifter found himself surprised again as the black haired woman broke down into wracking sobs and began to wail as if in agony. Liam couldn't understand why the high ranked girl was so devastated by the loss, he couldn't imagine that she'd been riding anywhere near the cutoff line that he himself had probably just fallen under. The young man felt a great deal of relief as Coach Martinez appeared and began swiftly removing the restrained students from the testing room.

Liam was the last to be retrieved from the mass of animate plants to be deposited in front of the men's locker room to clean himself up. He found himself dragging his feet quite a bit as he made his way into one of the shower stall and stood under the cascading water, still fully dressed. The image of the powerful woman's breakdown was a haunting one for him to carry, and he almost found himself looking forward to the expected mental cleansing that would come for him as he was removed from this year's HCP. As he slowly stripped out of his now soaked uniform, he began to consider if he truly had what it took to return to try again the following year.

 

...

 

Eloise James smiled to herself as she ghosted through the abandoned office building. Judging from the layout it had likely been modeled after a moderately sized city government building. She had passed through what appeared to be courtrooms, a small lockup facility adjoining to them, several offices of radically different sizes, and a veritable maze of interconnecting halls. Eloise had also passed through several of what she assumed were the traps mentioned by Coach Martinez during the class's briefing before the test had commenced. The short white haired girl hadn't even paused in passing through the devices. She was completely invisible to the normal spectrum of light and nearly intangible to anything material in her current state. The combination of her two abilities left her almost unable to perceive her surroundings, save for truly solid objects, which created the odd sensation as she moved through the building that it was completely barren of all furnishing or decoration.

With the speeds the insubstantial girl could propel herself to and her gamble that the traps would not be triggered by her ghostly passage she had made it into the courthouse well ahead of any of the other students, and was working on what she considered to be the perfect extra credit project. Her relatively vast arsenal of weapons had been almost completely disallowed in the freshman level training so far, which left Eloise ranked far lower than the girl believed she deserved. Armed with only a tactical baton and a stun gun she found herself frequently overwhelmed by her classmates whose abilities were better suited for direct conflict. Coming into the exam she knew she was close to not being able to continue in the HCP. She smiled to herself as she made her way quickly towards the entrance she had used to gain access to the building, looking down at the three briefcases she carried with her. If one is a guaranteed passing grade, I wonder what bringing all three in will do for me. But almost as if summoned by her thought, the invisible girl suddenly found her path out blocked.

Before Eloise stood the only person in the class that could both somehow see her while she was in her present state, as well as standing out like a beacon even against the shroud that seemed to engulf the world as the white haired girl made herself less substantial. The recently risen class champion, Erin Casse, stood blocking Eloise's path from the building and to her continuing in the program.

The two women faced off uncertainly for a long moment, both not quite sure how to proceed in the strange testing scenario they found themselves in. It was Eloise who quietly spoke first.

"How did you get past all the traps so quickly?"

Erin grinned and tapped next to her right eye with one hand. "Extremely wide spectrum vision. It's easy to see the parts that don't belong. As easy for me as seeing invisible people. You?"

"I don't reflect enough of anything for motion sensors to pick me up like this and I'm too light for almost any kind of displacement trigger."

"Are you trying to take all three objectives in one go?"

Eloise smiled back at the powerful woman in front of her. "I figured I could use the extra credit. Instead, I think I have another use for it." With a quick motion Eloise separated one of the three cases from the strap she used to carry them and tossed it to the other girl before ducking quickly into a side passage and moving as quickly as she could. One extra objective for extra credit would be enough for her needs, and she doubted that Erin would bother pursuing her with an objective in her lap and no need to pad her score. The lack of rapid footfalls behind her proved her assessment accurate. Now she just needed to find an alternate exit, and she was home free.

 

...

 

Beulah found herself staring in shock from her vantage point, having just witnessed some of the most powerful students in the class vanquished in minutes by animated plant life. She found her shock deepening as she watched the last ranked student in the class emerge from the now devastated park area and head calmly towards the building that was the class's objective. And that has to be the best incentive in the world to never underestimate ANYONE that makes it into the HCP.

Even having just witnessed the complete defeat of five other students by the heavy set brown haired man's impressive ability, Beulah found herself smiling at the opportunity presented. She realized that ten minutes ago she wouldn't have considered bothering taking on the last place student, as she doubted it would have much of an impact on her grade. Now that he'd taken out two of the top ten students, as well as three others all ranked significantly higher than he, she assumed that likely his rank would be less relevant if she could disable him. Also she assumed that it would be difficult to ensnare her with animated plant life if there wasn't any around.

A course of action decided upon the dark haired middle eastern girl took a few steadying breaths before popping out of existence. Her leap had been perfectly on target as she appeared directly behind the brown haired youth, almost close enough to touch. Before he could react she wrapped her arms quickly around him and both vanished, only to appear just shy of the massive room's ceiling to begin plummeting back towards the ground. Sean found himself screaming in shock as the girl holding him simply smiled and waited for him to run out of breath.

"This is the part where you surrender and let me put these cuffs on you," the girl blinked from behind the falling man to appear in front of him, yelling to be heard over the rushing of air. Not feeling like leaving anything to chance she reach forward to grab him once again and reset their fall, smiling at the look on his face as he realized her plan.

"You can't let me hit the ground, that would get you disqualified at this height!"

"I can't let you fall all the way to the ground, but I can drop you from pretty high up that you'd definitely survive the fall from. I simply am offering you a less painful alternative."

The look of consideration that flashed across Sean's features didn't last long. As their fall was fully reset for the second time he held his hands out with the wrists together. "After taking out five in less than five minutes, I figure that's got to be enough to pass."

Beulah smiled in response and tightened the zip cuff around the young man's wrists before teleporting them smoothly to the ground just outside the area designated for the test. She waited until Coach Martinez materialized, then blinked away again. Sean met the Coach's questioning look with a shrug.

"I was going to lose that one anyways, might as well not get both my legs broken for pride while I'm at it."

"And if your earlier performance wasn't enough, what then?"

"Then at least I failed after genuinely getting a chance to show the HCP what Sean Tannen was capable of."

 

...

 

The corridor suddenly erupted with an extremely odd *FWOOSH* noise and a pair of startled cries as a massive wave of foam engulfed two battling students in the narrow hallway. Ty Rodins smiled at his handiwork as he quickly moved away from the scene of his latest ambush.

There were far fewer students left in the simulation room as had originally entered, of this Ty was absolutely certain. The large black youth had found his entry point to be in the basement of a small commercial building of some kind about two blocks away from the objective building. The heavy set man had quickly discarded the idea of trying to locate one of the three major objectives himself as a way to get eliminated far too quickly. He was currently riding below the cut off line for the class, and he needed an impressive performance in order to make it into his second semester with the Overton HCP. As tempting as obtaining a briefcase that granted an automatic pass to the next term might have been, it was also in Ty's highly analytic mind a very obvious trap.

The strongest and fastest students would make their way quickly into the building to battle for the primary objective, and Ty knew that it would take careful planning, preparation, and most likely the element of surprise in order for any of his tricks to be able to take down some of the combat specialists in his class. He had gone all out in designing new tools for himself in the past two months. The poncho-like outer garment he wore was based off the polymer outfit he had designed for Erin to wear and provided the Tech based Super with a certain level of reactive camouflage. Though no where near as effective as his girlfriend's ability, it was sufficient to allow him to approach occupied combatants in order to ambush them. The last pair made the second such group Ty had caught by surprise, bringing his total of subdued classmates to four.

A concussive blast from outside the building Ty was currently using as a hunting nest quickly drew his attention to the street on the far side. Moving carefully to the window Ty found himself a little awestruck at the matchup occurring just a few hundred feet away. Amelia was facing off against two other students that appeared to have teamed up in an effort to fell the currently second ranked powerhouse. Ty recognized Ramón immediately but the name of the well groomed blond blasting away at his roommate with some kind of force attack escaped him at the moment. It appeared to be a surprisingly even match as Ramón was fast enough to avoid Amelia's incredible power for the most part, and his ally was assisting by keeping her off balance with blasts of concussive force when it seemed she was about to close the distance.

Ty was so engrossed in the combat unfolding before him that he failed to notice the quiet approach of rapid footsteps behind him until he felt a hand on the back of his neck.

"I would really rather you just let me cuff you, but I can probably manage to break a few ribs if that will help to convince you." The raspy whisper could only be coming from the class's fastest student.

"Hi Iris. How's the burns holding up?" Ty freely offered his right hand to the girl as he spoke, not feeling the need to suffer major internal injuries in a fist fight he stood no chance of winning. Even as injured as she was Iris was so much faster than the much heavier black youth that it wouldn't have served any purpose save perhaps to assuage his ego at the loss. Ty had better plans than being beaten.

"I hurt all over if that's what you're wondering. Think you can take me?" there was the barest hint of the playful personality the tall blond girl was well known for among her classmates in her question. Ty found it was easy to picture the smile the girl would likely have been wearing had her face not still been largely concealed with bandages.

"I don't think I can beat you, but tell you what," faster than even Iris could react there was another massive *FWOOSH* that echoed through the room. The girl shrieked briefly in shock as she was fully engulfed in a surge of white foam that rapidly hardened, but seemed to not impede her breathing at all as it completely immobilized her. Ty's continued speech was hugely muffled, but he managed to pitch his voice high enough for her to understand him. "We'll call it a draw."

In spite of the embarrassment of being caught off guard by her opponent, Iris found herself laughing.

 

...

 

Amelia was not having a great time of things in the freshman midterm so far. Her first encounter had been dealt with quickly. Coming out of the building her entry point had deposited her in she had quite literally run into a moderately tall hispanic girl with long unruly brown hair. Recognizing the nearly invulnerable Alvera as her first opponent the skinny blond had struck quickly and precisely, grabbing the smaller girl and depositing her halfway through the nearest wall. It was a tactic that would have killed most of her classmates. For Alvera, it simply left her stuck in a wall that she didn't have the strength to free herself from. The trapped girl had done a marvelous job in cursing at Amelia in two different languages as the taller girl had continued on towards the objective building.

The second ranked freshman student found herself delayed multiple times by traps blocking her first attempted entrances. Not willing to risk getting disqualified by a course hazard so early and remembering well the warning Coach Martinez had provided that the trap need not actually incapacitate her, it simply had to restrain her for ten seconds.

While continuing to explore around the building for a clear path inside, Amelia was ambushed by a familiar opponent, her current boxing instructor Ramón. The tall girl had thought she'd managed to gain the upper hand in the fight and was working to corner her faster but physically weaker opponent when she had been blown off her feet by an unseen force. Amelia had managed to roll and come to her feet quickly to find herself facing off against Gerard Finne, a face she recognized from the initial combat trials at the start of the year. All three combatants paused for a moment as looks were exchanged, and with a wordless nod Amelia had found herself facing off against two cooperating opponents.

Now the powerful woman was trying to find a way to either end the conflict quickly or escape and perhaps try her luck later in a one on one matchup. Every time she forced her way through another one of the blond man's kinetic barriers there was a massive concussive blast that had to be audible throughout the entire chamber, and Amelia didn't relish the possibility that any additional newcomers might also decide to join in the battle to bring her down as the more dangerous threat. Unfortunately Ramón's speed made a simple escape impossible, and while she was quite certain she could have handled the muscular Mexican alone, the well groomed blond was able to throw her more than enough off balance that she couldn't pin down her much more maneuverable enemy. The battle looked more and more like it would be an endurance contest, and while that alone might have shifted the advantage eventually in favor of the female fighter, the possibility of others joining in made such a proposition not sit well.

Abruptly over the din of their own combat the near wall of the building directly behind Gerard bowed outwards with an extremely odd *FWOOSH* noise and bits of foam came flying through the long broken windows. Gerard spun to see what was happening behind him, and Ramón looked away from Amelia just long enough for her to get a head start.

The skinny blond girl catapulted towards Gerard, braid whipping behind her as she barely touched the ground with the force she hurled herself forward with kept her mostly airborne. She saw the startled man turn back towards her and bring his hands up in a familiar gesture, and dropped to dig her feet into the pavement to apparently brace for the incoming attack as she had been doing. Instead of holding her position this time though Amelia used her strength to completely reverse her direction. Turning and diving back in a maneuver that would likely have broken both legs and possibly the spine of a normal human attempting it, she smiled widely as she saw that she had caught Ramón completely off guard with her direction change. In spite of his heightened speed and reaction time the man simply didn't have time to completely evade the human bullet that was suddenly hurtling towards him. Amelia only managed to catch his right arm as she flew past his attempted dodge, but with her grip it was more than enough and the taller man came flying along for the remainder of her trajectory with a startled yell.

As she landed she pulled the struggling man into a bear hug and fell on top of him, threading her legs around his as he attempted to find leverage to kick his way free. With enough of a squeeze that it was quite obvious she would not be dislodged Amelia began to shout.

"One! Two! Three! Four!..." Ramón's struggle intensified briefly as he realized the intent to show him subdued for ten seconds, but he gave up and relaxed at the eight count. He had been caught, and he was about to be out of the game, but at least he would go out wrapped up in a lovely woman.

Shortly after Amelia reached ten, Elena Martinez appeared with a smirk to whisk the tall Mexican away, and Amelia came to her feet to see that Gerard was in the process of fleeing the area, likely knowing he would be unable to incapacitate Amelia or keep her at bay without assistance. As she prepared to chase after him a female figure with incredibly long, dark hair appeared next to him and gave a brief wave before both vanished. The vanishing was followed by a loud grunt as Gerard reappeared alone to impact the ground right beside Amelia with significant force.

She briefly considered cuffing the dazed man, but decided against it. He was obviously out for the count and Amelia found no desire to attempt to steal points from one of her classmates.

 

...

 

Scott Jameson found himself fighting a decidedly odd battle inside the remains of a very realistically constructed gas station a couple of blocks away from the large building the test centered around. He knew his opponent, Jon, quite well, as he had thoroughly enjoyed the week he had spent working with the taller man on the Ethics group project when they had been rotated onto the same team. Both men were somewhat familiar with the others' ability, Jon creating hard light constructs, and Scott with his short ranged magnetic singularities. Jon's abilities had improved greatly over the semester, allowing him to create objects capable of withstanding a great deal more force before being destroyed than he could manage originally, though he had yet to master any real moving constructs save those he could wield directly with his own hands. Scott hadn't greatly increased his actual power so far, but his control had grown far more precise than it had been when he had started the school year.

And in that lay the problem the two men found themselves facing. Scott's magnetically controlled metal bands were proving to provide more than sufficient force to break through even Jon's greatly improved constructs, but his lack of range and the speed with which the lanky blond was able to produce more obstructions rendered the two men into an odd stalemate. Neither seemed able to mount an offense capable of truly breaching the other's defense, and both were becoming quickly tired by the unending struggle for an advantage.

Seeking a means to end the match, Scott charged recklessly forward, focusing on rapidly and powerfully manipulating the dense metal rings orbiting his body into a virtual blender of defense, hoping he could close the gap before Jon could slip something through. Once he was close enough Scott had no doubt that he'd be able to get some form of restraint onto his opponent.

Equally eager to see the fight end, Jon stood his ground and threw a creative series of obstacles into the smaller man's path, seeking some angle where he could trip up the short brown haired youth and gain that brief advantage he felt he needed to end the fight.

As Scott drew to within almost an arm's length of his taller opponent, both men were startled as they were impacted from above by a displaced ceiling panel, followed by a cheerfully screaming hispanic girl. Outstretched fingers and toes barely managed to brush into both men who suddenly went rigid from a different sort of shock. Louise Garcia landed heavily as Jon fell and Scott staggered, the smaller boy's body was naturally heavily shielded against his own magnetic forces and as a result he was somewhat more resistant to electrical shock than the average person. Since the tiny girl managed to grab his ankle before he could recover this was quickly rendered a moot point as he could only cope with so much additional current running through his body, and he collapsed as well.

Louise quickly rose to dance a bit of a jig, looking down at her two felled opponents gleefully, and completely failing to keep her distance from the not quite unconscious man she had just brought down. She received quite a shock of her own as she suddenly felt a heavy metallic weight clasp onto her leg, looking down in surprise to see that while Scott was still unmoving, one of his many metal bands had caught hold of her leg. Acting quickly Louise bent to render Scott fully unconscious before he could regain more control, only to slam face first into a flickering slab of light that appeared in her path.

The petite black haired Latina gasped as she lost her balance and fell backwards, and felt a second band snap into place around her other leg as another construct of light appeared to pin her arms to the floor.

"Let me go! Come on guys, this isn't fair! I beat you, you can't take me out like this!" both men were still unable to move properly, but they managed to exchange a smile from their downed positions as they waited for the good natured complaints to end with the arrival of Coach Martinez to whisk them away. Looking down at the three incapacitated students, the coach couldn't quite suppress a giggle as she directed the men to desist with their active restraints and quickly blinked the three out one by one to be treated for moderately severe electrocutions or simply to shower up.

Elena Martinez made a note to get a still picture of the three students incapacitating each other printed up for her own collection. It was definitely a unique moment in her time as an HCP instructor.

 

...

 

The elegant winged form wove quickly around another massive gout of fire before seeming to split into three identical beings and scatter to different corners of the rooftop. Kyle Sawara hovered silently in his previous position as he waited to see which direction his opponent would take this time. The stocky Chinese girl did not waste any time in sucking in a deep breath and unleashing a massive blast of air as she spun to attempt to take out all three illusions in one go. Kyle dropped silently towards the girl as she turned away, but again something seemed to give away his approach as his opponent dove away from his attack at the last moment and came up facing him again.

Lisa Shang was finding this battle increasingly frustrating. Fighting a flying illusionist was definitely not an easy task. She was rapidly coming to understand how Kyle had obtained the fourth rank in the freshman class and not lost his high perch in several challenges. The tenth ranked girl was beginning to grow winded, definitely not a good sign when her ability was linked almost exclusively to her control of her breath. She almost wept when the figure in front of her again faded out as the scenery around her blurred in another illusion. Not wanting to continue testing her reflexes in the open against her far more maneuverable opponent Lisa decided to take the less predictable option, and sprinted towards the edge of the roof.

Kyle thought he was going to have a heart attack when he saw his petite opponent leap off the six story building they were currently battling atop. Before he could do anything in response however he heard another massive exhalation of air and realized the girl's plan. Make your own air cushion to land on. Smart. Kyle considered chasing the girl down, with his wings it wouldn't be much of a challenge, but that was most likely what his opponent wanted. Change the venue to an area that more suited her style of combat than the wide open area that fully suited Kyle. The brief internal debate was interrupted however by the sudden presence of an invisible force clasping down on the shifted man's form and pushing him to his knees.

Looking about Kyle quickly saw the face of one Michael Karl watching him from a neighboring window with an look of intense concentration on his face. The telekinetic field holding him down must be difficult for the black haired man to maintain at this range, but he only needed it to last for a few more seconds. Thinking quickly, Kyle produced the best distraction he could think of, an image of himself breaking free from the psychic restraint and leaping into the air towards Michael's window. Sure enough, the image of his power failing him was enough to provoke the reality to follow suit, and Kyle quickly slipped off the building and out of sight before the telepath could realize his error and reassert his hold.

As Kyle glided away from the building he again considered his options. The objectives had obviously been recovered already. He had examined the entire building as thoroughly as he could without blundering straight into the traps, and there were plenty of signs of other students having been present already, and no trace of any shiny metal anything. So now it was decision time, play the game for survival, or play the game for subdual?

As the illusionist flew over another small building she noted the skinny form of Barry Jeung skulking between the buildings. With a smile on his shifted, sensuous lips, Kyle decided to go with the more entertaining of his two options, and dove.

 

...

 

"So how does our final wrap up look for the semester James?" Kathryn Jilles and the Overton HCP Instructors were gathered around a familiar conference table once again to discuss the outcome of the freshman midterm trial.

"We had those early drops for academics or just plain stupid giving up in a couple of cases. We also had Coulton's expulsion for trying to barbecue Todd during their challenge match instead of just taking his loss like a man. Jansen had a psych washout, and of the dozen students that were informed going into the test that they needed so step up and perform, a suprising number actually managed to do so. It looks like thirty students have survived the first semester at Overton this year."

"Sorry to correct you James, but it's only going to be twenty nine," there was some surprise around the table as Laurence Vree joined the converstaion. The Focus Instructor rarely had a great deal to do with the freshman class aside from his standard duty of clouding out the memories of the program from those who failed to progress in it. "Marilyn Simmons is suffering from something close to a psychotic break. In all likelihood Lane tells me she will recover from it and will be fully able to make another run at the program in the future if that turns out to be the lady's desire."

"What the hell Larry? You couldn't have brought this to me sooner?" James Rachd was a bit upset at not having been in the loop for information about one of his current favorite students suddenly being unable to continue. "And why the hell are you the one giving this report? Where's Lane?"

"To answer both your questions, I'm giving this report because Lane has just finished his evaluation of Ms Simmons." It took a moment for the expressions of comprehension going around the table to reach Rachd's face.

"So what the hell happened?"

"From what little he could determine in such a short examination and interview, Lane believes that the poor girl has been placed under a truly insane amount of pressure from her parents to become the best of the best at any cost. Her entire routine was set at a hellish intensity and when that proved insufficient for her to obtain the top position in the class, the girl started to slowly implode. Rapid elimination from the midterm examination appears to have been the bit more than she could handle, and for a brief period she broke down."

"There's a bit more that you aren't sharing with us Lane," it was Dani Reyes that spoke this time, again drawing some small surprise from the gathered instructors. "You have a look in your eye that I am familiar with. Why do you want to hurt someone Laurence?"

"I have no reason to believe a psychiatrist as experienced and skilled as Lane Bertram would be incorrect in any of his assessments, especially when factoring in his ability to read emotional state. The amount of pressure that young lady's parents have heaped upon her is most likely an attempt to make up for their own perceived shortcomings, and as a result Ms Simmons is incredibly competent but emotionally stunted and unable to see how incredibly talented she actually is since she continues to fail to live up to the impossible expectation set by her parents. Were I licensed to be a Hero in this country in an official capacity I would be sorely tempted to dig my old uniform out of storage and travel up North to correct those two with every asset at my disposal."

"So twenty nine then? Any other surprise drops or additions to the roster?" the Dean looked around to see if anyone else had any such revelations, but none seemed forthcoming. "Very good then. I believe this makes the first time in all the years I've been at Overton both as an Instructor and Dean that we have found ourselves with more than enough freshmen to fill the sophomore roster as we approach the home stretch." There were nods of agreement from around the table.

"It would seem a celebration is in order for this new milestone of Overton's HCP." Anthony Banning spoke with a wide grin, as he produced a duffle bag from beside his chair that made several distinctive clinking sounds as he placed it on the table. "I've got everyone's favorite, so let's make this a hell of a toast before we adjourn." Bottles were passed around to various looks of eagerness, amusement, and resignation on the part of the Control Instructor.

"To the best potential class Overton has had the honor of hosting in over a decade. Cheers!"

Chapter 16

Chapter 16:
Holiday Vacations, Gifts, and Conspiracies

 

Best seventy bucks I think I've ever spent. The heavily muscled black man bid farewell to the shorter athletically built middle eastern girl and turned to find his bearings. Beulah smiled and vanished with a loud cracking sound as Ben examined his surroundings and came to the conclusion that the teleporter had dropped him off near the entrance to Central Park. He chuckled to himself as he realized he had grown up in New York and this was actually his first visit to one of the city's more famous landmarks.

Considering his options as he strolled onto the sidewalk Ben decided since he'd managed to save almost a grand on travel expenses he could spring for a taxi the rest of the way home instead of making use of mass transit. Having almost half the city to traverse in holiday traffic the large man relaxed in the back of the cab and found himself in a deeper state of contemplation than he normally liked to inhabit.

The HCP was hard. Harder than Ben had ever imagined it could be. But he had made it through the first semester and had even managed to remain in the upper half of the class rankings. He was being challenged, but by all the measurements that the program used, he was passing those challenges. But for some reason it didn't feel like he was succeeding. The strength based Super pushed himself every day, and he had improved notably since arriving at Overton in late August, yet for all his improvement he felt as if he were falling behind. Physical strength was Ben's only real ability. He was more durable and endurant by far than a normal person, but it was his strength he had expected to shine through and carry him in the program.

Unlike many of the other students in his class, and contrary to the mostly laid back attitude Ben projected, he had actually studied the HCP in quite a bit of detail before deciding to apply. He hadn't expected his ability to put him in the top spot in the class, he felt he was decidedly one dimensional in his power and that was not likely to be an insurmountable obstacle for those who would be vying for that honor in this sort of competition. But Ben had expected to be physically the strongest in the class. Even after all his improvement over the semester had him deadlifting over three tons, he was barely holding the number three spot in physical strength, and his roommate was the one barely lagging behind him in that category while completely overshadowing him in nearly every other metric. The muscular youth was beginning to feel that he was no longer competing for a starting role, but that he was only along to play a backup position. Something had to change, and it had to change soon, or Ben couldn't see the point of continuing past freshman year with his mindset where it was currently. Fortunately with most of his extended family visiting for Christmas and more than half of said extended family working as active Heroes, it should be an excellent time to find some advice.

Ben Pelley was obviously not going to manage to assume the role of class Strongman in a competition with Amelia Jacobson. It was time to find something he could do to compliment his strength. He could still be great, he was just going to have to be a little more creative than he had originally planned on being.

 

...

 

Lounging on the well worn dorm couch in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, a very average looking young man ran a hand through wavy blond hair as he sighed in exasperation, flipping rapidly through channels as he did so. Let there be ANYTHING on that's not another ancient Christmas special or claymation cartoon, I'll even take a freaking GAMESHOW at this point. Aaron Sexton was glad to have the townhouse to himself over the winter break as he seemed to be one of the only students in the HCP not heading home for the holidays. Particularly with the enterprising Ms Abbot providing such inexpensive travel fare.

Fortunately, as Aaron perceived it, returning home wasn't really an option when your parents had decided to leave the country on an extended tour of Europe and hadn't deigned to invite their offspring along. The wealthy Sexton family had been shocked at Aaron's intent to enter the HCP, and even further shocked that having made that decision he would even CONSIDER attending any University save Lander, the most prestigious of all HCP Universities. Consequently, while they were still paying for every part of their son's education, any further contact was more or less null until such time as he came to his senses and found a way to transfer.

As he continued to flip through channels searching in vain for something watchable that would not require him to leave his perch to locate a suitable DVD or even retreat all the way to his room and the infinite possibilities of the internet, Aaron finally accepted that he would have to leave his comfortable position if he wanted anything to occupy his attention that would not drive him stark raving mad.

Deciding that it was late enough for an early lunch if he had to be up and mobile the young man made his way into the kitchen. This may have been a mistake as it forced him to realize that unless he wanted to make a meal out of the collection of condiments in the fridge, it was either time to track down some clothes for a run to the store, or time to order in. Seeing that the trash can was already completely full of takeout boxes, the blond youth opted for the former option and started towards his room before detouring into the shower.

It seemed that reality was conspiring to force far more activity out of him than Aaron wished to engage in during the break, but it would give him a solid nudge towards locating a present for his roommate before Barry made his return in two weeks. Originally he hadn't been planning to get either of his roommates anything, but when Matt ended up not making the cut after the midterm and Barry had presented Aaron with a very nice and VERY expensive laptop to replace the old one the blond was constantly complaining about, Aaron knew he would feel constantly guilty if he didn't reciprocate in some way. And if his parents were going to refuse any contact outside of financial, he might as well take advantage of that fact to make sure he kept one of the few friends he had made in the program on good terms.

As the tall man toweled himself dry, he found himself pausing again in front of the mirror to appreciate how much he'd changed since coming to Overton. He'd thought he was in good shape before he had arrived for his first day in the HCP, but after several months of Coach Rachd's physical training, he was starting to look like a professional athlete.

Seeking out clean clothing (and adding another item to the to-do list as he found his supply greatly diminished) Aaron idly wondered if there would be a new roommate moving in come the new semester with their townhouse's occupancy currently dropped to two. Possibly two new roommates to consider really. With a sigh he opted to take the safe route going forward. He definitely had to get something special for Barry to offset the guilt he was feeling over the expensive gift already given to him, but the newcomers could deal with gift cards and be happy. Two different cards from local stores could make a very solid single present, or two acceptable separate gifts depending on what turned out to be needed. And it could definitely work out nicely if whomever moves in ends up feeling like they owe me a favor.

Heading out the door Aaron sighed again as he moved towards his car. Christmas, that wonderful time of year when everyone guilts everyone else into doing things to make themselves feel better.

 

...

 

Tasha Johnson was beginning to wonder if going home for the holidays might have been a better plan after all. The tall girl had originally decided that the trip would largely revolve around a never ending continuation of the same argument she'd had with her family since summer, the one about her joining the HCP instead of following in her father's footsteps into a medical practice, and since it was an argument she could have whenever she felt like picking up the phone, the personal touch didn't seem needed. Her roommate had, of course, discovered that Tasha had no plans to leave town for the break, and subsequently the muscular black woman had found herself carted off to a nearby town to join the Blake family for Christmas dinner.

Since arriving in the early afternoon, Tasha had been treated to a warm reception by Catalina's large immediate family, but she couldn't shake the feeling that there was something weird going on with the smaller girl's brothers. All four of the huge men, the second oldest actually larger than even Tasha's 6'6" frame, had been caught staring at her several times only to look away in an utterly failed attempt at nonchalance each time she caught their eyes. Tasha couldn't detect any hostility in the looks she was getting, but it was definitely weirding her out quite a bit.

"You're being a silly Giantess, you know that right?" Tasha nearly fell off the chair she was currently perched on as a quiet voice invaded her head. "None of these Neanderthals is attached and I don't think any of them realized that girls existed in your size. There's going to be a brawl later to figure out who gets to ask you out if you're interested in some pre-dinner entertainment."

The second statement was apparently broadcast as it immediately resulted in four extremely large men blushing more profusely than Tasha would have thought possible, deep laughter from Catalina's father, giggles from her sister, and a rapid string of angry sounding Spanish issuing from her mother as she exited the kitchen to yell at her sons. Tasha found herself joining in the laughter helplessly as four of the other giants in the room seemed to be trying to shrink straight through the walls in order to escape their mother's wrath. Her laughter cut off when Sofia Blake turned her attention on the massive black girl occupying the old recliner.

"I'm sorry my boys are sometimes stupid. If you want one of them feel free to pick one out, if he doesn't live up to expectation you can throw him back and pick another." There was a truly devilish gleam in the strongly built older Latina's eyes as she spoke, and Tasha found herself fighting hard to keep her laughter from resurfacing. "Also if you really were interested in the brawl, the boys usually have one later in the evening after dinner every chance they get."

Tasha couldn't quite keep her giggling fully suppressed as she responded, "I appreciate the offer Ms Blake bu-..."

"Cat's friends call me Sofia dear. You are one of my Catalina's friends, yes?"

"Sorry, Sofia it is. I'm already sort of attached to someone so I'm afraid your boys will have to search elsewhere for love. The brawl does sound fascinating though."

"Dear girl, if you think it is 'love' my boys are hoping for right now I don't know how you've survived long enough to make it into college."

This statement was met with renewed laughter from Catalina and her father and sister as Tasha now joined the four boys in blushing, though not quite as deeply, as she still managed a laugh at her own expense. Maybe it hadn't been a bad idea to take her roommates offer after all. Things were still awkward, but at least now the awkward was spread around much more evenly. And whatever Sofia was cooking for dinner smelled absolutely divine.

 

...

 

Alexandra sighed happily as she fell backwards onto her wonderfully plush bed. So much nicer than the 'beds' they stick in the dorm rooms. It was so wonderful to be home and spend time with her mother and sister again. So great to get away from the grueling torture that was the HCP. Her expression soured a bit as she considered that she would be traveling back into that world in only four more days. It was definitely not a journey she was looking forward to, but it was one that was required.

Alexandra turned to look at the solitary framed picture sitting on her dresser. It was the only picture she had of her family from back when it was whole, from back before her father had decided that raising two children was more than he could handle while his wife was away 'playing' a Hero. Alexandra had been only six, her older sister Elaine seven, when the picture was taken. Her mother, Rachel, had been so happy that they had all gotten to take a vacation together. The older woman's expression in the photo was positively glowing, and there was no trace of discontent in her father's expression in the photograph either. Nothing that would indicate he was only months away from walking out on his family without ever looking back.

Even now, twelve years later, Alexandra hadn't heard from her father a single time since the day he had left. He'd sent child support checks to his wife every month like clockwork until the younger child's eighteenth birthday, then even that contact had ceased. The petite blond girl considered it somewhat ironic that in spite of all the wonderful examples and warm caring concern that her mother had raised her with, it was her father that had instilled her deepest convictions into her. He had walked out on his family, on all the promises he had made to his wife and children, and never expressed even a hint of regret anywhere it might matter. Alexandra had resolved never to be that kind of person. When Alexandra Andrews made a promise, the only thing that would stop her from fulfilling it was her own demise.

As a result, the young woman made a habit of not making casual promises or commitments she wasn't absolutely certain that she could honor. The most notable exception had been made nearly eleven years ago, as her mother had returned home with a smile doing a poor job of masking a sad expression beneath it.

"Mommy's going to be spending a lot more time with you girls from now on. I'm retired from being a Hero, so you two and Grandma won't have to worry about me anymore. I'm going to teach the new Heroes at West from now on, and we'll all get to spend lots of time together!" Elaine had been overjoyed at the news, but Alexandra had wanted to know why her mommy looked so sad.

"I'm going to miss being a Hero, sweetie, but I promised my daughters that I would take care of them, so that's what I have to do." Both girls had nodded in agreement. Keeping promises was important.

"But if you aren't a Hero any more won't more bad people get away?" Alexandra could clearly remember the entire conversation, and how her innocent question had almost broken her mother's confident facade.

"There are plenty more Heroes out there, sweetie. It will be okay."

"No, it's not fair. If mommy can't be a Hero, than I'll be a Hero for mommy when I get old enough." Elaine had giggled and pulled on her younger sister's hair, saying she would probably be too little to be a Hero, but her mother had just smiled brightly at both her children.

"You have a long time to decide something like that, Alex honey. You'd have to learn how to use your ability first and the training will be super hard."

"No, it's only fair. Mommy had to stop being a Hero to take care of us, and Elly doesn't have a power. So I'm going to be a Hero. I promise."

It was probably the most ill thought out promise the young woman had ever made in her entire life, and it had left her trapped between a program she didn't want to be in and her personal conviction to never break her word. So far, in spite of all of Coach Rachd's attempts, the program didn't stand a chance against the quiet conviction of the small blond haired girl.

"Girls, get down here for dinner!" There was another benefit to her promise that Alexandra had only recently discovered. Her mother had actually made the transition from Hero work to HCP teaching quite nicely, she had found she truly enjoyed working as an Instructor for future generations of Heroes. But Alexandra hadn't seen true joy in her mother's eyes outside of the solitary picture on her dresser until the day she had returned home from college for the winter break to inform her mother that she had made the cut to continue in the Overton HCP.

Alexandra was completely certain that her mother would never speak a word of blame against her daughter if the young woman chose to drop out of the HCP, would only comfort her and help her find something else that she could truly enjoy doing. But having seen true joy return to the older woman's eyes for the first time in twelve years, Alexandra's resolve had hardened even further. Training was terrible, Coach Rachd was a demon sent directly from the deepest pits of hell to torture those stupid enough to walk into his domain, and the casual manner in which many of the students treated their powers terrified her. But none of that mattered. If her mother had held joy in her eyes at Alexandra completing a single semester in the HCP, the young girl would make any sacrifice needed to see the look in those eyes when she walked onto the stage a graduated Hero.

 

...

 

"THEY WHAT?" There were many winces around the table as Mirror's announcement was met with a predictable response from Overton's Close Combat Instructor.

"If I say it again, can you manage a response under a hundred decibels James?" The young bearer of bad news was wishing she'd had the foresight to stand further away from the man before making the announcement the first time. Rachd glared at her, but did not respond other than to return to his seat.

"So, for James' benefit since I think everyone else heard me the first time, there's no outside applicant pool for the Overton freshman class going forward."

"Is that, can they even do that?" Hai Nguyen, the Control Instructor, was the person posing the question this time, in a much more reasonable tone than Rachd's earlier scream.

"Normally no, but someone is still playing fast and loose with a lot of the Budget Committee stuff, and the freeze on the Oversighted class receiving any outside reinforcement from previous HCP applicants was snuck through in pieces. All in the name of insuring that the school can't somehow strengthen the class with students that previously washed out of the program." Deanne sighed as she sank back into her chair. "The only reason I even found out about it is that Raines is a complete idiot." Several questioning glances prompted her to continue. "He was ranting about how Elena and James must have fixed the midterm in order to insure that enough of the freshman class made it through the cutoff to give you a potentially full sophomore roster."

"It's actually quite an intelligent means of attack." The Focus Instructor entered the conversation with an expression somewhere between admiration and murderous rage. A somewhat unique look for the normally distinguished older gentleman. "We can't monitor everything that goes through a Senate committee who's actions are all technically classified, and it's a well documented statistic that the vast majority of freshman classes don't make it through the year with enough students to fill the sophomore class. That's why the program was set up to allow previous applicants to reapply in the first place."

"And no matter how good the top students turned out to be, and even as we would be likely to fill the junior and senior classes, having the Oversight spend an entire year reporting on a sophomore class that had vacancies in it would have been a difficult thing to overcome." Elena Martinez managed to keep a level voice, but her expression also showed anger. "Tony, I think you were absolutely right in toasting the freshman class two weeks ago. The best potential we've had in over a decade might have just thwarted the best offensive thrust to date from whomever is behind all this bullshit."

"Hey, I just wanted another opportunity to get the Dean drunk; the kids just happened to be awesome enough to make a good excuse." Laid back in appearance, casual in tone, but there was an intensity in Anthony Banning's gaze that showed a great deal of thought occurring beneath the otherwise placid expression he wore. "Are we likely to lose any more in the second semester?"

"No." The Close Combat Instructor's one word answer drew the attention of everyone in the room, and a long pause followed before James seemed to clue in that he was expected to continue. "Lane made the rounds of all the students after the incident with Simmons. No one else is likely to have any kind of break down, and after the hell those kids have already gone through not one of them is even seriously considering dropping out."

"Well then, thank you Deanne for bringing this to our attention even as it turns out there seems to be nothing we need to do with it." Kathryn Jilles had been silent since the announcement, seemingly distracted by something outside of the conversation. "I think it would be a good idea to see if the Walker's can bring any more political observation to bear in D.C. in the hope that we can at least get an advance warning on whatever the next attempt to derail our program is." Nods of agreement around the table met that suggestion. "Now on to the related item of business, how do we want to proceed with the students in regard to the new developments?"

"I don't think there's anything we need to worry about with the freshman Kathryn. Since they managed to get more than twenty eight through the midterm it seems unlikely anything major will come up in regard to Oversight until the end of the term at the soonest." Deanne wasn't sure where the Overton HCP's Dean was going with her suggestion, but it seemed a likely recipe for disaster to inform the students that the forces behind the Oversight Committee were working actively against their class.

"Ah, oh my." It was Laurence Vree who responded before the Dean could. "It seems that our informing the students is unrequired. Ms Blake has apparently decided that the class has been kept in the dark long enough and has managed to call a meeting with the entirety of the remaining freshmen to discuss the subject in detail." Looks of surprise around the room deepened into genuine shock at the next voice to interject.

"We're all in the Ethics lecture hall if any of you would care to join us, but I think I have all the details straight and we're working on a plan. For the record, Raines is the only one here that seems to WANT us to fail right?"

More looks were exchanged around the table as the realization sank in that the young telepath was likely privy to every one of the closed door conferences the instructors had held throughout the year.

"Not all of them, I've mostly just been focusing on the ones about the Oversight since I figured out that Raines might have something to do with my friends being attacked to try and out them from the HCP."

Dean Jilles smiled as she stood. "Ms Blake, I believe that Mirror and myself will be joining your class discussion. If nothing else, it will be a good opportunity to remind all of our students of the things they are NOT allowed to do to Mr Raines or any of the other investigators."

As she moved towards the door, followed quickly by Deanna, the petite Dean noted that all the Overton Discipline Instructors were trailing behind as well. This was shaping up to be a truly interesting start to the Spring semester.

The Remaining Freshmen

So everyone can keep track of who was cut and who's still here til the end of freshman year!



#1 Erin Casse - 6' athletic and attractively built white female. Has shoulder length hair that she wears in several random styles and colors with her ability. Light and EM distortion abilities as a result of a Supernormal anatomy which also grants her extreme flexibility and increased muscle density

#2 Amelia Jacobson - 6'2" extremely skinny white female. Has long dirty blonde hair that she keeps in a single large braid. Extreme super strength and durability

#3 Collin Gauge - 5'11" extremely muscular white male with crew cut reddish orange hair. Shifts into a crystaline humanoid form with Super strength and extreme durability

#4 Kyle Sawara - 5'9" skinny and somewhat androgynous Japanese/American male with stringy black hair just shy of shoulder length. Shifts into 'succubus' form with illusionary abilities

#5 Gerard Finne - 6'2" athletically built white male with short carefully styled blond hair. Can generate highly mobile kinetic barriers

#6 Rorie Samuels - 6'3" heavily built Samoan male with short spiky black hair. Creates handheld orbs that can be thrown to explode on contact.

#7 Teresa Montez - 5'5" petite framed hispanic female with nearly knee length straight black hair (worn in various styles during training to prevent entanglement). Teleporter with ability to teleport touched objects/persons away from herself and accelerate them while doing so

#8 Aaron Sexton - 6' average built white male with short wavy blonde hair. Generates an aura that induces disorientation and hallucinations

#9 Lisa Shang - 5'3" stocky build Chinese/Irish female with significant body tattoos (mythical creatures) and a multi-color dyed pixie haircut. Can exhale multiple various elemental force types (fire, cold, air, etc)

#10 Ben Pelley - 6'1" muscular built black male with short curly black hair. Super strength and durability

#11 Ramón Carerra - 6'4" muscular hispanic male with messy medium length black hair. Super strength with low end super speed

#12 Susan Owens - 5'10" average build white female with medium length reddish orange hair. Shifts into a terrifying looking black skeletal marionette with freakishly unnatural movement patterns and super strength.

#13 Zach Snider - 5'8" lightly built white male with extremely short dark brown hair. Can create some form of nearly invisible force whip/flail

#14 Iris Todd - 5'11" skinny white female with shoulder length blond hair. A speedster capable of clocking an approximate six second mile.

#15 Jon Glenn - 6' skinny white male with shoulder length blonde hair. Creates various 'hard light' constructs

#16 Barry Jeung - 5'9" lanky build Korean/American male with short black hair. Can enlarge handheld objects and distort their shape while doing so. Ability causes obects to degrade rapidly with repeated use and objects revert rapidly to original size when contact is lost

#17 Tara Warren - 5'6" slightly plump white female with tightly tied back red hair. Technological Brilliance class super, chemist type specializes in 'combat drugs'

#18 Louise Garcia - 4'11" extremely petite hispanic female with short black hair. Generates electricity internally with a great degree of precision, can discharge with physical contact

#19 Michael Karl - 5'10" average white male with medium length black hair. Advanced Mind telepath + telekinetic

#20 Beulah Abbott - 5'7" athletically built middle-eastern female with very short dark brown hair. Teleporter

#21 Scott Jameson - 5'6" small framed white male with messy light brown hair. Can generate extremely powerful magnetic forces at extremely short ranges

#22 Sean Tannen - 5'11" heavy built white male with short dark brown hair. Can manipulate and rapidly grow plants

#23 Tasha Johnson - 6'6" very muscular black female with crew cut dark brown hair. Exceptional self healer that's still working on the 'healing others' part of her ability

#24 Ty Rodins - 6'1" heavy built black male with messy black dreadlocks. Technological Brilliance type super specializing in polymers and alloys

#25 Catalina Blake - 5'10" athletically built hispanic woman with medium length auburn hair. Telepath, non-telekinetic. Can 'piggyback' for aural and visual stimuli from people in a wide area around her and can project telepathically.

#26 Alexandra Andrews - 5'2" petite white female with dirty blonde hair. Can mimic powers from nearby supers for limited durations

#27 Eloise James - 5'4" average build white female with short white hair. Can make herself invisible and effectively intangible but cannot perceive her surroundings while intangible

#28 Kaori Kimura - 5'5" petite Japanese female with short blue/black hair. Healer with added ability to induce pain or fatigue by touch

#29 Antoin Montaine - 6' average build white male with short very light blonde hair. Healer.




 

So this should help the readers keep track of who is still around as well as giving me another easy reference point.

For special reader bonus points (redeemable for absolutely nothing) can you guess which one of these characters was originally intended to be a throw away character that was going to wash out of the program in the first couple weeks?

Chapter 17

Chapter 17:
New Trainings and Special Guest Stars

 

The room echoed with the gasps and panting of exhausted students as Coach Rachd's 'Welcome Back' gym class was finally called to a halt. Even most of the physically enhanced students had been handicapped in some way to insure that they were struggling to finish the sadistic four hour session long before it ended. There was a notable change in the way the gym class had gone today however; students that had dropped partway through were simply pulled to their feet and thrust back into the training. It appeared, for now at least, that failure to keep up with a single physical training session was no longer grounds for an immediate trip out of the program.

"And let that be a reminder to all of you, just because it's called a break doesn't mean you get to slack off." The coach's statement was met with the usual collection of glares from the class, but no arguments. The muscular man's smile widened as he continued, "Now that we have your reintroduction out of the way, it looks like it's finally time to explain how the second half of the year goes." This definitely drew the full attention of every one of the freshmen in the room.

"From this point on your class is splitting into two groups. Combat training and Alternative training. Now just because only one training is named 'Combat' does not mean you should get your hopes up. You will be introduced to entirely new levels of pain and exertion before this semester is over no matter where you land in this split. The real difference is going to be how much extra shit you're going to have to learn if you want to pass Alternative."

"To give a little more detail," Coach Martinez had materialized and smoothly interrupted Rachd's speech as if it were something she practiced frequently. "Combat training will be literally that. You will be honing all of your skills exclusively as they pertain to fighting. This includes your powers as well as all of your mundane abilities. Alternative training will still receive a great deal of combat-oriented instruction, but there will be a larger emphasis placed on problem solving and game theory that does not revolve entirely around how effectively you can batter a problem into submission."

"So here's the break down, top ten ranked students are on the wall to my left. MOVE!" The Close Combat Instructor added the final command when the students didn't immediately reassemble as instructed. "Bottom ten ranks, on the wall to my right." This time there was no need for any additional commands as the designated students scrambled to follow the instruction. "For anyone slow on the uptake, the top and bottom of the class make up the traditional cores for Combat," Rachd pointed to his left as he named the training, "and Alternative," pointing to the right to accompany the key word this time. "For the rest of you we have assigned you based on our assessment of your abilities."

Elena Martinez stepped in front of James Rachd as she produced a short list from one of her pockets. "Ramón Carerra, Combat. Susan Owens, Combat. Zach Snider, Combat. Iris Todd, Combat. Jon Glenn, Alternative. Barry Jeung, Combat. Tara Warren, Alternative. Louise Garcia, Combat. Michael Karl, Alternative." With that the nine students not already in a group were sorted. "Now I'm sure a few of you think that you belong in the training opposite the one you ended up in. Now is your chance to remedy that. Combat students! If you believe your skills are better suited for Alternative training, step forward."

There was absolutely no sign of surprise when Aaron Sexton and Kyle Sawara immediately stepped forward. Aaron's ability was difficult to fight against, but at the same time was definitely not a direct confrontation style ability. Kyle was an illusionist. An illusionist with some decent physical enhancements in his Shifted form, but again not the sort of ability set that lent itself well to head on conflict. There was a quiet murmur of surprise when Ben Pelley also stepped forward, but it was drowned in a completely silent shock that descended when the current number one ranked student joined him.

The coaches seemed not completely immune to the surprise either as the two exchanged a long glance before the smaller hispanic woman again resumed speaking. "Mr Sexton, why do you feel that you are more suited for Alternative training?"

"My ability disorients and distracts. It causes fatigue and hallucinations. It is not an ability that will defeat opponents directly and it is neither amazingly fast acting nor easy to control. I believe that my most realistic chances at success, in addition to my best learning opportunities, lie in the Alternative training for the remainder of this year." Elena blinked in surprise. Someone had obviously coached the wavy haired blond boy on exactly how this process worked. His answer was practically a textbook response for what the instructors looked for in a student moving from Combat to Alternative.

"Accepted then, please move over to the right. Mr Sawara, same question."

"I turn into a sex symbol that can fly and throw out a ton of very realistic illusions. I rely mostly on luck in a fight against the heaviest combat abilities. I need to learn a greater array of ways to use my ability, not just increase the depth of my skill at hitting people." Smiling, Elena waved the lanky asian youth to the Alternative side of the room.

"Mr Pelley, I'm sure you can understand why we were a little surprised to see you trying to get out of Combat training. Care to explain?"

"I'm not here to play a backup role Coach. I'm strong, but with Ames, Susan, and Collin in this class I'm like the backup for the backup Strongman. I need to learn how to do more than just walk forward and hit things, because we've already got enough depth at that position in this class."

"That is a surprisingly well thought out answer. Have you considered that even if you aren't the strongest you could still excel in Combat training?"

"I didn't join the HCP because I wanted something easy. And making it through the first year because I was strong enough to not get bumped off isn't what I'm looking for either."

"Very well Mr Pelley, you're accepted for Alternative training."

"CASSE! Why the fuck are you stepping away from that wall?" Coach Rachd had apparently decided to take over the process for questioning the current top ranked freshman.

"I'm a low level physical Super with the ability to significantly distort light and to see in a wider spectrum at once than almost any piece of high end scientific equipment in the world. It was skill, not ability, that put me in the top position for the present. I am likely the only student in this class that has extensive experience facing other persons with abilities prior to arriving at Overton. I've spent the past fourteen years receiving some of the best combat tutelage in the world, the sort that no amount of money can buy. I already know Combat, I need to know more than that if I'm going to continue in this program once my classmates have had the opportunity to narrow the gap that exists between us in terms of skill and experience." Erin's response left both coaches silent for a time as they appeared to be giving the matter deep consideration. Finally Coach Rachd jerked his thumb to indicate the wall to his right, and Erin moved to join the rest of the Alternative training group.

As the two coaches surveyed the current state of the class the Latina coach found herself unable to contain a grin directed at her muscular counterpart. It was extremely uncommon for Alternative training to find itself with notably more students than Combat in her experience in the HCP. From Rachd's sour expression, he seemed to have noted the discrepancy with a predictably opposing reaction.

"All right, now the fun part! Alternatives, do any of you think you should have ended up in Combat training? Think carefully before stepping forward, you're going to have more than just a question if you want to cross over to the other side of the room."

With no hesitation Scott Jameson stepped forward. A moment later he was joined by Alexandra Andrews. Erin's defection from Combat to Alternative had shocked the class silent. Seeing the petite Alexandra, a girl that made no secret of her dislike for Coach Rachd's training, seeking a transfer into Combat training sparked a wild chorus of startled conversation. Rachd quickly bellowed the students back into silence.

"All right Mr Jameson, Ms Andrews. This is pretty simple. Call out someone in the Combat training right now, and you will have a match immediately. If you win, you can join your opponent in Combat training. If you lose your grade in the program will suffer a bit and you will be stuck with Alternative training." Elena examined the expressions of both students intently, looking for signs of hesitance and seeing none. "Mr Jameson, who would you like to challenge?"

Scott's gaze slid slowly along the line of assembled Combat students as he carefully considered his response. Only one shot to move into the Combat course. "I challenge Barry."

"Mr Jeung, Mr Jameson, please move to combat room 1A and resolve your match exactly as a ranking challenge." Both students quickly moved towards the exit, the challenged Barry shooting a glare at the shorter man as they exited the room.

"Ms Andrews, who would you like to challenge?"

Alexandra Andrews looked up and down the line of Combat students before dropping her gaze to the floor. "I feel bad challenging someone like this. Like it's saying I think that the one person I call out is worse than I am."

"Do you want to withdraw your intent to switch trainings?"

"No Coach, um... You pick. Anyone except Amelia." The room was literally silent enough to have heard a pin drop in the wake of the petite blonde's statement.

"You... All right. It's unusual but I can't think of anything that prevents it. Mr Gauge, please accompany Ms Andrews to combat room 1B and resolve your match exactly like a ranking challenge." Collin shrugged and moved off towards the designated room with Alexandra trailing behind.

Several of the students that had been fighting to hold in laughter slipped a bit and a few muffled chuckles and giggles could be heard in the room.

"Finne, Shang, Samuels, Karl, and Sexton, you all owe me one hundred push ups. NOW!" The five students called out quickly stifled their remaining laughter, and the imposed penalty for slipping was more than sufficient to allow a few others to completely fight down the same urge.

"It seems some of you think you should be laughing at Andrews for thinking she could take anyone on the Combat side of the class. What you should be doing is waiting to console Gauge when he gets back after having his ass handed to him by the second smallest person in the class." The only sounds in the room now were the rhythmic grunts from the five students quietly counting through their sets of push ups. "Andrews can mimic any student in this class, and probably any student in the upper classes as well, or any of the Instructors. She was assigned to Alternative because we thought it would be a better fit for her personality, not because she can't fight." Rachd's expression broke into a truly evil grin as he continued. "If that girl has finally decided she wants to step up, she'll be in the top five ranks in less than a month."

 

...

 

The tiny hispanic girl was practically skipping as she made her way to the HCP elevators for the second day of the Spring term. She had made it through the first semester, she had been selected for Combat training, AND she had managed a 3.8 GPA in her normal classes so far at Overton. Of course Louise expected her regular course work to get harder at some point when she finally settled on a major, but that was a problem to worry about next year.

As she approached the Ethics lecture hall Louise noted that there seemed to be significantly more pre-class chatter than normal. Entering the class the petite girl discovered the most likely reason why. It seemed that the class had a guest of some sort today; a tall woman wearing very stylized biker leathers stood behind and to the right of the lectern already occupied by Dean Jilles.

Louise found herself slowing as she approached her usual seat to examine the mystery woman in more detail. Tall, brown and red leathers, patches, and all those scars... Oh My God, oh my god, ohmygodomigod... The suddenly excited Latina barely managed to settle into her seat as her mind clicked through to the only person she could think of that fit the woman's description AND might have reason to be present at an HCP course. Oh my god and I was the president of the Southwest fan club for almost all of high school. Oh god what if she already recognizes me from the pictures on the website...

Fortunately Louise's frantic train of thought was derailed by the voice of Dean Jilles as the class began. "As everyone has no doubt noticed, the Overton HCP is hosting a special guest, and one not at all like our other 'special' guests this time." There were some smiles and a few chuckles at the emphasis the Dean put on the second 'special.' "For those of you who haven't already recognized our high profile guest lecturer, I would like to introduce all of you to the Hero, Lady Mayhem."

"Technically it's just Mayhem. Everyone wants to add a 'Lady' or some bullshit to differentiate between me and dad. But since he's retired these days, I would prefer the name without any titles or identifiers attached." The sharper students in the class noted that while it had been the Dean who mistakenly added the extra title to the Hero's name, her speech was addressed to the class in front of her.

Louise was simply trying to not hyperventilate as she attempted to work out how to ask one of her idols for an autograph. Preferably without disrupting the class or coming across as some kind of lunatic. Step one, calm the fuck down girl. Breathe the normal way.

"Judging from a glance around the room, I have a few fans in here. If you want something signed or have a question that's not about whatever we end up discussing, just bring it up at the end of the class." Well that was one concern covered for the petite hispanic girl. Now to move onto the important work of making sure she remembered how to breathe properly before she passed out.

"I'll be here for the whole week, and we'll be talking about what it means to really be a Hero out in the world." The scarred visage turned as the woman made eye contact with each student in the room in turn. "For the record, I'm not going to have any advice on how to 'build your Heroic brand,' or spinning shit for the media. There are Heroes that are into that, and they can have that whole fucking piece of our world. I'm out there to stop people that ordinary law enforcement can't stop and to save lives that mundane means can't save. I don't give a damn about the glory or the credit, and I truly could not give any fewer fucks than I currently do as to what the media thinks of me." A sardonic smile crossed the Hero's face as she continued. "And that is why I am standing in a classroom right now. The Department of Variant Human Affairs has decided that I need a mandatory break and some grounding before I can get my ass back into the field. Essentially I've got some community service hours assigned because I was a bitch." There were a few uneasy chuckles from the room as some students tried to determine if the woman behind the lectern was joking or not. Louise sat at the edge of her seat and stared in rapt fascination, hanging on every word.

"So before we dive into the lecture I made up on my way down here today, does anyone have any questions?"

There was a long pause before a single hand went up. "Christ you're a big girl. What's your question?"

Tasha Johnson opted not to stand as she was called on, figuring she was more than visible enough in her seated position. "Why do you have all the scars?"

"Wow, you really fuck with the stereotypes don't you? You're a healer?" Tasha looked surprised but nodded in response. "It's always the healers that ask about the scars. It's pretty simple really, I get hurt doing what I do, and I do not always have time to track down one of the uber healers that can fix me up without leaving scars. It's been a while since the last time I had a chance to get a cosmetic healer, so I look like this. You volunteering to fix me up?"

The muscular black woman considered the question before shaking her head. "I can heal most injuries without leaving much of a scar, but I don't think I could fix scar tissue that's already healed."

"Well the thought is appreciated, though to be honest I believe that Overton HCP's head doctor has offered to get me looking like my driver's license photo again. Any other questions before we start?" Another hand went up in response, prompting the Hero on the stage to turn to the seated Dean behind her. "What the hell are you people feeding the girls here?" Without waiting for a response from the now smiling Dean, Mayhem pointed at the raised hand "Tall and skinny, what's your question?"

"What's your ability that leaves you where you have to get hurt like that all the time?" Amelia's question seemed to be another one the scarred woman was very familiar with.

"And let me guess again, physical enhancement with a lot of extra durability?" Amelia nodded in response, though without the surprise Tasha had shown when the lecturer had guessed her ability. "It's funny how it's always the same type of Super that asks me the same questions whenever I have to do shit like this.

"The answer to your question is two parts. I'm classed as a controller or manipulator type. There's a lot of scientific shit used to describe what exactly I control and manipulate, but I prefer to simplify it to motion. Pretty neat power right?" There were nods around the room in response to the question, although a few students held expressions indicating they didn't quite understand what Mayhem's ability actually was. "A little better explanation to the slow kids I'm seeing out there," glares replaced some of the confused expressions at that, "I can accelerate or decelerate objects or myself and make things easier or harder to move. The thing is, right now I have just about enough power to fake it as a moderate super physique type, or maybe knock some shit off your desks." Small items rolled off of random desks around the class room. Most were caught by attentive students, but there was some cursing as the less perceptive had to scramble to recover items. "The reason I get so messed up all the time is because that's how I get a boost. It's inherited in all three generations of my family to carry the same Hero name. All our powers have been different, but they all get the same boost. The closer we are to death, the more powerful our abilities become." There was a pause as this bit of data was allowed to sink in. "Makes me a real bitch to take on, because you've basically got to take me out in one shot, because that which does not kill me will make me a truly terrifying and vengeful force of nature." The Hero examined the once more silent room before continuing again. "Anyone else have a question before we start the lecture?" No hands went up this time.

"Okay then, jumping into my first guest lecture in awhile." Another pause while the tall woman looked around at the assembled students. "You are all fucking idiots for trying out for a job where you will be expected to go out every single day and face some of the most horrific manners of death imaginable." The class as a whole sat stupefied at Mayhem's opening statement. "Dean Jilles here is a fucking idiot AND a heartless sociopath. The former because she went out and did the job that all of you think you want for a period of seventeen years, and the latter because she is now in the HCP training impressionable young people to venture forth into that same hell." There were uncertain expressions around the room as the freshmen attempted to determine if this was some sort of joke or a real lecture. Notable in not sharing any visible uncertainty were Kathryn Jilles and Catalina Blake. The Dean held a perfectly calm and serene expression, seemingly unperturbed by the speech. The much younger telepath seemed on the verge of bursting into hysterical laughter.

"And last of all in this room I am the biggest fucking idiot of all, and COMPLETELY insane. Because I have gone out and done this hellish job that all of you are here to train for, and I am counting each and every damned hour until I can get out of this place and get back to work." There was another pause as the scarred woman reached beneath the lectern to produce a small stack of papers. "Now that we have a proper premise set down to build from, let's go through some examples of how well classroom ethics will work when you're staring down a psychopath that can flay you to the fucking bone by looking at you hard."

 

...

 

Tara Warren rechecked her collection of vials, syringes, and canisters for the fifth time as she stood alongside fourteen other students in the HCP fitness center. A few of the others were demonstrating nerves similar to the level being experienced by the bespectacled redhead, but most of the students present seemed far more eager than anxious to be here. Fortunately the long wait finally ended as Elena Martinez materialized at the exact indicated start time for the Gym period.

"Welcome to your first Alternative training class." The coach wore a small smile as she examined her students. "In this course you are going to learn a lot of things about yourself and your ability. You are going to learn that the direct approach is frequently not the best approach. You are going to learn that there are more ways to neutralize a threat than you would imagine possible right now. And you are going to learn that your powers are capable of accomplishing a far greater variety of end results than you currently believe." The smile widened. "You are also all going to be put through a training regimen every bit as taxing as the Combat students are going through. With that in mind you have the next twenty two minutes to complete a four mile run. Anyone that does not complete their run will continue running for the entire duration of the following exercise. Begin." Fortunately after an entire semester of HCP physical fitness training with both coaches, none of the freshmen hesitated to begin the assigned run.

Twenty one minutes and eighteen seconds later the last of the fifteen students had regrouped in front of Coach Martinez. Tara was pleased that she had come in almost thirty seconds ahead of the last finisher. The hispanic coach gave the group until the full allotted time had expired as an opportunity to catch their breath before she began speaking again.

"Who here can tell me what my ability is?" There was hesitation among most of the group as the students saw such an easy question as a likely trap. Two hands shot up right away however. "Who here that is NOT telepathic can tell me what my ability is?" Catalina and Michael reluctantly lowered their hands. Seeing continued hesitance around her, Tara finally decided to raise her own hand.

"Ms Warren?"

"You can teleport and something else. Either some kind of telepresence so you can observe things at a distance before teleporting there, or some variation on invisibility." The coach's expression held a pleasantly surprised look as Tara finished her answer.

"Actually Ms Warren it isn't 'or.' Both additional abilities you surmised are correct. I am primarily a teleporter, however the way my power works allows me to view the area I am transiting into prior to arriving. Additionally while exiting a teleport I can remain relatively insubstantial and invisible for a couple of minutes with sufficient focus." All the remaining students save for Erin and the two telepaths looked surprised at the confirmation of the instructor's additional abilities. "At a glance it would be easy to come to the conclusion that my ability set does not translate well into combat scenarios." There were nods of agreement from most of the students at that. "Which is why it is now time to disabuse you all of that idiotic notion. Please spread out. In thirty seconds, I am going to take on all of you at once. If there's any remaining doubt, I'm sure James will let me repeat the demonstration with his students as well."

Tara found herself staring blankly at the coach, along with eleven other students, not quite comprehending what the smiling Latina had just said. The top ranked combat student immediately moved away from the group and began stripping her outer uniform as she became nearly invisible. The two telepaths assumed ready stances without hesitation.

By the end of the combat, almost three full minutes later, Tara was quite thankful that Coach Martinez had given her students a solid thirty seconds to prepare for the fight. If she had simply initiated combat without the long delay things might have ended embarrassingly fast for the fifteen students.

 

...

 

James Rachd had to give the three remaining students credit. Some of the kids this year can really take a hit. The tall muscular man grinned as the two shifters and the skinny blond girl pulled themselves up to come at the coach again. Owens can take a hit almost as well as Gauge can, but she's about at her limit. Easily sidestepping Amelia's reckless charge, Rachd made a similar dash at the skeletal marionette that was currently the twelfth ranked student in the freshman class. His first punch was mostly deflected by a flailing limb, but the four follow ups hammered the grinning skull-like face into the wall with sufficient force that the transformed girl finally lost consciousness. Without bothering to look the bald coach threw a spinning backhand that perfectly intercepted his only human appearing opponent and sent her tumbling across the floor. The force with which Amelia landed and rolled tore large chunks from the reinforced room as Collin Gauge attempted to use the momentary distraction to land a hit of his own.

The crystalline shifter partially succeeded. Rachd rolled mostly out of the way of the incoming fist but Collin managed to clip the side of his head just enough to knock the Coach slightly off balance. Then the extended arm was caught in a grip notably more powerful than his own and he was pulled forward into a powerful stomp that almost completely removed his right leg.

Facing off against his final opponent in the Combat training class the older bald man finally met the braided girl's charge head on. Rachd's speed and experience allowed him to easily duck inside of the powerful woman's punch to land a blow to her sternum with all the force he could put into it. Amelia sailed into the far wall of the room to impact with a deafening crash. This time the tall girl did not rise again after she collapsed trying to suck air back into a body that would not cooperate with her attempt.

Seeing that the entire class was down Rachd clicked off the timer on the wall, leaving the large digital display up for all to see as a group of upperclassman healers made their rounds to put the freshmen back together again. The display read two minutes, nineteen seconds.

"Get off your asses and get over here when the healers are done with you!" There were groans, but the battered students made their way quickly to group around the Combat instructor. "Now who can tell me what all of you did wrong?"

"We got in a fight with someone way stronger than us?" As he spoke, Rorie Samuels was nursing his recently unbroken arm as he carefully flexed each finger to make sure everything still worked.

"Not even close to a right answer Samuels. Ten laps, double time. GO!" The final command was unnecessary as the large Samoan had started off at a solid run as soon as Rachd had finished the word 'laps.'

"We fought stupid. We did not make a plan to fight together." The coach nodded in response to the answer given by the tall Mexican. Ramón had actually landed a couple of solid shots on the instructor with his speed before the older man had put him out.

"Correct. I gave you sixty seconds to prepare for this fight, and not one of you said a word during that period. Had any of you been bright enough to coordinate even the tiniest bit, you might have managed to land more than a couple of love taps on me while I beat all your asses into the ground.

"Here's how most days are going to work! I am going to pair you off with someone, and you are going to fight until I tell you to do something else. Some days you will be instructed to fight without using your abilities, some days there will be no holds barred." Rachd raised his voice to continue over the objections suddenly being brought up by several students at once. "And I am well aware that some of you don't effectively have a 'power off' mode, so don't get your panties all twisted children, you won't have to make a powerless go of it against one of the class powerhouses." There were looks of relief around the room at this announcement.

"Gauge, since your better half doesn't get fixed by anything but time, you are useless as shit with only one leg. Your special instructions for Combat training are to fight until you are maimed, then move on to strength training with whatever limbs you have left." Collin nodded and immediately jogged off in the direction of the super weight room. "Jacobson, you are a god damned super freak, so you will be facing off against Owens AND Carerra at the same time. When Gauge isn't broken he will also be training with you. You lot will cycle so that it's always two vs Blondie. Use one of the alternate rooms because I will be very fucking disappointed if I don't see some collateral damage from your matchup every day." The three designated students grouped and immediately headed for the neighboring combat room.

"The rest of you are going to be experiencing your first 'no powers' day. On any no power day you will be fighting in close proximity at all times. The monitoring equipment will flag you if you move more than ten feet from your opponent for any reason. If you get flagged three times in one session you will stay for an extra hour of physical conditioning at the end. If you get flagged more than three times you will wish with all your heart and soul that you had never heard of the HCP." Rachd grinned in response to all the nervous looks now directed at him. "And I expect that you will be hitting each other within ten seconds of me calling your pair! Snider, Montez, PAIR UP! ..."