“DAMMIT!” The curse was accompanied by several *foosh* noises and the slapping impact sounds of paintballs breaking against the padded uniform worn by the black haired youth as he hung his head in frustration.
“You’re dead again, Mr Karl.” The emotionless voice of the Control Instructor sounded over the speakers as the barrage of marking rounds ended. “Please return to the staging area and try to make it a little farther next time.”
Michael cursed softly the entire walk back through the bizarre obstacle course that made up Professor Nguyen’s ‘Introduction to Control’ course. This is complete bullshit. If those were real opponents I’d be able to sense them. Just because she’s using remotes makes her thi-…
“You think this is unfair for YOU? SERIOUSLY?” The feminine voice interrupting him in his own head almost caused Michael to trip over his own feet as he started with surprise. “There are real remote defense systems in the world, and if you think this sucks for YOU try doing it while DEAF. Asshole…”
The dark haired young man managed a smile as he realized that at least one person in the class was having an even harder time of it than he was. It made sense to him, Catalina relied on borrowing other people’s senses and a depth of telepathic reading that still made Michael feel like a rank amateur. He took a moment to pause and look back over the course as he reached the exit. Rows of crates, boxes, and shelving stacked haphazardly about the massive room created a virtual labyrinth to navigate through, with the small wheeled sentry guns patrolling through seemingly at random. Every item in the room; up to and included portions of the floor, walls, and ceiling; possessed multiple small labels in varying colors. The objective was to traverse from a starting door to an exit while using the terrain to neutralize the remotes.
For Michael, a student who had been seriously considering Control as one of his three disciplines, the difficulty so far had proved greatly discouraging. He simply wasn’t used to dealing with threats that he could only detect with his mundane senses, and trying to keep track of the labels all around him so as to know what could be moved safely and what would result in being deluged in marker paint was making his head swim.
The petite professor had begun the day’s class with a lecture about how a Hero in the field needed to keep a more precise inventory of their surroundings than this course required, and they had to figure out how to do so without the aid of unambiguous labels. A Strongman Hero might well decide to use any conveniently located heavy object as an improvised weapon, but if said object was priceless, load bearing, or potentially dangerous in other ways, that same Strongman could be found negligent in performance of their duty. The asian woman had gone on to point out that in addition to these simple variables, a Hero also needed to know where any civilians were in relation to a potential combat at all times in order to properly minimize casualties.
What this translated to, as far as Michael could tell, was an impossibly complex course designed solely to humiliate the students into picking a different major. So Focus and Ranged Combat probably then, but if I don’t end up in Control, what’s another good thir-… The telepath found his thought derailed as he looked up from the towel he had acquired to remove the bright orange paint from his uniform and glanced at the leader board.
As a surprise to exactly no one, both Erin and Eloise cleared the entire course every time their turn came up, and the competition between those two now seemed to be who could come up with a shorter route and fastest clear time. But it was the bottom of the board that captured Michael’s attention, where he say his name had actually slipped beneath that of the sophomore class’s other telepathic student. Seriously, Cat is beating me? The deaf girl that’s complaining in MY HEAD about having a harder time than I am?
“Just because it’s harder for me doesn’t mean I’m going to let it beat me.”
The black haired young man’s expression hardened as he finished wiping the worst of the paint off, and quietly took his place in the line waiting to run the room. Three hours of Control left. I will be DAMNED if I lose to you, Cat.
He wasn’t completely sure, but he thought he heard soft laughter in response.
“Your attention for a moment, before you’re all free for the day, if you please.” The Overton HCP sophomore class turned in response to the sudden appearance of the Subtlety Instructor in their midst, though the expressions of surprise that would have been dominant in the first year had all been subsumed under masks of acceptance and fatigue. “It’s a rare occasion when the HCP assigns ACTUAL homework, so you should all listen closely to this one.” The ensuing groans drew a wide smile from Elena as the nearly universal distaste for homework among students made itself loudly known.
“As the focus of the sophomore year in the HCP is team related exercises, we think it’s important to not only see how you will function with a team, but to see how you would each select your teams if given the option. With that in mind the twenty one of you that will NOT be a team captain this year will turn in a written paper by the end of this week detailing exactly which of your classmates you would choose if it were your team to build, and why you choose each of them.” The much belabored groans of the students gave way to a set of almost pleasantly surprised looks, as the students had obviously not been anticipating such an ‘easy’ assignment. “Additionally you will have to explain, in detail, your reasoning WHY you are selecting each member of your team.” The pleasant portion of the surprised looks faded quickly. “The only restrictions on your team makeups for this assignment is the same four person teams that will be actually formed this Friday, and you may only select one of the top seven ranked students for your team.”
The still widely smiling hispanic woman noted the greatly increased tension clearly visible on the faces of seven of the sophomores as the rest of the class seemed to relax, and several began discussing the assignment as they resumed their exodus from the Control class.
“What do the top seven students have to do instead?” The clear, calm question from Amelia Jacobson resulted in an immediate silence falling over the crowd. All those students previously distracted immediately returned their attention to the professor, suddenly eager to hear the answer to a question that many of them hadn’t even considered a moment ago.
Elena Martinez’s smile took on a somewhat predatory appearance as she locked eyes with the top ranked sophomore before answering. “That’s the really fun part, you seven will have nothing to turn in! You’ll simply have to state your reasons in support of each of your team selections as you make them, in front of the entire class.”
“That’s insane!” The angry voice of the tall blond man currently ranked fourth in the class rang out all the louder for the silence that still hung over the group. “If we’re taking turns with the selections, we won’t even know who’s available until we actually make each choice! How the hell are we supposed to give a detailed accounting of why we select someone for our teams when the other six ‘captains’ are going to have almost as much control over it as we do?”
“The price you pay for your ranking, Mr Finne, is that you must frequently prove you have earned it. I would recommend determining a solid reasoning behind taking ALL of your classmates if you are worried about lack of preparation.” The Instructor offered a final smirk at Gerard’s sputtering attempt to find a new rebuttal before vanishing as abruptly as she had appeared.
“Now sophomores, the announcement is concluded and I need to get the course properly set up for the more advanced students tomorrow morning. Unless you are volunteering to assist, I recommend moving on to whatever other plans you had for this evening.” The nearly mechanical voice of the Control Instructor from the back of the group quickly galvanized the sophomores back into their exodus from her domain, save for one.
“Ms Blake, was there something you needed?”
”I just had a question, and I’m more than willing to stay and help you take down the course and reset it if that’s the cost of an answer.”
“I was under the impression that you rarely need to actually ASK in order to learn about those around you, Ms Blake.” A tiny note of stress had crept into the emotionless tone Professor Nguyen had cultivated for working with the students.
”I’m nowhere near that good. Yet.” Catalina met the shorter woman’s impassive expression with a small grin. ”I think I need to take this course. I never thought of myself as having a real handicap until today, and if I try to pretend it’s not there and focus only on my strengths I think it will get me or someone else killed in the future. But I have to ask first, why are you pushing so hard to not connect with any of us? I can see… Please, if it’s not too personal, could you explain it to me?”
Hai sighed at the far too insightful telepath in front of her, before turning to head back into the training course. When she spoke again her tone was warm and human, though with more than a little exasperation laced through it. “Come on then. It’s a long story, and you did volunteer yourself.”
The entire room seemed to shudder, the air wavered, followed by a blast and loud cheering. The curvy redhead sighed, pushed her safety glasses back to their proper position, and tried very hard to ignore the crowd of students.
Tara had been certain that she would be able to excel in the Ranged Combat introduction, that she could finally impress the class and springboard forward into the level of confidence that all the other Supers around her seemed to carry with them constantly. The redhead had spent the entire summer either training or designing new tools that she hoped would carry her through another year in the HCP. She had shown up to Professor Banning’s intro course with gas and pellet dispensers so compact she could conceal them under a bulky jacket. She could accurately put down a cloud of knockout gas, special blend tear gas, or one of her new sensory inhibitors in a precise ten to fifteen foot radius anywhere within a hundred yards. Tara had even stolen some of the polymer restraints that Ty had been using to great effect last year and developed a new, more compact variety, that SHOULD even hold Amelia for a few seconds.
Upon arrival in the class, Professor Banning had informed them that they would begin with a brief demonstration from each student of their own personal idea of Ranged Combat. The strength students had found things to throw, several with less applicable powers had checked out firearms from the Instructor (or borrowed some from the rolling arsenal that Eloise had brought with her), and the students like Zach, Rorie, and Jon all made very dramatic usage of their abilities to directly target things at range. Tara had been all set to step up and impress, but before her turn it was Scott Jameson’s.
The short youth had casually stepped up to the line, scanned the available targets, and stated confidently, “I think I’ll get the tank.” None of the class was certain if the tank was genuine or not, many had already taken shots at it but the armored vehicle had been beyond the range of several of the more powerful abilities, and none of the portable weaponry had managed to dent it as yet.
Scott had held up a small metal dart, not much larger than a marble, and smiled in response to the disbelieving expressions. The dart had proceeded to hover away from his fingers in the magnetic field produced by the sandy haired boy as he pointed at the heavily armored target. The metallic projectile vanished in a flash, and the target down range crumpled around the point of impact as the tank slid backwards along the reinforced floor, armor panels on the far side of the vehicle blasted outward from the force of the impact. After a moment of stunned silence (and appropriate recovery time from the overpressure and multiple very loud *BANG*s), the entire group erupted into surprised cheering. Even the professor applauded loudly, and many began calling for an encore performance.
Tara had still dutifully followed Scott’s incredible demonstration, though after watching a tank be destroyed the redhead again felt that her own abilities were falling far short of where they needed to be. Her roommates had all congratulated her and at least managed to convincingly fake impressed looks as Tara displayed her own limited capability.
As the class progressed, the red haired inventor found herself once again withdrawing towards the back of the crowd, still listening attentively to the various instructions being given as the drills for the day were described. Tara found herself looking ahead to the rest of the week with a faint sense of foreboding. Obviously I’m not going to be a shining star of Ranged Combat. Where else can I possibly be good enough to make it another year…
“Remind me why we’re here again, Tony?” The gravelly voice from the man at the bar sounded bored, and a little anxious if one listened close enough.
“Because we need to relax, Jimmy. Get out from under the magnifying glass for awhile.” The tall black man clapped his colleague on the shoulder as he spoke, drawing a brief glower from the more muscular man. In a quieter, less jovial tone he added, “and we need to keep an eye on all of our lovely town’s strange new tourists.”
“Hai’s already on that.”
“She is, and the woman is good. But take a look around the bar, Jimbo.” Anthony Banning leaned back against the bar and took a sip of the amber colored liquid in his mug as he spoke.
“Please don’t call me ‘Jimbo’ or I will break both your legs, Tony. Fucking bad enough that you have to call me ‘Jimmy.’” James Rachd did, however, turn on his own stool to be looking out over the room in a similar pose to his friend as he drank a much darker brew. “So what am I looking at?”
“How many do you see?”
“Not counting Hai’s supersize friend, I got seven. What’s your point?” Rachd’s voice had lowered significantly as the discussion seemed to be turning further in a direction he didn’t want overheard.
“I only have six, we’ll have to compare notes later.” Anthony’s volume had also dropped similarly. “These guys have been here for almost two weeks, Jimmy. Two weeks, nothing to do, some drift out, more drift in. We’re in a dive bar at 8pm on Tuesday and there’s at least a half a dozen professional investigators here. We walk into any diner on this block and I bet a hundred we find at least two more.”
“Hai said she’s handling it.”
“I think this is more than any one of us can handle, Jimmy. Even taking the smart play and recruiting the best of them since she used to know the guy.” There was a break in the conversation as two more men entered the bar and quickly sought an out of the way table. “And unless appearances are extra deceiving today, that makes two more.”
“Christ, they’re like roaches. Alright, so what do we do about it?”
“You aren’t going to like my idea.”
“When has that ever stopped you from having one?”
The black man laughed softly at the rebuttal from his larger companion. “We start doing regular sweeps and IDing our tourists, and we pass that on to someone we know has the resources to start chewing through whatever chaff exists between who sent them and who REALLY sent them.”
“You want to bring Riley in on this again.” Rachd’s tone sounded like a man who had just swallowed something vile.
“They’re already in on it. I don’t like the fat politician much more than you do Jimmy, but the man and his wife have resources.”
“And if Hai’s guy is right and all of this is really just a smokescreen to get us paranoid?”
“Then it’s probably better to tie up some of the mundane resources of the Walker family, which I have no doubt are abundant, than to waste our time trying to run things through the channels we have access to individually.”
The muscular bald man considered the point for a moment before nodding and draining the rest of his drink. “Alright Tony, I’ll cover the bars, you get the diners.”
Anthony’s laughter followed James as he strode towards the door.
The thin, dark haired youth dragged himself to his feet and began limping away from the chaotic melee that raged around most of the combat room. Fortunately the rules had been VERY explicitly stated by Professor Dani Reyes that once a student was obviously injured to the point of seeking out one of the entrances and the healers located within them, further targeting of that student would result in severe consequences. As a result of the smile the red haired Instructor had been wearing when she delivered the final line, no one in the class was seriously considering pushing that limit.
Zach finally pulled himself through the doorway, cursing loudly as his foot caught against the frame and the resulting jolt of agony from the likely broken leg set him greying out for a moment. Then, as suddenly as if it had all been a very bad dream, he felt whole and refreshed again. “Go get ’em, little guy! I got twenty bucks that you manage to incapacitate SOMEONE before the end of this thing!”
The dark haired boy stared blankly at the unfamiliar face of the upperclassman who had just healed him, and allowed the words to sink in. “You guys are betting on us? What the fuck?”
“What else are we going to do while we’re stuck here mending you guys for hours.” The speaker this time was a very attractively built redhead who turned a piercing look on the sophomore as the tall and lanky man who’d healed him stepped back chuckling. “Sure, it’s fun for like the first hour to just watch you guys going at it, but we already get our fill on gratuitous violence EVERY DAY in our own classes. This gives us something to do.” Zach just sighed in response to the logic and turned to head back out into the maelstrom that the Weapons Instructor had dubbed ‘class.’
“At least she pulled all of the TRULY physically gifted one into the ‘special training’ with herself.” As if in response to the boy’s muttering the wall adjoining this combat cell to the ‘special training’ was impacted hard enough that the whole room shook briefly. With a final shake of his head at the pointlessness of this ‘class,’ Zach rushed back into the fray and scooped up one of the many practice weapons strewn about the floor.
Sticking to the edges of the fray this time the dark haired boy made good use of hit and run tactics, seeking only to land a distracting blow with the padded stick he’d acquired against opponents already distracted by other foes. His new strategy worked well for almost five minutes, before he turned just in time to see a mountain of muscle swinging a practice staff into his face.
This time Zach DID blackout, but even that rest was only momentary as the giant healer who’d struck him simply pulled him to his feet with a quick burst of invigorating energy and shoved him back into the fray. The parting shout of, “And no more sneaking!” was barely loud enough to be heard over the din of combat.
The lightly built youth lasted significantly less than five minutes before he found himself once again staggering off in search of healing again. This time he was intercepted by a petite form with bluish-black hair, another rush of invigorating energy and a mocking, “En guarde!”
“Dammit Kaori, you can’t even let me take the two minute break I get dragging my ass in and out of this room?” Zach searched around his feet and quickly snapped up a pair of short padded sticks, and looked in dismay at the practiced grace with which his opponent readied a short staff.
“If you keep taking breaks, you’ll end up behind the rest of us Zachary. We wouldn’t want that!” The dark haired boy was absolutely mystified as to how the small healer could possibly be sounding like she was having fun in this hell.
Seconds later, as the ceiling slowly swam back into focus as his vision cleared once more, Zach let out an exasperated moan. “Why the fuck am I even doing this training? My ability is basically creating invisible weapons from my hands and feet, something I CANNOT DO if I am HOLDING SOMETHING!”
“Are you done bitching now?”
“Probably not, but you’re going to yell at me for some reason, aren’t you?”
“You think the only way a course can benefit you is if you can directly use what’s being taught? How about paying some damned attention and watching what everyone ELSE is doing.” Kaori shook her head in disgust and turned to trot of in search of another opponent. “Just because you won’t be using a melee weapon yourself doesn’t mean other people won’t. Learn about it now or learn about it when the blades are real and trying to kill you.”
Zach sat up slowly, but did not stand immediately as he mulled over the petite girl’s speech. He then let out another exasperated sigh. She was right, I’m missing half the point of this exercise. Pulling himself to his feet, the dark haired boy acquired another weapon and waded back into combat. The instructions at the start of the class had forbidden the ‘normal’ group from using their abilities; aside Tasha, Antoin, and Kaori who helped to keep things going; and Zach had basically tuned out from that point on. But with the healer’s words in mind he now observed carefully how the more skilled students were holding their weapon, the angles at which they moved, and the times when their grips were most tenuous. He might never wield a weapon himself in combat as a Hero, but it would definitely not hurt to learn everything he could about those that did.
“Have we finished reviewing the footage up through Tuesday’s courses?” The Oversight Committee members gathered in the conference room responded to Harold Weaver’s query with a quiet chorus of affirmatives. “And do we have the complete stress analysis back on exactly how much force Sunday’s exhibition match required?”
“We’re still a bit snagged there, sir.” Darlene Neal, senior most Oversight member from the previous year responded with a note of hesitation in her voice. The committee members had all grown used to dealing with the incompetence of Raines in the lead position, and everyone was still working out how to deal with leadership that seemed to be both professional AND attentive.
“Was there a problem with the footage quality? The HCP techs assured me that they could filter out most of the dust and debris that occluded the normal camera views.” The measured, polite response again surprised the veteran Oversight members. A ‘snag’ during the previous year would have resulted in several minutes of Walter Raines screaming about things he didn’t understand, followed by instructions to work as long as needed to fix it.
“Our problem is actually with our analysts, sir.” Allan Riley, the youngest member of the committee spoke up while Darlene began typing away at the console in front of her, bringing up the footage in question on the monitor past the foot of the conference table. Everyone at the table grew silent as they watched the scene, many for the dozenth time or more, of a tall skinny girl picking up her monstrous crystalline opponent and bulldozing her way through more than twenty feet of heavily reinforced concrete using him as a battering ram. “It seems that the people assigned from DVA to do the in depth power analysis don’t believe that this is real footage. In part due to the obvious editing that took place when they reconstructed approximations from the thermal and ultraviolet cameras, and in part because, and I quote: ‘No trainee could possibly do that. Send us something believable next time.’ End quote.”
The tall blond man sighed and sank back into his chair as he processed this information, before calmly pulling out his phone and making a quick call. “Good evening sir, I hope I haven’t caught you at a bad time?
“Yes sir, these are good people and the work is going smoothly. We have a snag from your end though.
“Well apparently your analysts are accusing my people of fabricating footage for some kind of prank. They refuse to get us the extrapolated information we need.
“No sir, there are no embellishments at all. That data is as accurate as the techs here could get.
“Thank you, sir.” The rest of the room had been perfectly silent for the brief duration of Harold’s phone call.
“The analysts in question will be reprimanded officially by tomorrow morning, and some new personnel will be assigned to do the job. Now I know we still have Wednesday’s data to sift through, but seeing as how we’re actually a bit ahead of schedule, barring the one delay we had no control over, I think it would be good to leave off here for the night and get some downtime in. Anyone opposed?” The Oversight chairman actually laughed aloud at the stunned expressions that met his suggestion.
“Let me assure you all, once again, that I am NOT Walter Raines. I got to where I am today on my own merits, not because daddy hauled me up and gave me shiny things for free. I know all of you are upset about his apparent involvement in an attempt to skew the findings of this committee, and again I must stress that I am NOT him. We are here to determine if this institution is living up to the very high standards needed to continue training this nations Heroes. I’m not going to pretend that there are not a lot of people farther up the ladder pushing one agenda or another, and I won’t pretend that I am not here myself to further my own career. But I strongly believe that any reward that might be gained trying to cater to those other agendas is FAR outweighed by the risk of tainting our findings in any way. Now, who’s up for drinks and actually getting to know the new boss?” A round of somewhat hesitant smiles met this suggestion, and the Oversight meeting quickly began to break up.
“Why are you so interested in that one girl, sir?” The questioner was another of the younger members of the committee, Celia Watkins. Harold had been more than a bit surprised to learn that she had volunteered to remain with the committee, as his files on the woman noted that she was more than slightly nervous to be working so closely with Supers.
“You mean Ms Jacobson I presume?” At the woman’s nod, he continued. “Because she is a truly incredible example of a Super, Ms Watkins. And I want to insure that someone that exceptional will be given a chance to thrive, even if things don’t turn out well for the program she’s currently enrolled in.”
“Umm, meaning what, sir?”
“Looking to the future, I’ve been trying to make some arrangements. I feel there is no doubt that someone of Ms Jacobson’s abilities will have any difficulty progressing through the HCP, but even if Overton maintains its status, its prestige is sorely lacking. Should she desire it, I’ve made arrangements that would allow her to transfer to the Lander program for her third and fourth year of training.” The tall man smiled at his colleague’s surprised expression. “I think a person with capabilities like that should graduate from a program where the world is CERTAIN to notice her, and the program that created the Class of Legends definitely fits that criteria. Now, will you be joining us for an evening out, Ms Watkins?”
“You are most definitely a different man than Walter Raines, Mr Weaver. Unfortunately with all the work of getting set up for the new year I think I’ll beg off for the evening and retire early.” The smile on the younger woman’s face this time was a truly genuine one.
Harold waved his goodbye as Celia left, and began packing away his own items before leaving the conference room. After all, I can get a girl like that the recognition she deserves, get owed a very valuable favor from someone likely to be a VERY successful Hero, AND not have to worry about her skewing the results for my committee.