Chapter Eight – Rankings
Once again Ash was late arriving at the girl’s assembly hall, although this time he was only off by a few seconds and, luckily for him, the coaches hadn’t yet begun their speech. As quickly and quietly as he could, Ash slipped into one of the occupied back rows. He found himself seated next to a tall girl wearing a blindfold. He puzzled over that one. Why would a Super need to wear a blindfold in an HCP, if her eyes were odd due to her powers, it wasn’t like anyone was going to care here. In the room alone he could see at least ten other students with unusual physical characteristics, including one girl with a pair of horns!
“Hey,” Ash whispered to the odd girl.
“Hi,” she whispered back her head turning slightly in his general direction.
“I’m Ash, nice to meet you.”
“Amelia,” the girl greeted smiling faintly.
“So how’d you do in your matches?” He asked scanning the room to see if he could spot Derek.
“Oh, I think it went well considering.”
Ash looked back at the girl, her expression thoughtful. He nodded, then realising she couldn’t see him nodding said “That’s good, I failed miserably in my first fight so I was knocked out early on.”
“That’s a shame,” Amelia commiserated. She smiled sympathetically and patted him on the shoulder. As Ash started to wonder how she’d known where his shoulder was, Coach Barkley stepped forward on stage.
“Well cupcakes!” He boomed, quickly gaining the attention of every student in the room. “That wasn’t nearly as awful as we thought it was going to be!”
“In a few moment’s we’ll project the rankings onto the wall behind us. What you’ll see are your names in order of the overall rankings along with a number showing how you did within your gender groups. This list, along with the match videos will be released to the media later this evening. I’m sure all of you will be tuning in to see how the matches in the other HCPs went.”
“For now though,” announced Coach M, “You’ll just have to make do with your rankings. Since we do make your matches public, all fights except those involving anonymous students will be available for you to watch.”
“What this means,” added Coach Barkley, “Is that you all now have an excellent opportunity to start strategizing!”
“As you all know, no doubt from watching year after year of HCP students fight it out on TV, is that no rank is final.” Coach Barkley paused, allowing the message to sink in. “As of Friday, students will be able to challenge other students for their class ranks.”
“However,” interjected Coach M, “There are restrictions. If you hold a top five rank in either gender, you cannot be challenged by anyone outside the top five. The same goes for the bottom five, though they may challenge upwards.”
“Also,” she added, “Only the top and bottom five students may challenge any student, including those students not of the same gender. Whilst a female student’s rank would unlikely be changed in the women’s rankings, it would move up in the overall standings. If high enough, this may even move them up in both ranks!”
Coach M grinned at the group, particularly the girls clustered in groups around the room. Ash got the sense that the girl’s may not have done so well overall as Coach M had hoped and this grin was designed to drive home the fact the fairer sex needed to do a bit better.
“So without further ado,” crowed Coach Barkley, “I give you your first rankings!”
Behind the two coaches a list appeared projected onto the back wall of the room. On the list were just under 50 names, with the top rank shown on the top left and the bottom rank at the bottom right. As Ash scanned his way upwards from the bottom ranks, he was disheartened to see he’d only managed to get number 47 overall and a rank of dead last amongst the boys.
“Shit,” he muttered, hanging his head dejectedly. Whilst not an impossible hurdle to overcome, Ash knew that until he could start making challenges he was dangerously close to the line.
Beside him Amelia tapped him once on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry to ask,” she whispered, “But could you tell me my overall rank? I can’t see it I’m afraid.” Her rueful smile, elicited a snort from Ash.
“Of course, no problem. What’s your last name?”
“Edwards,” she replied.
He nodded and began to search the list for Amelia Edwards, as he made his way steadily upwards he became a bit concerned. Where was it? Surely the coaches hadn’t missed her?
When he finally reached the last name on the list Ash paused, his eyes screwed up as he reread the name shown.
Amelia Edwards (E) – 1 – 1
First ranked girl and first ranked student in the lower sixth?
He turned to look at the unassuming girl. Without being able to see her eyes he couldn’t tell if she was looking at him, but her head was turned in her general direction.
She raised an eyebrow.
“You’re the top ranked student.” He stated rather lamely. “How on earth did you manage that? And you’re an anon too! Blimey, I feel outclassed.”
“Should I assume you didn’t do so well?” she guessed, the sympathetic expression back on her face.
“I’m 47th overall,” He muttered, staring in wonder at this mysterious and powerful girl. How could someone who couldn’t even see take the top seat? He glanced again at the list and saw Anya’s name near the top.
Anya Collins (6) – 3 – 2
So Anya came third overall and second in the girls. That means she faced Amelia. How did she manage to beat Anya? Questions began racing through Ash’s mind as he continued to stare at Amelia. If this girl could already beat Amelia, just how far could she go?
Derek looked at the projected list and sighed again as he stared at his name.
Derek Zammit (21) – 14 – 9
He hadn’t made it into the top five or let alone the overall top ten. He thought back to his loss in his second match. He’d fought against some kind of robed shadow manipulating shifter. He and Shadow hadn’t been able to both attack and evade and Derek’s defeat still rankled. He’d known when he’d entered that he wouldn’t be the very best, but he still would have liked to have done better.
He consoled himself by observing that his opponent, number 13, had at least come fourth out of the boys.
Luke Smith (13) – 6 – 4
Getting to his feet, Derek looked around the room for his roommate. He spotted him in a back corner staring, rather rudely Derek thought, at the girl with a blindfold. He headed over, making his way around the groups of students discussing the ranks. Before he made it too far he was intercepted by Tom.
Although Derek had really only had a few days to get to know the other boy he quickly found he’d struck up an easy friendship with the guy. They’d mainly discussed things like their favourite World of Warcraft events, football and how bad the food in the dining hall was, but Derek really enjoyed spending time with him.
“Hey Derek,” greeted Tom, a grin stretched across his face, “Well done on your rank.”
“Thanks,” smiled Derek. “You didn’t do so bad yourself Mr 8th ranked male!”
Tom’s grin broadened and he glanced back over at the screen.
“Yeah I think I got really lucky with my matches,” he beamed. “I ended up going against a speedster in my last match and he was able to get past my summons and evade their attacks meaning he could attack me head on. Guy really knew how to throw a punch.”
“Wasn’t it a speedster that took the top ranked Male spot?” Derek asked.
“Oh yeah, that’s the guy I fought. I reckon it helped my score that I was taken out by the top ranked student.”
Derek nodded. Whilst how rankings were calculated was still a bit of an HCP mystery, who you beat and who beat you played an important part in deciding where you were placed. Scanning the list once more Derek finally spotted Ash’s name and rank way at the bottom.
“Ouch, looks like my roommate’s reasoning for hating Mondays has some truth behind it. He barely managed to not come dead last.”
“Yeah,” agreed Tom. “Don’t tell him, but I overheard one of the girl’s say how her opponent surrendered before the match even started. Didn’t even try and fight. Ash may not be dead last, but that’s only because of some weirdo pacifist chick.”
Derek winced, no way did he want his friend to find that out. He expected Ash was already feeling low about his poor showing.
“Hey you want to play WoW tonight? Lessons don’t start until after lunch tomorrow since they expect all of us to be up late watching the matches being aired.”
“Sure,” promised Derek, his mind still on his roommate. “Mind if I invite Ash to join us? You know, to get today off his mind?”
Tom bit his lip. He really liked Derek and had hoped to spend the evening getting to know the guy a bit better, but he couldn’t in good conscience let Ash stew in his room by himself. He’d just have to corner the hot Aussie some other time.
“That’d be great,” he lied, hoping Derek wouldn’t see through him. Instead Derek graced him with another of this blinding smiles of his. God I hope this ones at least Bi! He thought as the pair turned and headed over to Ash.
The corridor outside the Dean’s office was far less prissy than Bethany had imagined. Though nicely carpeted and recently painted, the decoration was understated, limited to a few landscapes hung on the walls. Looking out of one of the old glass panes to the fields that bordered the main campus buildings, she admired the forested scenery off in the distance.
You have to admit, she thought, if sacrificing a bit of anonymity means you get perks like this, it might just be worth it.
She took a seat on one of the cushioned wooden chairs that stood next to the office and prepared herself to wait. As asked, she’d made her way to the Dean’s office after the ranks were revealed. She’d been wondering just how to play it when they asked her why she’d deliberately thrown her match. Should she be aloof and overly self-confident, saying she hadn’t wanted to waste time fighting the weaker students? That she had wanted to wait and challenge the top-ranked student instead. It was a plausible line. As a student in the bottom five she could theoretically challenge any student she wished. The coaches had said any student after all.
‘I have a suggestion,’ came a voice from the back of her mind. Whilst her partner preferred to talk to her face to face, mental communication was easy enough for them. ‘Let’s try and get as much information as we can out of these teachers. That girl in the blindfold… she wasn’t a part of my plans. I think it’d be worth giving up a few secrets to get a few in return, don’t you agree?’
Bethany’s mind turned to thoughts of the girl in question. Amelia Edwards was quite the mystery. Not the only mystery of course, there were several anonymous students in this year’s HCP intake, but that blindfold was quite curious.
How could a blind girl expect to be able to keep up physically with the gruelling demands of HCP training? More to the point, how had she managed so far? Bethany couldn’t recall anyone in the gym classes falling behind that hadn’t been quickly and quietly removed from the programme, suggesting that Amelia was somehow keeping pace. As she considered the fact that Amelia clearly was more capable than her disability suggested, Bethany was suddenly struck by the only logical explanation.
The girl wasn’t blind at all. In fact she could probably see perfectly well and the blindfold was likely made of some kind of tech super fabric that allowed her some vision despite her eyes being completely obscured.
‘Now there’s an interesting idea.’ The voice mused.
If the girl wasn’t blind then why the blind fold at all? What reason could she have for hiding her eyes amongst her own kind? If her eyes were odd like Bethany’s own, then she could understand why she would have kept them covered in human company, but when surrounded by other Supers? It made no sense.
It could be a psychological issue, she pondered. Maybe she feels too insecure about her eyes and feels the need to hide them to function?
Before she could explore the line of thought any further the door to the Dean’s office opened and a head popped round the door. Looking up at the face Bethany was puzzled to see not the Dean or the girl from earlier but black man of maybe forty years. He looked down his nose at Bethany and raised an eyebrow.
“Well come along Miss Parks, the Dean and I don’t have all day.”
Bemused, Bethany got to her feet and followed than man inside. There seated behind a wide mahogany desk sat Dean Finch, a wide array of papers laid before her. Scanning the room, Bethany saw no signs of anyone else present, just the seated Dean and the unknown man who moved to lean against the wall in the left hand corner of the room. For a few minutes no one said anything.
“You asked to see me?” Bethany prompted, wondering what mind games the two adults were playing.
“Yes Miss Finch,” answered the Dean, “I did. Professor Charlton and I would like to discuss your ranking match with you, or rather your lack of a ranking match.”
“Professor Charlton? I thought us Lower sixth students weren’t worth the time of the other HCP professors yet?” Bethany fought to keep the smirk off her face as the two adults glanced at each other.
“Well remembered,” the man, Professor Charlton, noted. Normally most HCP students aren’t ready. We get a few as the terms go on that are signled out for, special tutoring, but none have ever grabbed our attention quite so quickly.”
The Dean nodded with the Professors assessment, her sharp eyes turning to Bethany. “If any normal student had tried to pull what you’ve done they would have politely been asked to leave by now. However I think we can lay all our cards on the table here by saying that you’re not a normal student.”
Professor Charlton reached over to the desk and picked up one of the folders lying on the heap. Opening it he turned to the first page within.
“Bethany Mary-Anne Parks,” He read, voice crisp and clear in the small office. “Born January 7th 1999 to a Clarence and Mandy Parks at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. A very normal pair of people if I do say so myself, living in a very normal and boring suburb in Didcot, Oxfordshire. Your marks at school were average at best, you played sports for fun and were generally assumed to turn out just as normal as your parents.”
Bethany was pleased to see her story had stood up to HCP scrutiny. She and her mother had worked hard on the cover, but it was always refreshing to see how easily a mark could be fooled.
“On June 16th 2007 however, that all changed, according to the file provided by the DFH. On that day you developed the abilities that marked you a Super, part of Homosuperious. Your eyes changed colour and you developed the ability to summon and control a creature that was able to change form. You were also noted to have gained improved durability and strength on a level similar to that of a low level strongman.
“From that day forward things began to change. You moved to a school for Supers and quickly became very popular amongst your classmates. Your teachers had nothing but praise for you and your academic prowess began to increase, though at a rate not deemed linked to your abilities by the DFH.”
Professor Charlton had been leaning against the wall the entire time he recited the basic facts of her life to her. With a sudden snap he closed the file and turned his gaze on her.
“So why was a certain key member of the DFH so insistent that we accept you? I asked around at the other HCP’s you applied to and all of them confirmed that your application was promoted by people within their governments as ‘a student to consider’.”
Bethany kept her expression frozen, making sure she gave nothing away. They’d expected that the influential backers they’d pressured would cause some increased scrutiny into her, but they’d decided it was worth the potential risk if it ensured Bethany got into the HCP they needed.
“Tell us, if you would Miss Parks,” said the Dean, “Why are you so special that six different directors in six different Super monitoring government bodies felt it was warranted to send out personal notes that your file was to be strongly considered for HCP admission?”
For once, Bethany was glad her family’s paranoia was so prevalent. She already had her reason ready to go. But before she could open her mouth to give it, her partner made his presence known in her head. Around the time froze.
‘Wait,’ they ordered. Bethany paused wondering what they wanted her to do. ‘I’m concerned that man is far shrewder than I’d accounted for. Subtlety Heroes are always tricky to gauge but I fear this one is more perceptive than our excuse will allow for.’
“What am I supposed to tell them then?”
‘\we can’t give them the whole truth, however a little bit of honesty mixed into the lie should sweeten it enough that they’ll buy it.’
Bethany bit her lip, worrying it gently between her teeth. “Are you sure?” she asked.
‘Yes, but be careful with your emotions. The Dean appears to be some kind of empath or telepath. She’s been probing you since we sat down outside.’
Internally Bethany cursed. She’d been too distracted by thoughts of Amelia and her blindfold that she’d unconsciously let her mental shields lapse. She raised them once more, carefully checking for weakness.
“Alright,” she breathed. “A little bit of the truth it is then.”
Around her time started up again. Outside the noise of the birds restarted and in front of her the Dean blinked, her eyes still locked onto Bethany’s, expected.
“The reason they’re so interested is that I’m here as part of a covert operation. I’m not at liberty to say and the fact you aren’t aware already should tell you just how quiet this is. Needless to say I’m not here to harm your students or disrupt your programme in any way.
“My reason for throwing my first match was simply because I needed to make a big splash in the media. Once I’m able to make challenges I intend to challenge the top ranked student for their spot. Why I need to do this is classified.”
That ought to be good enough for them. If they go digging they’ll run into enough walls that the lie will sound convincing, and they’ll get enough push back from directors that they won’t question it.
Both the Dean and Professor exchanged inscrutable looks. Bethany wondered if her partner was monitoring them for mental communication, but decided it was probably too risky.
“A covert operation.” The Dean tested the words as if tasting them. “I’m surprised the DFH would go so far without informing me first.”
Bethany put on an embarrassed expression with just a touch of sympathy added. “I realise it’s all rather strange, however I promise I’m not here to cause trouble. I’m just here to graduate.”
The Dean’s eyes focused back on Bethany’s face sharply. A small smile formed.
“Whether or not you graduate is still very much a question left unanswered, Miss Parks.” She remarked, her expression ever so slightly pleased. “Whilst you may have friends in high places, ultimately it is up to me and my staff to decide who advances and who does not. And, let us be honest, you don’t appear to be very likely to be part of the former now do you.”
Bethany smiled graciously, her internal emotions, far more relieved than her face revealed. She was glad the Dean had managed to pick up on her last statement. Now she had a place of power from which she believed she could still control the unusual situation. Not that it would do her much good, but the price of avoiding that path would be very costly. Very costly indeed.
“Thank you Miss Parks,” said the Dean, “you may leave now. I look forward to seeing you match up against the top ranks.”
Bethany paused at the confidence in the Dean’s voice. She knew Amelia had to be strong to make it to number one, but the Dean’s emotion seemed particularly strong. Who is this girl? She asked again. She’d have to do some digging. Quickly.
As the door opened and closed once more Daniel Charlton let out a long loud breath.
“Do you believe her?” He asked Dean Finch, collapsing into the vacated seat.
“Not for a second,” She replied, her eyes fixed on some distant point out of one of the bay windows.
“Not to play devil’s advocate,” the man voiced, “but it sounded fairly plausible.”
The Dean’s eyes fixed onto her colleague. Professor Charlton had never looked the same way twice. Each time she saw the man he always wore a new face, his age and appearance constantly changing. In fact, were it not for her own mental abilities, Dean Finch likely would have insisted on DNA verification each time they met, though it had been rumoured he could change that too.
Shaking her thoughts free she looked into the eyes of one of her oldest friends. The concern and doubt mirrored there were a close match to her own feelings.
“It is plausible. The whole thing sounds just like something the DFH would pull. In fact, given that other agencies like the DVA are involved, it’s really quite believable. You’ve heard what they’ve done to the US HCPs. The oversight committee, the rumours of Powereds with real control… why not put one of their own into the programme to get qualified instead of recruiting them after?!
“But something was off. When she came in her mind was hard to read but I was still able to get the gist of her emotions, her thoughts and even a flash to the house she grew up in when you mentioned it, but right after we asked her for the truth… Nothing. Her mind was just suddenly shielded and I couldn’t have glimpsed anything from it without real force.”
Daniel blinked. That was definitely odd. Sixteen year old girls, even covert DFH operative sixteen year old girls, didn’t suddenly raise mental shields like the ones Sarah Finch described. Sure they weren’t impenetrable, but no shields truly were. The fact that it had just happened though…
“No, that girl is still hiding something and that had me worried.” Dean Finch concluded, picking up Bethany Parks’ folder from where Professor Charlton had replaced it. “Something is off and I need you to find out Dan.”
Daniel sighed, rubbing his forehead. “I’m a retired Subtlety Hero Sarah, emphasis on retired. I don’t have the contacts I used to.”
“Then use the ones you have,” the Dean demanded, her expression grim. “I want to know why this girl is here, before it become too suspicious for us to have her removed.”
“She could still fail out of the programme,” Daniel pointed out. “It’s early days and Mick and Susanne do have to whittle down the numbers by the end of the year.”
Dean finch shook her head.
“If she really is part of some DFH scheme, then that girl is more powerful than we know. She won’t fail out through the normal channels. We’ll need to watch her, really watch her, until we know more.”
“Are you worried about Amelia?” Daniel asked.
The Dean sighed and mimicked Daniel’s earlier action, rubbing her own forehead.
“A little yes. Amelia’s plan is one I’m strongly invested in. If this girl derails that plan… It would likely set the Powered community back years.”
“I still can’t believe we’ve let a Powered into an HCP,” Daniel muttered, his arms crossed.
The Dean said nothing, but her disapproving glare was enough to convince Daniel now would be a good time to take his leave.