Professor Nguyen stood at the front of the observation room and watched as her eighteen Sophomores filed in for their first class of the second semester. The Control Instructor wore a small smile instead of her usual impassive expression, causing several of the arriving students to exchange nervous glances.
“I hope you’ve all had a ‘productive’ break.” The knowing look in the Instructor’s eyes and the heavy overemphasis with which she drew out the word ‘productive’ dispelled any doubts the class might have held regarding the professors’ knowledge of current extracurricular activities. “Another reminder for your first day back, both the SI and criminal conduct clauses of your attendance in the HCP are being STRICTLY enforced.
“So, moving on to matters more relevant to this class, I would like to congratulate you all on developing the spatial and situational awareness you need to advance in this major. This semester you will finally be experiencing the full Control course. There are a multitude of changes that should challenge all of you, even if a few of you have been asking for them all year.” The final statement was accompanied by a long, knowing stare at a suddenly blushing auburn-haired student in the front row.
“This may end up being a case of, ‘careful what you wish for,’ but rather than spend our first class period going through the minutiae of the new course, I’ve always preferred to simply let you experience the changes firsthand.”
The blond man froze as he rounded a corner in the massive simulated factory and attempted to process the scene in front of him. Three robotic mannequins stood close together, apparently engaged in some sort of melee. During the split second hesitation, one of the machines sprouted a wicked looking blade from its right arm and stabbed another, causing the damaged robot to fall limply to the ground and the approaching student to curse loudly. A wall of shimmering white light appeared to separate the obvious aggressor from its other potential victim, and a brief effort from the young Super quickly battered the knife wielder into submission.
Jon cursed as the last standing bot lunged at him during his brief distraction with the definite hostile, forced to backpedal to give himself enough room to slam another barrier up to defend himself with. The rapid retreat halted abruptly as the light-manipulator slammed into a protruding rack with enough force to nearly break his concentration.
The last standing robot attempted to scramble over the glowing barrier in front of it, but there was nothing to grip on the perfectly smooth surface. A few seconds later, Jon finished disabling his final opponent and sagged with exhaustion as the full lighting came on and the ‘clear’ bell sounded.
“Not an exemplary performance, Mr Glenn.” The Control Instructor’s monotone voice emitted from the room’s speakers, drawing a frustrated sigh from the student.
“I definitely have things to work on. Do I go again?”
“No, Mr Glenn, not today. Head back to observation so the course can be reset for your classmates.”
Jon sighed again, but turned to jog quickly towards the flashing light indicating the exit. Dammit, I have GOT to do better than that.
“So good of you to join us, Ms Abbott, Mr Tannen.” Elena Martinez smiled widely as the last two students of her Subtlety class materialized in the out of the way maintenance room. “Alright, who had seven to ten minutes?”
The late arrivals flushed with further embarrassment as they realized that their Instructor wasn’t kidding, with Aaron Sexton stepping up to claim a small box stuffed with five dollar bills.
“You guys suck.” Sean accompanied his statement with an eloquently elaborate gesture before grabbing one of the last empty seats.
“Seriously.” Beulah’s muttered agreement drew some laughter from around the room as the dark-haired girl blinked across the room to claim the final chair.
“Now that we’re all here, who’s ready to get started on their final exam?” The question from the still smiling Instructor was met with absolute silence and varying degrees of stunned expressions. “And yes, I am aware that the second semester has only just started today.”
“We’re going to start the final today?” Even the top ranked Sophomore could barely get her voice above a shocked whisper as she asked the question.
“If you like. You can also wait a while before you get started, but sooner is probably better.” Professor Martinez shrugged as if the matter was of little concern to her. “It’s an important lesson in Subtlety, actual test aside, but we very rarely play by the same rules as everyone else. If a Subtlety Hero isn’t at least a few weeks ahead, they probably aren’t doing their job right, and probably won’t last long.”
Silence reigned again in the large closet holding the Subtlety class for several long seconds before another student found their voice. “Well, what’s the damned test then?” The indignant question from the tardy teleporter drew a round of laughter from the class, Professor included.
“Your final exam, like all good Subtlety projects, comes in multiple stages. The most important thing to remember before I explain all the stages though; your grade is entirely dependent only on completing the LAST step. You can get through the beginning and middle however you like.” The Instructor allowed her expression to grow more serious as the full focus of the ten Subtlety students fixed on her.
“Stage one; each of the six discipline Instructors has been given a special document safe. You’ll be able to tell it’s the ‘special’ safe because it’s painted bright pink with orange stripes on it.” Elena momentarily lost her serious expression to an involuntary giggle at the responses she saw to the described color scheme.
“The reason why the special safes are so clearly marked is to make sure that none of you are trying to break into an HCP Instructor’s ACTUAL private safe.” All humor left the Professor’s face for a moment. “Trust me when I say that none of you want to find out what happens if you try to break into the wrong safe.
“Each Instructor has taken their own precautions for concealing and securing the safes they’ve been entrusted. The only restriction for this Sophomore exam is that they must physically remain on campus. As most of you have probably guessed by now, completing the first stage of the exam is getting into one of those safes and securing its contents.
“The contents of each safe will be an encrypted file of some kind, from old-school paper ciphers to high tech encryption. Stage two is deciphering the information you’ve acquired, in order to lead you to stage three.”
“Is there going to be any part of this test that Cat isn’t going to smoke the rest of us at?” Eloise James’ expression seemed to grow more annoyed as she heard the whining note in her own voice. “Not that I want to be the class complainer, but…”
“Actually it’s going to be a challenge for me, too.” Attention in the room shifted quickly to the telepath, mostly wearing expressions of disbelief. “I think Professor Martinez has had to deal with Advanced Minds in her classes before me.”
“Quite right. Ms Blake will most likely have the easiest time locating the safes, but she won’t have any special advantage regarding access or decryption in this case.” Elena smiled again. “All the combinations, access codes, ciphers, and encryptions were supplied by an associate of mine. None of the professors knows how to get into the safes, or the contents of the information contained therein.”
The Instructor’s smile remained in place at some of the expressions she saw around the room while THAT bit of information was digested. When Catalina stuck her tongue out at the professor it almost caused the older woman to break down laughing. “Right, moving on then.
“The third stage will be acquiring whatever it is your deciphered data leads you to. The objects will be unique enough that creating a suitable substitute or forgery would be more challenging than the rest of the exam in its entirety, an impressive feat if any of you can accomplish it. So of course this will be allowed for full credit on the exam. As I’m sure most of you have guessed, the last step of the exam is delivering the object to me in order to receive your grade.”
Elena finished her speech kept her expression neutral as the students worked through the most obvious implication of the Subtlety final.
“So… Only six of us can pass the final. What happens to the other four?” The grim expression worn by the top-ranked student as she asked the question indicated she had her own guess as to the answer.
“Completing the final is mandatory to move on as a Subtlety major.” The professor’s tone was neutral, but carried a distinct note of finality as she responded.
“I thought the students could select any of their majors to advance in?” The question from Aaron Sexton was accompanied by some murmured agreement around the room.
“To be completely precise, you can still continue in the Subtlety major even if you fail the Sophomore exam. You’ll still receive the training and access to all the exercises, I just won’t assign you a score for any of them. You will very likely fail to advance past third year if you choose to do this, as nearly half your HCP evaluation will effectively be a zero. If you do advance to fourth year in spite of this, you will not be able to graduate as a Subtlety Hero.”
“That is COMPLETELY unfair!” Beulah Abbott stood up as she shouted at the Instructor. “This is only the second year in the program and the first year for majors, and you’re telling us that it’s a pass fail for the ENTIRE major?”
“More than half your class failed to make it through a single semester in the HCP. In all likelihood, barely more than a third of those who still remain will actually graduate as Heroes in another two and a half years. The bar to advance in the HCP is ALWAYS high. Subtlety is probably the most dangerous specialty once you’re out in the real world. You’ll rarely have the kind of backup and resources that the Combat Heroes take for granted. If you can’t clear this hurdle, then Subtlety is NOT the major for you. I think it’s better if we get that out of the way this year, while there’s still time for you to refocus on other areas.”
“You said you’d accept forgeries in place of the real thing, right?”
“I also said that acquiring such forgeries would be more challenging than the entire exam, Ms Blake.”
“So it’s like the speech back at Freshman orientation. We CAN all pass, it’s just the bar is set that much higher in order to do so. Option one is to pass by turning in the final, option two is to pass by sufficiently impressing you.”
“That is an accurate way to put it, Ms Blake, though I’m fairly certain you already knew that. I wouldn’t advise on betting your best shot in the HCP on the latter option, however.”
“We’re training to be Heroes, Professor.” Erin Casse stood and stretched as she made her own entry into the discussion. “Not really the career choice picked by people who are good at taking rational advice, is it?” A few chuckles and several nods of agreement met the third ranked Sophomore’s statement.
“So if that’s all there is to our class today, I think we should get started.” Erin strode towards the exit as she spoke, turning to smirk at the Subtlety Instructor when she reached the door. “It looks like nine of us have to figure out how we’re going to steal some pink safes from ridiculously powerful and extremely paranoid Supers, and the tenth has some actual hard work to do!”
Most of the Subtlety class exited quickly after Erin, wearing smiles that looked both amused and intensely serious at the same time. A minute later, Professor Martinez stood in the room with only a single student remaining.
“You’re really going to throw away your chance at the HCP in order to take on a ridiculous challenge, aren’t you, Ms Blake?”
“I’m a deaf girl in the HCP, Professor Martinez. The easy way is a trap. I have no direct combat capabilities, and no enhanced durability beyond that of a normal human. Do you really think that, when it comes time to graduate, doing it ‘the normal way’ is going to be enough to offset my handicap?”
“You’re already the highest scoring student in this discipline in the nine years I’ve been an Instructor. One of the best ANY program has ever seen since the HCP was founded.”
“And that’s not enough, is it?”
The silence stretched for nearly a minute before Catalina nodded firmly. “Exactly. Now if you’ll excuse me as well, Professor, Erin’s right. I DO have some hard work in front of me.”
Elena continued to watch silently as her best Subtlety student to date walk out of the room. “You’d better impress me, Ms Blake.” The Sophomore didn’t slow in her exit, but she did turn enough to wink at the Instructor. I will never forgive you if you don’t.
“Good afternoon, class. Everyone grab your gear and follow me.” Anthony Banning appeared in the doorway leading to his class’s normal meeting area just long enough to make the announcement before heading back into the hallway. A soft chorus of groaned complaints followed the Ranged Combat Instructor as he set off at a quick pace.
Looking back, Anthony had to admit he was impressed that no one was lagging too far behind. Even Tara and Eloise, two of the smallest students each carrying more gear than the rest of the class combined were only a dozen or so steps behind the main group. In the interest of not finding out if any of his students WERE actually capable of murdering him, the athletically built Instructor paused at the main elevator to hold the door until the whole class managed to make it aboard.
“So where are we going, and why couldn’t you have just had the class meet THERE instead?” Anthony did a brief double take when he realized that the angry sounding question was coming from the least assuming Ranged Combat student.
“Well, Ms Warren, I could give you a long list of perfectly viable and logical reasons why I would have you all arrive in one location only to quickly relocate you to another. They would mostly be lies though.” The professor grinned in response to the many irritated looks now being sent his way. “Ultimately it boils down to three real reasons.
“One, I wanted to see if any of you had disregarded my advice that extra time to deploy or re-deploy would count against your grade in this course. Two, I didn’t want anyone viewing the new training area in advance of the actual class starting.”
“And three, like all the HCP professors, he enjoys fucking with us.” The interruption from Michael Karl drew a chuckle from the Instructor, even as several of the glares around him intensified.
“Exactly right. Remind me at the end of the year and I’ll show all of you the damage bills, repair estimates, and prep hours your professors have to go through on a WEEKLY basis, and we’ll decide if the occasional messing with of students is justified or not.”
Before further conversation could take place, the elevator door slid open and Anthony was quickly through, waving for the class to follow again. “We’re off to our own little corner of SR 3, which has been retooled for all of you to practice the skills needed if you want to pass the Ranged Combat final at the end of the year.” Another turn brought the group into the aforementioned room, several students found themselves staring once again at the incredibly realistic simulation of the great outdoors, close to two miles below ground.
“Ah, here we are.” The Instructor broke into a jog as he led the way up a small hill, stopping near several recently added benches at the top and raising his arms in a stereotypical ‘presenting’ stance. “Welcome to the advanced Ranged Combat course.”
The Sophomores filed quickly to the top of the hill with their Instructor, and stood silently for several long moments before anyone spoke up.
“It looks like a park.” Nods and murmurs of agreement quickly followed Rorie Samuels’ assessment.
“Complete with a crowd of simulated bystanders, and of course multiple hostile targets.” Seemingly queued by the Instructor’s statement, the crowd of robotic park-goers down below the class shifted from ‘carefree, if a little weird’ scene to ‘screaming panic.’
Several students stepped forward with the intent to intervene, but the professor raised a hand quickly and spoke a single word. “Watch.”
The chaos below continued to unfold, with several obvious causes now visible; a few of the robotic mannequins were attacking their peaceful counterparts. Blasts of fire were emanating from one, and another was firing into the crowd with a pair of arm-mounted machineguns. On the perimeter where the ‘civilian’ bots attempted to flee, a particularly large robot was causing havok by simply picking up its smaller brethren and flinging them through the air.
The simulated massacre continued for roughly two minutes, at the end of which nearly all the non-hostile bots were down in a manner that made them look much more like actual corpses than robots should. A few were huddled behind benches or bushes for cover, and a few more had managed to flee out of the area and now stood dormant. The class was allowed to observe the finished scene for about thirty seconds before all the bots stood back up and reset to their original peaceful routine.
“For anyone wondering, this is a rough simulation of an actual event. Look up ‘Norfolk, Nebraska summer of 83’ if you want the full details. They won’t be needed for THIS class, and trust me when I say that the real thing is a lot messier than with the bots.” Anthony turned to face away from the class as he finished speaking and raised his arms to gesture at the scene below him.
“For this semester, you will all be attempting to STOP the slaughter from happening in this scenario. You’ll be graded weekly on your progress, inventiveness of tactics used, and overall effectiveness. You’re grades will be SEVERELY docked if you cause additional civilian casualties. The amount of time it takes to neutralize all threats will also contribute to your total grade, but remember that a longer time will hurt your score a LOT less than another injured or killed civilian. Questions?”
“So, this is our final? A semester long adaptive test thing?” The question from the brown-haired plant manipulator was met with a smile and a headshake from the professor.
“No, Mr Tannen, this is NOT your final. Your final for Ranged Combat will incorporate all the elements you see here, but it will be decidedly more difficult. Only Professor Martinez and Coach Rachd give you Sophomores your final exam right up front.
“Now, who wants to be first up on the new course?”
“AND BREAK! Everyone towel off, get any missing pieces put back, and get to the main gym in five.” The gravelly voice of the Close Combat Instructor rumbled through all the active combat cells in a rare use of the general PA system. The mostly exhausted students broke up their matches immediately and began staggering out to follow Rachd’s instructions. Several headed directly to the designated meeting area, eschewing immediate healing in favor of guaranteed on-time arrival.
The muscular Instructor waited with an impassive expression as his class assembled, actually having to fight back a small grin as all fifteen students arrived less than three minutes after he;d made the announcement.
“First off, I’d like to congratulate you all on not losing your edge over the break.” The Combat Instructor coughed uncomfortably at the stares directed his way in response to the unexpected praise. “It’s nice to finally get a class that DOESN’T slack off at every opportunity. Just remember; you’ve raised the bar, you’re gonna have to meet it every time now.”
“We love you too, Coach.” The flippant remark from the second ranked Sophomore drew laughter from the group, even a startled chuckle from the Instructor.
“Getting to the point, since I hear Tony already leaked the broad strokes yesterday, it’s time to discuss your Close Combat final.” The few students still laughing softly immediately silenced. “It’s a very simple exam, one you can retake as often as daily as long as schedules allow it.” Rachd smiled as he noted a few alarmed looks as some of his quicker students put together the most likely scenario.
“The Sophomore Close Combat exam is as follows; you will fight a challenge match, same rules as a ranking match. You will not be fighting against another student during this match. Instead you may challenge either myself, or Professor Reyes. Personally? I recommend you stick with me
“You aren’t expected to WIN this match, so wipe those panicked looks off your faces and change your panties later. Your grades will be based on the creativity and adaptability of your tactics, the amount of damage you inflict, and how long you last before becoming unable to continue.” Rachd’s smile widened as he noted a few of his students wearing expressions nearly as predatory as his own.
“You’ll be sent your grade for a given match sometime the day following the match, at which point you can decide if its good enough or not. To let you all know in advance, any match where you last less than a minute is going to be an automatic failure. Questions?”
Amelia started to step forward as soon as the word was out of the coach’s mouth, but Collin was even faster as he moved directly in front of the heavily built Instructor.
“When can we start?”
James Rachd glared down at the shorter, muscular youth in front of him, and was pleased to see the young man didn’t flinch as he stared back.
“You think your better half has anything left in the tank, Gauge?”
The Combat Instructor found himself suddenly having to look up, as Collin’s shifted form stood a good six inches taller than the bald man.
“Been… practic-…ing” The raspy voice emanating from the crystalline figure caused several jaws to drop in shock around the room. Rachd’s surprised expression transformed almost immediately into a wide grin.
“Class is dismissed, everyone who wants to join Gauge in taking their shot today; form a line outside RC 1.”