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.
Prologue pt 2:
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.”