“Welcome everyone, please, find a seat and get comfortable.” The friendly greeting from the Overton Focus Instructor set the sophomore class on edge as they arrived for Thursday’s ‘Focus Intro’ course. The response drew a deep chuckle from the elderly Brit. “Trust me students, this will NOT be like Professor Reyes’ course yesterday. Focus is about turning your attention inward, not violently assaulting your classmates. At least not on the first day.” Instead of the smirk many expected, the last statement was added with a deathly serious expression.
“Well c’mon guys, lets get this over with!” Iris Todd strode boldly into the room and took one of the seats in the center. Everyone else watched intently, as if waiting for something to erupt, explode, or engulf the speedster. When nothing particularly interesting happened, the rest of the class quickly filed in and found seats of their own.
“You expect to be bored in my class, Ms Todd?” The professor’s tone sounded vaguely hurt as he posed the question to the blonde woman in the middle of the class.
“No offense Professor Vree, but I’m pretty sure I’m in Weapons, Close Combat, and Control. I think the spatial training is going to be a LOT more useful for a speedster than meditating, don’t you?”
“Even after I gave examples of speedsters gone on to become fully fledged Heroes who chose Focus as their primary discipline?”
“Hey, I’m not saying I won’t give it the college try. I mean, we are still in college after all. But I wouldn’t hold your breath, prof.”
“I suppose an open mind is the best I can truly hope for in this country. Very well everyone, please turn your attention to the small displays on the desk in front of you. Over the next several hours it will give you a series of instructions, either asking very detailed questions or prompting you to use your ability to perform a very specific small task. Try to shut out any outside distractions and focus entirely on getting through as much of the material as possible.”
“That’s it?” The incredulous question came from the petite white haired girl in the back corner of the room.
“Focus is about turning your attention inward, Ms James. For a few hours worth of introduction I have found this is one of the best methods for gently breaking students in to that mindset. One thing to keep in mind, there is an estimated several DAYS worth of instructions that your console will run through, and each of them is tailored to you specifically. This is to let you see how well you performed at this simple task, and should give you a much better idea on if Focus is an area you have exceptional talent in. Overton’s record for this training is completion of an estimated twelve hours of instructions in the intro course period. I wish you all luck in breaking that mark! Please begin.” And with his speech concluded, the white haired man sat down at his own desk facing out over the class and began reading from a thick, hardbound book.
Several of the sophomores exchanged questioning looks, and with shrugs of resignation they began their unexpectedly easy assignment. Silence descended over the classroom, punctuated by brief outbursts of ability here and there as students attempted to replicate their instructions to a degree that the apparently VERY discerning monitors would accept.
After nearly ten minutes of toiling away in front of their screens, small panels in the ceiling opened and several round black objects fell into the room. Only a few students noticed the sudden arrival of the foreign objects and none of them were fast enough to call out a warning before a nearly deafening *BOOM* resounded through the room, followed by startled shouts and pained screaming as several of those closest to the detonations clutched their hands over injured ears.
“Please focus on your assignment, class.” The completely calm voice of the elderly Instructor drew incredulous stares from the class.
“You just FLASHBANGED the room and that’s all you have to say?” Iris was on her feet and screaming at the Instructor, though her volume was likely in part a result of at least one ruptured ear drum.
“Concussion grenades, not flashbangs. No blinding light you see. And how can we test your ability to focus if we don’t provide any distractions?” The feigned innocence of the professor’s tone drew several glares from the class, but after a brief surge of energy from Antoin to repair what damage had been done to the group everyone returned their attention to the screens. Progress slowed greatly as nearly all the students kept glancing around at their surroundings, trying hard not to be taken off guard again.
Another twenty minutes past, and the elderly professor looked up from his reading to scan across the class. “You all won’t make nearly enough progress like that. The objective today is not to anticipate and avoid, it is to IGNORE the distractions. I assure you there will be nothing happening in this room that is more than a moderate inconvenience, no serious injuries will result.”
“You’ll forgive us if we don’t take your word for it.” The muttered comment from the blonde speedster met with echoes of agreement around the room.
“Look at it as you will, but try to keep that open mind I asked for. All giving into paranoia over promoting Focus will do for any of you is slow your own development through the HCP.” With his piece apparently spoken, the professor returned to his book.
A few seconds later a deluge of water flooded the room to a depth of several inches, resulting in another series of surprised shouts and curses before the liquid drained quickly away. The class grumbled for several minutes after the water receded, but the only response from the professor was a faintly mocking smirk as he turned the page and continued reading, in spite of the book now being thoroughly soaked.
For the next hour the sophomores settled into varying degrees of concentration as the room was subjected to another round of concussion blasts, the ceiling lighting itself on fire for several seconds, and the release of a truly foul smelling gas of some kind that actually sent a couple of students fleeing for the restroom to vomit. Fortunately all of those so affected were successful in their exodus, and returned a few minutes later to glare again at the Instructor before resuming their assignments.
Now that the students seemed properly settled the white haired man at the front of the room finally abandoned his pretense of reading and began to intently scan the room, looking for signs of truly exceptional inner focus that this exercise was actually meant to bring to the fore. Laurence met with a few surprises as he began to carefully inspect the minds in the room before him. Collin Gauge and Amelia Jacobson were both fully engaged in their exercises and had reached a level of mental isolation that usually took students quite a bit longer to attain.
”Both of them being functionally indestructible since Collin shifted might be giving them a bit of a cheat though, don’t you think?”
Ms Blake, shouldn’t you be working on your assigned task? There was no trace of surprise in the thought formed by the older telepath and pushed out to where the auburn haired girl would have no difficulty picking it up.
”No offense professor, but this isn’t exactly demanding all of my attention. I’ve been subconsciously sorting sensory input from everyone within about a mile of me for as long as I can remember. Carrying on a conversation while performing memory or muscle exercises isn’t exactly straining my capabilities.”
The older man had to clench his teeth a bit to keep from laughing aloud at the young woman’s irreverent attitude. I hope we’ll be able to keep you more challenged over the course of the year. And with that thought the professor returned to scanning the rest of the class.
It was only a few seconds later before he ran into another surprise, the mind of the speedster in the middle of the classroom suddenly blinked out from his mental perception. The white haired man actually jostled his desk as he spun in surprise to look for the young woman, only to see her sitting exactly where she’d been since class began, both hand moving at an incredible blur as she apparently was using her ability to speed through her assignment. Making sure to mask any further signs of his own surprise or continued confusion, the Focus Instructor sat back once again and attempted to probe more deeply into the blonde girl’s mind.
With the greater degree of focus on a single subject, the experience telepath found that he once again could detect the girl’s mind, but he wasn’t reading anything from it. It was almost as if her thoughts had somehow become less tangible, or…
My God. She’s speeding up her perception, reaction, and train of thought. She’s thinking so fast that the individual thoughts are indecipherable. That’s new. For several minutes the professor devoted all of his considerable mental prowess to trying to get any kind of lock on the individual thoughts of Iris Todd, and found himself with only a developing headache for his trouble. Finally accepting the attempt as futile, he turned his focus in a new direction and managed a very loud equivalent of a mental ‘cough.’
”I thought I was supposed to be focusing on my work, professor. What can I do for you?” Laurence smiled at the nonchalant mental response from the young telepath as she continued her work seemingly unfazed by his mental interruption, or the effort to communicate back to the professor.
Can you get anything from Ms Todd right now, Ms Blake? The auburn haired girl looked up with a puzzled expression, but seeing the serious look on the Instructor’s face she turned her attention to her classmate.
”She’s… dammit I can feel her but… What the hell is that?” Catalina suddenly flinched and brought her hands up to massage her temples as her mental contact with the professor cut out. After a long pause her voice returned, but seemed oddly unfocused and strained. ”Iris is… her thoughts are going so fast… I can only see bits and pieces… Can all speedsters do that?”
I should hope not, Ms Blake. Thank you for confirming what my own ability was telling me, NOW you should return to your assignment.
The class continued with the randomly interspersed interruptions creating less and less confusion amongst the students for another hour and a half, when all eyes shot to the middle of the room as the blonde speedster stood, stretched, and announced, “Finished!” in a cheerful tone.
Taking in the stares from all sides, Iris actually blushed slightly before looking up at the professor. “So there’s no way that was several DAYS worth of material. What’s next?”
“Next, Ms Todd, I believe I need to have a word with you in private regarding your abilities. I’m certain the rest of the class will be able to continue without direct supervision.” Even as the Focus Instructor spoke, most of the students had already returned their attention to the monitors in front of them, and those that hadn’t did so quickly at the implied instruction.
“What do we need to talk about all the sudden?” The blonde girl looked slightly worried, but moved to follow the professor without any hesitation as he led the way from the room.
“My dear girl, you just worked your way through an estimated one hundred and seven hours of material in less than three hours. I imagine you could have done it even faster had the system been able to keep up with you. We need to discuss this emergence of your new and truly wondrous ability!”
“Good afternoon, Janette. I wish we really could get around to meeting regularly for strictly social reasons.” The petite HCP Dean stood and gestured to one of the comfortable chairs across from her desk as the attractive blonde woman entered her office.
“A sentiment I can agree with completely, Kathryn. At least we aren’t operating in full time crisis mode, yet.”
“That word fills me with a great deal of foreboding. Would you like some coffee?”
“No thank you. And I detest the word at least as much as you do.” Janette Walker sank into the chair with a sigh. “I’m afraid we’ve not had much luck in finding anything actionable so far.”
“You’re being a bit hard on yourself, Janette. You’ve only been mining through the identities of our sudden influx of PIs for a couple of days now.”
“I don’t think you understand what we’re looking at here. All of our town’s latest wave of ‘tourists’ are getting dispatched from some of the largest corporations and conglomerates in the world. The paper trails all go to the correct level of each involved company, and then it terminates. Someone VERY well connected is passing verbal requests to executive personnel in these places and it’s passing down the chain through God only knows how many upper and middle managers. I can confirm that out of the twenty six we have currently backtracked to the end of the paper trails, no official instructions as to what they’re actually supposed to be DOING have been passed along.”
“So the most likely scenario is that it’s a smokescreen to keep us from noticing whatever the REAL plan is.”
“That or they’re probing to see exactly how we respond. There’s more too, of course.”
“Of course.” Kathryn just managed to keep her expression neutral, though she was certain she wasn’t really fooling the woman across the desk from her.
“There has been a lot of net activity ‘encouraging’ various anti-Super and Powered groups to mobilize against the HCPs. It’s not targeting Overton specifically, but…”
“There’s some subtle pushes our direction?”
“More like one of the worst groups seems to have opted to target our program, pushed or not. The president of ‘Rights of Humanity’ has made several speeches urging his people to travel to the ‘great state of Texas’ in order to ‘protest the continued subversion of our resources and government by the Super menace parading behind the guise of heroics.’”
“Sounds like a lovely person. I don’t recognize the name of that group though.”
“Rights of Humanity is what the whitewashed ‘legitimate’ side of the group calls itself. They’re more famous as the Human Liberation Militia.”
The Dean sank back in her chair and massaged her temples with her fingers for a long moment before replying. “Janette, are you telling me that a known domestic terrorist group is going to be targeting MY school?”
The blonde woman’s expression was steely, and her tone was cold. “It’s my school too. I’ve made some calls already.”
Elena Martinez smiled and stretched as she appeared in the small, rarely used utility room almost three miles beneath the Overton campus. She always enjoyed the Subtlety introduction day for the second years. It was the closest she usually got to a day off throughout the school year. Seating herself at one of the tables set up with snacks and a cooler, she settled in to wait and see how many of this year’s crop managed to decipher the various hints, clues, and riddles she had left for each of them to work to find their way here. In her opinion the material she used this early in their education was the bare minimum bar for admission; any students that couldn’t manage to find where the ‘Intro to Subtlety’ classroom was located would not be able to succeed in the actual course.
“Woo! Treats!” The cheerful exclamation from directly behind the professor actually caused her to leap out of the chair with a surprised yelp. Recognizing the voice too late to prevent her embarrassing reaction, the hispanic woman turned to watch the form of Erin Casse fade into view with a huge smile on her face.
“Ms Casse, I have to admit you arrived slightly sooner than I expected you. It seems you’ve finally worked out the difficulties with becoming fully invisible?”
“Only when she’s standing still.” The new voice, again from directly behind Elena, didn’t elicit a startled reaction from the now more prepared Subtlety Instructor.
“Ms James, also ahead of schedule. I congratulate you both sincerely, and would request that I NOT spend the year subjected to retellings of the story of how the two of you made a veteran Hero jump nearly out of her skin?”
“Hey, if anyone else had wanted to see it, they should have gotten here early too!” Erin’s response came as she searched through the cooler nearest her and pulled a bottle of flavored water out of the ice.
“Normally no one would believe us anyways, but you realize it’s kind of a moot point with Cat in our class.” Eloise likewise snagged a can out of one of the coolers and began digging through the assorted snack foods the professor had brought.
”My lips are sealed!” The door to the small room opened in perfect synch with the soft feminine voice echoing through the three women’s heads. ”No guys yet? I’m a little disappointed.”
“Ms Blake, you I DID expect to arrive this quickly. Did you at least attempt to work your way through the exercises left for you?”
”Considering that the stuff you left for me was a wild goose chase from the beginning, sorry but no.” The auburn haired telepath’s expression didn’t seem to hold any trace of actual apology as she joined the other two girl’s around the table. ”I guess you can just consider me a special challenge!”
Elena sighed as she retook her seat at the table. “Normally after the students first start arriving is when I give a simple lecture on the basics of my chosen discipline, but considering the speed with which all three of you got here I think we’re well past the basics. Instead if you have any questions, please ask and I’ll do my best to enlighten you.”
The discussion was mostly light and had little to do with the topic at hand with just the three girls and the professor in the small room. The discussion became more interesting as more students steadily arrived across the several hour period. Ty was the fourth to arrive, and seemed inordinately pleased to be the first male student to pass Professor Martinez’s test.
Aaron Sexton was the fifth to arrive, with Scott and Antoin arriving together shortly after. The girls made an overly dramatic commiserating toast as they were now outnumbered by the boys, and offered a humorous eulogy to the failure of their gender to maintain the advantage they had fought hard to start with. Elena struggled in vain to keep a professional demeanor, but when even the normally serious Eloise joined in the mourning the battle was lost.
When the next to arrive was Beulah Abbot the girls celebrated at having achieved balance again, and a betting pool was started between the two sides to see which gender would ultimately triumph.
Next to arrive were Barry, Zach, and Alexandra at nearly the same time and the room was forced into a semblance of order as the small space was rapidly becoming too full for the antics that had dominated to that point. Louise arrived with less than an hour left before the official end of the Subtlety intro ‘class,’ and Elena decided that it was unlikely that anyone else would be making it.
“I would like to congratulate those of you that made it here. It was easier for some of you than for others, but everyone in this room has passed the first hurdle if they want to pursue the discipline of Subtlety as one of your Heroic majors.” The Instructor paused for a few seconds to allow the students to come more to order and bask in the praise for a moment.
“Frankly if you are seriously considering this discipline as your primary Major, you are likely deluded or insane.” She smiled at the stunned expressions now visible on most of the faces in the room. “Subtlety Heroes are the cheaters, liars, and sneaks of the Super world. We face the greatest risks with no back up or recognition. We accomplish the impossible without receiving accolades or fame. We are constantly subject to the suspicions of our peers, and there is a genuine reason for that. More rogues have come from the ranks of Subtlety Heroes than any other three disciplines combined. It is a largely thankless task we do, and one that is rife with temptation with little incentive to remain on the straight and narrow. It is also the discipline that ultimately results in saving more lives, civilians AND Heroes, than the other five combined. It is the dirtiest job in the Hero world, and someone has to do it.” Closely examining the students in the room Elena wore a cold smile.
“Have I managed to convince all of you that this is a terrible idea yet?”
“Not yet, but by my watch we still have like forty minutes of class left.” Everyone in the room turned to see the skinny form silhouetted in the door frame for a moment before Amelia walked into the room and dropped haphazardly into one of the few remaining seats. “Sorry I’m late, the scavenger hunt took a bit longer than I thought it would.”
“I have to say I’m surprised to see you here, Ms Jacobson. I wouldn’t have thought that Subtlety would appeal to you.”
“I heard there were snacks!”
The room dissolved into laughter at the tall girl’s cheerful exclamation, and even the professor found herself chuckling along with her students.
“Alright, I guess I have another thirty eight minutes to convince you all what a terrible idea this major is. I guess we can start with some of the more famous examples of fallen Heroes…”