Townhouse #117 was conveniently located. The previous evening all the inhabitants walked across the narrow street to enjoy the culinary delicacies of the dining hall. To call what they ate food pushed the word to the limit of its definition, and the circulating rumor was the cooks threw a healthy helping of laxatives in as a main ingredient. So Mason’s restless night was due as much to missing his Grandma’s home cooking as it was his nerves.
The pitch black of night gently faded as the new day dawned and the townhouse’s residents prepared for their first taste of the HCP. Mason took one last look at the mirror and pinched himself to make sure it wasn’t some wishful dream. With a singe of pain and a nod he headed down to the common area.
No one was eating this morning. Everyone looked as equally nervous as he did. Becca played with her blue pigtails while Kyoshi twiddled her thumbs and Angela stared unwaveringly towards the door. Seth was the last to arrive, his cocky demeanor clearly replaced by one of intestinal discomfort.
“This is cruel and unusual punishment,” he forced out the words over his stomach’s audible rumble.
“It is what it is, man,” Mason shrugged, not at all feeling sorry for the spoiled rich boy. “Better get steppin’ before we’re late.”
All the girls nodded in agreement. He followed them out, lagging behind with Seth. While his nerves and the school’s awful food definitely contributed to his restless night, the third factor was one of the beautiful women walking ahead of him. Mason never really had a steady girlfriend. With all the time he put into school, extracurriculars, his various jobs, and then Hero training he never had time. Maybe that was why he was utterly infatuated by her. Maybe this was four years of self-inflicted celibacy bursting forth. He was so taken with her he got tongue tied every time he tried to open his mouth. He looked like a fool trying to casually chat her up over dinner.
She was such an exotic woman, a woman full of opposites. Her hair reminded him of a full moon he’d seen as a kid, so pale it made you shiver. Then her eyes were like two golden stars blessing you with their warmth. She could find the tiniest pebble or smallest crack to trip her up, but had a graceful confidence that ran far below the surface. She was so tall with an incredible strength of character but she let others take the lead and tried to shrink down within herself. She was a paradox that he was determined to solve. And he’d only known her for twelve hours.
<I must be losing my mind,> Mason shook his head as they entered the student union. <Focus, Mason! You’re here to be a Hero, not fall for the first girl you see.>
Despite the incredible challenge before him Mason couldn’t completely banish Kyoshi from his mind. Despite his selfless life goal he was still a red blooded American man, and walking behind the woman wasn’t helping his conflicting mindset. He thought he saw the object of his fixation smile but he couldn’t be sure.
<And I forgot she was a telepath…great,> Mason mentally surrendered and began the search for the HCP’s secret entrance.
It was communicated to them in their welcome packets that there were a number of hidden entrances to the underground facility throughout the campus. They were present in most of the dorms housing HCP students, large academic buildings, a few administrative establishments, and of course the student union. Initially they were all thrilled to be so close to where they’d be spending the majority of their time, but that was before they had to find it. Luckily they’d gotten there a half hour early.
“Damnit!” Angela growled, looking like she was going to punch the first person that came with arm’s reach. “How do we get in?” she lowered her voice after a pointed glare from Becca.
A quick look at his watch showed Mason it was 5:51, they’d been searching for over twenty minutes. Nine more minutes and they’d be late to their own orientation. <Maybe this is a test,> he thought as he ran his hand behind a vending machine for the third time. <If you can’t find your way in then you automatically fail. A one way trip back to Brooklyn, do not pass go, do not become a Hero,> now he was beginning to panic a little.
“Stop laughing, Seth,” Kyoshi’s voice cut like daggers into their roommate.
“I’m not laughing,” he replied, his tone as equally frustrated as everyone else’s.
“Then who is…”
<Students, I apologize for delighting in your misery,> the feminine voice echoed through their five minds simultaneously. Kyoshi looked especially surprised at the mental confession. <If you proceed to the far end of the room near the rest rooms you will find the entrance.>
Like taking orders from a voice in your head was normal, the five teenagers tried to make their way as inconspicuously as possible to the other side of the room. The only other person in the vicinity was an athletic raven-haired woman sitting alone at a table reading a book. She didn’t look up or acknowledge them in any way. She only inclined her head towards an empty wall.
Becca led the way up to the empty space and inspected it. There was nothing to indicate it was anything more than a plain wall, until Becca tried to touch it and her hand went straight through it. The speedster squealed and jumped backwards like the inanimate construction was trying to eat her.
<Polymorphic mesh courtesy of a technological brilliance alumni,> the voice in their heads, which Mason was sure belonged to the mystery woman, informed them. <After orientation it will be coded to your biometrics. It will let only HCP students through, while stopping anyone else as would a regular wall.>
Mason stepped forward and pressed the mesh with a finger, only to have it disappear through the material. <Cool.>
<It is cool.> They could all hear the smile behind the words. <It is going to be significantly less cool when you’re late for orientation and the Dean uses you all as an example.>
There was no smile behind those words and it sent them running. It felt funky passing through the mesh, like passing through a thin waterfall, but they didn’t stop to contemplate the sensation. Getting on the bad side of an HCP Dean was about as stupid as cutting off your leg and jumping in a shark tank. You just didn’t do it. Beyond the mesh was a small alcove with a normal looking elevator. The elevator could have fit ten people comfortably, but Mason’s size made it a little cramped. Thirty seconds, and an undetermined number of stories later the group found themselves in the metallic lined halls of the West HCP.
Mason tried not to stare at the construction. He was used to brick building filled neighborhoods whose centuries had not been kind to them. This place looked like it would fit right in on some starship exploring distant galaxies.
<Very sci-fi,> Kyoshi’s disembodied voice echoed his own sentiment.
Mason tried very hard not to geek out. He was a closet nerd and could study the scenery for hours, but time was money and it was ticking away quickly. It seemed their entrance was a decent distance from the orientation auditorium. They ran for it, following the signs and making it to the room just in time.
It was filled with about a hundred unfamiliar faces. A small portion were wearing all white and occupied the top bleachers. They casually scanned the crowd below them, but Mason had the distinct impression they were evaluating threats. He’d seen the same look on law enforcement agents when high profile dignities came to New York. Below them were a larger chunk of grey clad students. Their gazes weren’t as intense and they didn’t possess the casual lethality of their white wearing counterparts, but their faces were full of focus and determination. The bottom level of seat was occupied by teenagers in a hodgepodge of attire all looking excited and talking loudly. This had to be the freshman class, his class.
All the sophomores, juniors, and seniors ran their eyes over the five almost late newcomers. Despite the looks Mason felt relieved. He’d spent most of his time being looked up at with a mix of fear, awe, or jealousy. The uniformly clad upperclassmen didn’t look at him like that; their casual dismissal didn’t even categorize him as a threat.
<Stop gawking and find your seat,> Kyoshi’s reminder snapped across his subconscious and brought him back to reality.
While the upperclassman seemed to be sitting wherever they wanted in their assigned sections, the freshman had little placards designating their assigned seats. Mason found his on the back row of the class, which made sense due to his height and width.
“Sup, Brah,” greeted a teenager in a surfer-boy drawl. “Oliver Carpenter, but my friends call me Big O.”
Oliver, Big O, was anything but big, but his appearance matched the stereotype of his voice to a T. He was a hair under six feet tall, tan, lanky, with long blond hair that obscured his eyes. He wore board shorts, a tank top and flip flops. He lounged in his seat casually and had to toss his hair out of his face to get a good look at Mason.
“I’m Mason, nice to meet you Big O,” the much larger Super replied, receiving a bleached white smile in return.
Mason would have liked to know why the guy’s friends called him Big O, but his attempt was interrupted by the stage curtain’s opening. Three people walked onto the stage and the strongman felt his stomach drop. In the lead there was a small man with rapidly graying hair who stepped up to the microphone, and even had to lower it to the proper height. This drew a few snickers from a few less tactful freshmen, but the man either didn’t hear it or ignored it. Behind him stood a middle aged man with a beer gut, vibrant freckles, and a sadistic grin on his face. As interesting as these two were it was the last person who caught Mason’s attention. She was tall and athletic with supermodel looks. Her long blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail displaying her gorgeous face and demonically red eyes. She had a scowl on her face that Mason frequently heard referred to as a “bitch face”, and in her case it seemed to be the default expression. It wasn’t the looks, or eyes, or even expression that threw Mason for a loop. It was that he knew her, or more rather her deeds and reputation.
If this woman was going to teach them then Mason wasn’t nearly as confident in his preparation. <We’re so screwed,> his thoughts flashed back several years to their first encounter.
“Kid, what the hell are you doing!” a twelve year old Mason jumped at the authoritative voice.
Mason had seen the car plow straight into the pole from his bedroom window. Power lines full of electricity were flailing wildly around the street spewing their deadly currents. The police cordoned off the area and told everyone to stay in their homes, but what twelve year old from Brooklyn listens to the police.
Mason had grown six inches in as many months and was getting stronger, too strong to be normal. His grandma didn’t have the money to get more than a basic DVA assessment, but everyone knew he was a Super. So he couldn’t let the couple in this car get electrocuted. That isn’t what the New York Patriots would have done.
“It’s ok, I got this,” Mason turned back to pulling the door off the mangled car. He was making progress, gradually warping the frame to get to the injured occupants.
“No you don’t,” as if to emphasis her point the woman caught one of the cables about to impact the juvenile. The line sputtered and died.
She then proceeded to grab Mason and walk him back towards the police line, ignoring the futile punches he threw at her. It was quick, methodical work from there on. The Hero drained the flailing lines of the electricity and then the fire department went in with the Jaws of Life to get the couple out. Mason remained sequestered behind the police tape and under the watchful eye of a police officer.
“Thanks for the assist, Reaper,” the cop watching Mason thanked the masked woman in black fatigues as she approached.
“No problem, Charlie. Let me have a word with the boy.” The officer nodded and went over to help disperse the gathered crowd.
“What?” Mason asked as she scowled at him.
“You’re strong but not as strong as you think,” she seemed to tower over him now. “The line might not have killed you but it would have knocked you out, and then you would have been another problem instead of a solution.” Despite Mason’s recent gains he shrunk beneath the red glare. “Your heart was in the right place, kid, but leave it to the professionals.” With her little speech over she walked away.
“Do you think I could be a Hero?” the question was out of Mason’s mouth before he could help himself.
She stopped, turned, and gave him another look. “Hell if I know. Study hard, get stronger, and then apply to an HCP and see if they’ll take you.”
As Reaper stalked away, clearing a path through the crowd without even trying, Mason knew he could do it. He would study hard and he would get stronger. When he finally became a Hero he’d find her again and let her know he made it.
Six years later Mason knew his statement was made out of youthful naivety rather than an actual commitment to others. He’d been watching the Patriots on the news and Hero cartoons for years. Any kid would think because he had super strength he was one of their number. It was another few years before he realized the real sacrifice Heroes made. The Patriots near extinction, and the murder of thousands of New Yorkers, pushed him to make a real commitment. Now, everything seemed to have come full circle, and he was once again staring into stern red eyes.
“Welcome to West Private University’s Hero Certification Program!” the small man had finally adjusted the microphone to begin his speech. “I am Dean Ditmar and I must congratulate all of you for overcoming the first hurdle to becoming a Hero.” He clapped politely, along with a few of the upperclassman. The two instructors on stage with him did not. “Well then…”he seemed disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm shown by the student body. “Allow me to be the first to thank you for your sacrifice.” A number of the freshmen looked around with puzzled expressions. “I thank you for your sacrifice because that is the life you are about to enter. A Hero’s life is not one of fame, glory, and riches. Although you might achieve all three, a true Hero’s life is about sacrifice.”
The little Dean might be small in stature, but his voice carried the full authority of his title and the weight of experience. Mason barely noticed he was sitting on the edge of his seat, transfixed on the powerful voice of the small man. A quick look around showed many of the freshman in a similar position. Even Big O looked a little less laid back.
“If you are here at this program to do the bare minimum so you can achieve fans or material wealth, then you will be greatly disappointed. There are 57 freshmen sitting before me today and in a best case scenario 10 of you will graduate in four years,” the Dean gave the sudden eruption of shock from the new students a moment to settle. “Of the 10 of you that graduate one of you will be killed during their two year internship. Of the remaining nine, half will be lucky to see retirement.”
Mason knew Heroes died, Supers weren’t gods after all, but hearing the numbers for the first time was hard to process. He was glad he wasn’t the only one caught off guard. A few of the freshmen where white faced and visibly shaken. Oliver nodded solemnly while Kyoshi and Angela didn’t seem surprised. Becca was staring open mouthed at the Dean, but Sean was the one who caught Mason’s eye. The guy looked ready to bolt for the door. Sweat was glistening on his brow and his eyes were wide. Mason hoped it was from the indigestion more than fear. Heroes didn’t have the luxury for such an emotion.
“I tell you this to make sure you all know what you are getting yourself into,” Dean Ditmar made eye contact with every single freshman. “Do not enter into this program lightly, and do not do it for personal gain because you will fail.” The silence was so complete you could have heard a raindrop hit the ground on the surface.
“It is our job to make sure that you don’t bite the dust,” the potbellied man stepped to the microphone. “My name is Coach McMillan, and I’m here to teach you how to fight.” He let his grin pass over the students. “Some of you were the big kahuna where you came from. You’re used to being known as the big bad Super on the block. You used to be a big fish in a small pond. Your survival over the next week, not to mention the next four years, will hinge on you accepting the reality that you are not anymore.”
Coach McMillian stepped back and the woman stepped forward to the microphone. The next few minutes passed in silence as she scrutinized every one of the freshmen. Some stared defiantly back to only wither under her unyielding gaze. Some tried desperately to become one with the chair that they were sitting in. Mason doubted anyone knew who she really was, and if they did they would suddenly be wishing they weren’t the biggest guy in the room. Her eyes lingered on him like all the others, but if there was any recognition he couldn’t tell.
“You will all call me Ma’am until such time as I see fit to tell you my name,” her voice was oddly pleasant in the way a beautiful poisonous animal was. “I will only tell you once you show me you have an iota of competence to stay alive in this hell-filled world.”
If Mason hadn’t been so focused on trying to make himself less of a target he would have noticed that everybody in the room was on edge. Everyone understood the lethality of this woman. The confidence of the upperclassmen was gone and even Coach McMillian seemed to be angling away from his associate.
“I am your alternative instructor,” she continued. “I will also teach you to fight, but some of you have powers not conducive to sheer brutality. I will make you think of new ways to use your ability to win, and make sure that the people you are sworn to protect are safe.” If the Dean’s speech about sacrifice didn’t hit that point home her’s did. “I am not here to be your friend or your drinking buddy; I’m here to make sure you don’t end up another dead Hero.”
She surrendered the podium back to the Dean. “Thank you,” he nodded after her. “I would like to take the opportunity while everyone is gathered here to reiterate the secret identity rule,” a few eye rolls in the higher seats signified this was a routine speech. “The secret identity is a valued asset in any Heroes arsenal. Having your true self unknown to the world not only protects you but the people you care about from retribution. Here at West we expect all of our student body to keep their HCP dealings a secret from the rest of the student population and the community. This will be a significant part of your grade,” his voice went from reading an imaginary script to very serious. “That being said. I do not want anyone to think, for one moment, to not act like a Hero ik the situation calls for it. If there are people in danger, or lives at stake, I will support your intervention. You will undoubtedly fail your current year at the HCP, but it will not be the end of your career. Many famous Heroes have not only failed to complete the program in four years, but have suffered SI infractions along the way. In fact, there will be more opportunities for anyone who can’t meet the standards at this time. It is up to you to put in the necessary work to succeed and then reapply.”
The Dean gave a supportive look over the gathered students before continuing. “Sophomores, juniors, and seniors, thank you for being present and meeting our new instructor. You are dismissed.” Half the room rapidly emptied. “Freshmen, if you wish to leave no one will hold it against you,” the Dean added to the freshmen class.
To their credit no one left. Mason felt more determined than ever and he doubted he was alone. Although Reaper might scare the shit out of him, being able to learn from her was invaluable. Now he just needed to figure out how to get into this alternative section.
“Now that it is just us we will move on to your orientation.” The Dean switched note cards. “You freshmen curriculum will be divided into ethics of heroism and physical training. Ethics of heroism will me Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from noon to one o’clock. I will be your instructor and we will use our time to have candid discussions about the ethical implications of being a Hero, and the decisions Heroes are forced make. Mostly the class will be an open forum of debate but you will have some case studies, papers, and a final project to complete.” The groans were identical to any class hearing a syllabus for the first time.
“We will have you for your physical training every day from one until five, but if you fail to meet our expectations then you’ll be spending much more time with us,” Coach McMillian’s grin spoke of nothing but pain for those unfortunate individuals.
The rest of the time in the auditorium was spent taking care of housekeeping items. They might be training to be Heroes, but they still had to worry about housing costs, student loans, scholarships, major selection, and a multitude of other things that every day college students had to think about. It took them up until noon to get all 57 freshmen’s paperwork completed, and HCP contracts signed. Once the last signature was affixed the Dean collected the mound and wished them good luck. Everyone was under the assumption it was now lunch time. They were wrong.
“Listen up!” Coach McMillian’s yell silenced the scattered conversations. “It’s time for your first lesson.”
Mason didn’t like the emphasis the older Super put on “lesson”. The gleam in his eye was wicked; quickly silencing the rumbles from the strongman’s protesting stomach.
“Anyone want to wager a guess on what the first rule of fighting is?”
It took an uncomfortable silence before everyone to realize this wasn’t a rhetorical question. “Don’t start a fight you can’t win?” Mason said, repeating what his old boxing coach told him on his first day.
“Usually I would agree with you, but Heroes don’t get to pick and choose their battles. You will undoubtedly face people smarter, stronger, or more powerful than you if you make it through this program,” the combat instructor’s voice was light. “A Hero steps up to the plate even if they know they aren’t going to make it out alive. That’s part of the job description, so get comfortable with it real quick. Anyone else?”
No one else spoke up after the Mason’s answer crashed and burned.
“The first rule of fighting in the Hero world is knowing how to lose,” the woman no one else knew was Reaper interjected.
“But aren’t Heroes supposed to win?” this time Becca spoke up.
“Of course we’re supposed to win,” Reaper’s smile echoed Coach McMillian’s wickedness. “But how do you think we learn to win?”
“Uh…physical training,” Becca tried valiantly to answer the follow on question she wasn’t prepared for.
“We do train,” Coach McMillian stepped back in. “We train, and we fight, and we lose. By losing we figure out our weaknesses and blind spots. We learn to push our abilities to their max and know our limits.”
After giving the information a minute to sink in Mason saw their point. Despite all his training he’d only really sparred with another strongman. He had no idea how to engage the variety of Supers a Hero would encounter. It had been a long time since Mason encountered anything that could hurt him, but he had a nagging suspicion that streak was going to come to an end. The feeling was just starting to sink in when the anvil dropped.
“So to teach everybody this important first lesson, today everyone is going to lose. We’re all going to proceed down to the gym and half of you will fight me, while the other half of you will fight our alternative instructor. Any questions?”
Coach McMillian was so casual with the statement you’d think he was describing the weather instead of throwing down a gauntlet. On top of that he thought he was going to win.
<Either I know a lot less about fighting than I think I do, or Coach McMillian is crazy.> Mason would have his answer much sooner than he wanted.