Second String Supers: Freshman Intrigue: Chapter 28 1

Chapter 28:
Passing Classes and Failing Dramatic Reveals

Collin smiled to himself as he entered the classroom where his Introduction to College Algebra final was being held. It was somewhat embarrassing to be taking a course that was only barely considered non-remedial, but there was a definite silver lining to be found. The heavily muscled youth was almost certain he was going to ace this course, and the near mind-numbing ease of the material had played a huge role in that certainty. Having a personal tutor the entire year didn’t hurt either.

The red haired young man found himself sighing at that thought. Nikki had done a fantastic job getting him motivated his first term, and had seemed like a genuinely fun person to be around. Since Collin had been unable to restrain himself from pursuing the tall pink haired girl until he had managed to wear down her considerable resistance, he’d managed to score a date with his sexy ex-tutor. Because Collin hadn’t thought through the implications of trying to date someone outside the HCP’s SI requirements, he had effectively ruined any shot at continuing a friendship with Nikki. On the plus side, Alex was a hell of a lot better instructor than Nikki ever managed.

The relatively non-descript brown haired young man that had replaced Nikki in order for her to finally accept one of Collin’s many propositions had indeed proven to be a far more effective tutor than the pink haired beauty. He was also the TA for the very class the muscular youth was currently entering, and had drilled Collin relentlessly to make sure he had all of the material fully absorbed.

For a moment, as the tests were being distributed to the class, Collin found his attention drifting once again to wonder what trials the HCP class would be facing at the end of the week. His mind managed to wander only for a moment before a rapid physical shake of the young man’s head drove such thoughts away. One step at a time. First we pass all the classes. THEN we figure out what new torture they have in store for us. Unbidden, a final stray thought wandered into his attention that nearly destroyed his focus for the test. Oh God. What if Dani’s the one that gives the freshmen their final?

“So explain this again. You have to do what?” Tasha continued to stare blankly at her roommate as the auburn haired girl was attempting to rush back out of their shared room.

“C’mon Tasha, just because you cultivate the opposite look doesn’t mean you aren’t every bit as smart as the rest of us. I’ve already explained it twice, please move so I’m not late!”

“Explain it one more time, because the last two times got drowned out by all the bullshit they’re putting you through.”

“It’s not like that Tasha. I’ve known about this since the beginning of the year. Every Advanced Mind in the HCP over a certain sensitivity threshold has to do this.” Seeing her roommate still unrelenting, Catalina sighed and started again. “I have to go and retake both my finals from today, in a specially shielded room down in the HCP facilities. It will be a slightly different version of the ones I took in class, and it’s to make sure that I’m not cheating on my academic requirements.”

“And it doesn’t strike you as bullshit that they won’t just accept your word that you aren’t cheating?”

“Technically, I am cheating Tasha.”

“Oh come on Cat. You are the most ridiculously honest person I know. Which is the only reason I am not completely freaked out about how much you must know about me by now.” The large muscular woman was still showing no inclination to move out of the doorway to let her smaller roommate pass.

“I hear through other people’s ears and see through other people’s eyes. ALL THE TIME. The amount of focus it would take for me to completely shut that off would probably ruin my shot at concentrating on the test itself. Even if I’m not picking the answers out of other people’s heads, I’m still looking at every test sheet in the room.”

“Why the hell isn’t Michael going to be in there with you?” Tasha finally reached the real point of contention she had with the system, the black woman’s perception that her friend was being forced to put in the extra work while Michael got to skate by free. A point that her hispanic friend had known was at the heart of the objections from the beginning, but hadn’t known how to bring up without insulting the taller girl.

“Because he’s not as good at this as I am.” The black woman blinked in surprise at Catalina’s rare, incredible bluntness. “If he’s going to make it in the HCP he’ll be right there with me, though probably actually in a different room obviously, starting by midterms next year.”

“You’re sure that this isn’t some extra bullshit hoops they’re making you jump through?”

“A hell of a lot more sure than pretty much anyone else on the planet could be. I really REALLY appreciate your concern, Tasha. But I’m fine, this is standard procedure for the HCP, and you really need to move or I am going to be late!”

The heavily muscled woman finally relented and cleared a path for her smaller roommate. Catalina offered a reassuring smile to her friend as she dashed off towards the HCP elevators, and several more hours of mandated testing.

It’s still bullshit, Cat. You should be getting just as much time to prepare as the rest of us, and instead they’re making you double down on all the normal classes.

“That may be true, but judging by what the Dean’s been thinking, I don’t think any of us are going to be really prepared for the final when it comes.” Tasha jumped a bit as the voice in her head sounded clearly with her roommate long out of sight, then laughed at herself.

Maybe it wasn’t quite so unfair as she’d first thought, considering the young telepath was probably the best informed freshman in the class.

I don’t suppose you can give your best friend/roomie a clue as to what it is we’re all unprepared for?

“Alright, Ladies. Why are we all here again?” Susan Owens was the last of the four housemates to arrive in the HCP fitness center after receiving Kaori’s invitation.

“We’re here to train.”

The three invitees offered the Japanese healer matching incredulous looks. “Kaori, we’re already training every day of the week for the whole year. What else can we do?” Lisa Shang asked the question that all three girls were obviously thinking.

“I don’t know, but today is Wednesday. We all finished our last normal finals this morning.” She offered each of her roommates an earnest look as she spoke. “Our HCP final is on Saturday, and no one who has any idea what it is will tell us anything. Based on all the bullshit our class has to deal with under the Oversight Committee, it’s possible no one KNOWS what our final will be.”

“You really think that’s possible?” Teresa Montez had held the least interested expression of the girls, but it was apparent from the change in her stance as she asked the question that this had changed.

“I’ve been paying attention on healing duty. I’ve been asking the upper classmen what they can tell me. A couple of the juniors are Advanced Minds and they told me straight out that the Instructors are all expecting some kind of last minute surprise.”

“So what can we do that we aren’t already doing?” Lisa repeated her earlier question in the face of the new revelation.

“We all have different perspectives. We can take a different look at each others’ abilities and look for something that we all might otherwise miss.” Kaori took a deep, steadying breath. “And if all else fails, we’ll have another dozen hours or so of applied training with our abilities before whatever it is they throw at us.”

The redheaded girl responded by shifting into a jet-black skeletal monstrosity. “Well then, what are we waiting for. I’ll volunteer to be first critiqued because honestly, I cannot seem to come up with anything creative to do with this form.”

“We should do what?” Kyle made no attempt to disguise either the disbelief or the exhaustion in his tone as he responded to his roommate’s suggestion.

“We should go back for more training. All four of us.” Gerard sounded nearly as tired as his asian roommate, but there was a steely conviction present in his voice.

“If this is some kinda insult at me because you finally bumped me out of the number four slot…” The black haired boy offered a questioning glare towards the blonde youth as he spoke.

“No, nothing like that. Sorry, I took the celebrating thing too far, I know, I’m a dick.” Gerard repeated his apology that had become nearly automatic over the course of the year. “But we only have tonight and tomorrow, and then the final is Saturday. We should cram every bit of time we have into preparing for it. I…” The well groomed young man trailed off and stared at the ceiling, seeming unable to finish his thought.

“Oh my. My friends, I believe our friend Gerard is finally admitting that he will miss us if we don’t all make it through to next year!” The muscular hispanic man sounded far too alert for anyone that had just finished a four hour Rachd Training Session. “What brings on the sudden concern for all of us, Gerard?”

“Look, I realize that I really am a dick sometimes. But you guys just call me on it, and we can all move on. Originally I was just going to try to not care what anyone thought while I was here, but… That’s harder than I thought it would be.”

“I don’t think there’s much benefit to further training at this point Gerard.” Antoin entered the conversation as he exited the upstairs shower, which Kyle immediately made a beeline for. “We’ve even got the day off tomorrow for both Ethics and gym. The Instructors know that we need some downtime if we want to perform at our best for the final.”

“How can you be so calm about this shit? You’re the bottom ranked person in the class right now Antoin. Twenty ninth with only twenty eight spots to move into.” The suppressed emotion in the tall blond man’s words drew surprised looks from all three of his roommates, even briefly halting Kyle’s quest for a shower.

“He’s a healer Gerard.” It was the asian youth who finally responded into the silence that descended after Gerard’s last statement. “He’s not going to get evaluated on the same criteria as we are.”

“And there are three healers. Tasha and Kaori are both ranked well above Antoin. You aren’t worried a little bit even?”

“I can’t match Tasha at self healing, and I don’t have whatever it is that lets Kaori cause pain with her ability.” The Canadian’s voice was quiet, but seemed to hold no trace of anxiety. “I’m not going to get better at unarmed combat in the next day, and I doubt I’m going to have an amazing breakthrough to discover I have a new ability in that timeframe either. I can heal in an aura around me, where the girls are limited to a single patient at a time. That’s either going to be enough for now, or it isn’t. I accepted that back before the end of the first semester.”

“But you could be pushing for somet-…”

“I am pushing. Every day, I try to branch out in a new direction. I try to do things with my power that I haven’t ever managed to before. But there’s nothing I can do in the next thirty hours that’s going to change anything. I would rather spend this time hanging out with my friends, so that I can be calm enough to do my best on whatever they throw at us.”

Ramón and Kyle both nodded their agreement with their roommate’s sentiment before the latter ducked out of sight and into a much needed shower. Gerard sat staring at the healer for a long moment before replying.

“Well fuck it then. Ramón’s got the fake ID, so let’s get wasted instead!” The muscular blond tossed his wallet onto the table next to his Mexican roommate. “And it’s my treat, so bring back the good stuff this time!”

The smile on Walter Raines’ face as he strode into the Overton HCP conference room would have looked far more appropriate on a recent lottery winner, or perhaps gracing the cat that finally caught the canary. Flanked by his personal assistant and one of Mirror’s doubles, the man’s gaze slowly wandered over each of the three HCP faculty members in the room, searching for the signs of shock or outrage that he expected.

“Mr Raines, right on schedule.” The smile faltered at the Dean’s calm greeting as she waved him towards a seat at the table.

“I… You were expecting me Dean Jilles?”

“Yes, we were. This is the final hour that any changes to the freshman HCP final can be made, so it was our assumption that this would be when you put in your appearance.”

The brown haired man seemed to deflate as the completely unsurprised HCP staff waited for him to take his seat. “I was under the impression that Mirror’s static doubles, like this one, prevented people like you from reading my thoughts, Dean Jilles.” Whatever tone Walter was aiming for, he missed his mark and landed on petulant instead.

“Mirror’s duplicates make it quite difficult for most Advanced Minds to listen in on anyone within about a dozen feet of them. When you consider that I was the Focus Instructor that taught Mirror how to instill that particular ability into her duplicates, you might imagine that I have my ways around it.” Kathryn had no intention of letting the little weasel in on the Walkers’ contributions to the readiness of her HCP.

“Should I even bother at this point, or have you already done the paperwork for me?” Walter accompanied his response this time with an unconscious move to be seated even closer to the Hero duplicate next to him, bringing a small smile to the Dean’s lips.

“We have to make it official, Mr Raines. As you are probably aware, telepathy is not extremely well suited for extracting fully detailed plans from an unwilling mind in any circumstances.” Elena Martinez entered the conversation smoothly, though she barely stifled a laugh at the patent look of relief that crossed the politician’s face at her statement.

“Yes, well then.” Raines motioned his assistant forward, and Jeremy Kreid withdrew several thick folders from the briefcase he was carrying. One each was supplied to the Dean and two Instructors, and a fourth was placed in front of Walter without receiving even a glance. “As you can see, the Oversight Committee has decided to go all ou-…”

“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?” Everyone in the room, save the Mirror duplicate, flinched in reaction to James Rachd’s screaming response to the contents of the now open folder before him. “Is this your idea of a sick joke?”

Walter Raines responded by attempting to shrink through the chair away from the livid Combat Instructor, his ability to speak seemingly taking a brief leave of absence. Fortunately his assistant was made of sterner stuff than the politician. “Professor Rachd, if you’ll look through all the information presented you will see that every aspect of the proposed test fall completely within HCP guidelines.”

“I don’t give a fuck about the GUIDELINES. Where did you get one of these?” The folder, left open to a page with a detailed schematic showing, was flung onto the table in front of Jeremy and his employer.

“Professor, it isn’t uncommon for the HCP to borrow resources from the DOD to conduct exercises as important as a class final. The Oversight Committee, with the cooperation of the Senate Budget Committee, made these appropriations several months ago to prepare for this examination.”

“This is ludicrous.” The Dean had ignored Rachd’s outbursts and finished paging through the material in the folder in front of her. “There’s no possible way this can fall under the HCP guidelines. These things are monstrous, and leaving the students with only a ten minute time limit to deal with something like this?” The gaze that locked with both the politician and his personal assistant burned with suppressed anger. “Two FULL Heroes died taking down one of those things, and I would bet my position here that the military has improved on the design since co-opting it.”

“For your students’ final examination there will only be non-lethal and variably rated less-lethal weapons loaded out onto the units. The variable weapons are only approved for use against those students identified as having significant defenses against physical harm.” Raines had managed to locate his missing voice in the excitement of realizing that he had, in fact, surprised the HCP staff as originally intended. “Additionally, it was officially stated in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Robot Rampage’ that the casualties were the result of improper intel in the original dispatch. Your students will have the opportunity to be fully, and correctly, briefed prior to engaging.” The smug expression vanished from Walter’s face as quickly as it had returned when the Combat Instructor replied by putting his fist through the table in front of him. A table constructed of a very solid metal alloy, that gave way to the enraged man’s fist like foil.

“Settle in, little man.” The volume had gone out of Rachd’s voice, but his tone carried a truly dangerous note now. “We are going to go through this line by line, page by page. And then we are going to inspect the units you brought in for this exam, piece by piece. And you are not going to like what happens if anything doesn’t line up the way it’s supposed to.”

“With all due respect, Professor Rachd,” Jeremy Kreid took an involuntary step back as the muscular man’s attention swung to him as he spoke, “but you can’t perform the inspection on the actual hardware.”

“That’s ludicrous, it’s one of the primary responsibilities of the HCP Instructors to insure that all testing and training equipment is in order to function exactly as intended.” The Subtlety Instructor’s tone was considerably less friendly than when she’d last spoken.

“Again with respect, your program is officially under investigation. You must be aware that this is the exact circumstance that allows Oversight to substitute this final for the one you had originally planned. As persons within the HCP under an active investigatio-…”

“You really think you can back up that claim?” Dean Jilles was beginning to wish she’d spent more time observing Raines’ personal assistant. The man was obviously far more competent than his employer.

“The same technicians responsible for the upkeep and arming of these units under the DOD will be performing all the checks to insure they are not inappropriately outfitted for this test. You will have full access to those technicians AND their full reporting on all four RCU’s that will be part of this final exam.”

“So what happens after all four are broken?” James had finally calmed down enough to read quickly through one of the two folders still within arm’s reach.

“What?” Raines and Kreid responded almost simultaneously.

“You only brought four of these things, right? There’s no stipulations in any of your documentation about my students needing to demonstrate restraint with your toys, it simply states they must neutralize them within ten minutes and then a bullshit grading scale for partial success. Additionally, you do specify that Overton will use its standard testing criteria for all areas outside of determining the objective. So what happens when my kids break all your robots?”

“Professor Rachd, I understand that you are proud of the freshman classes accomplishments, but I really doubt tha-…”

“Mr Kreid, are you aware of what happened to the original combat robot from which the military’s RCU’s are derived?” The personal assistant was caught off guard by the seemingly tangent question.

“I believe it was a Strongman type Hero that finally destroyed the original. I can’t recall the name though, it was five years ago after all.”

“Five years, two months, and eleven days, Mr Kreid. In spite of your doubts, please humor me. What will we be doing with the majority of our class once all your robots are broken?”

Jeremy Kreid and Walter Raines exchanged a long glance, both men seemingly unsure how to proceed. It was Walter that broke the silence. “Assuming your little second-stringers can manage such a feat, then I suppose the remainder of your class would have to be evaluated by whatever final you had originally planned for them to take.”

Both Kathryn and Elena found themselves joining the other two men in directing questioning stares at the Combat Instructor. After a long moment simply sitting with a contented smile, James Rachd spoke again.

“It’s Overton policy during the finals to pair off Combat and Alternative training students to run the exam in pairs. Differences in the numbers between the two groups are resolved by having a couple of trios made up of students with lower overall combat ranks.” Walter and Jeremy listened intently as this was new information to them, the Dean and Subtlety Instructor leaned back in their own chairs, now wearing smiles that matched the one on the face of the muscular bald man. “By tradition, the highest combat rank students are the first selected to pair up and take on the exam. And nowhere in your little folder does it state that they would be required to stop at neutralizing just one of your little toys. After all, we like to allow for extra credit on the exam.”

The greasy haired politician laughed loudly at the Combat Instructor’s speech. “You honestly think that even the best of your students is going to be able to destroy a single RCU?”

Rachd never lost his smile as he looked straight through the politician in front of him. “Seeing as I WAS the strongman that finally put down the original, I think I’m going to enjoy watching Jacobson rip them apart like tinfoil.”

Second String Supers: Freshman Intrigue: Chapter 27
Second String Supers: Freshman Intrigue: Chapter 29

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