Second String Supers: Sophomore Siege: Chapter 9

Chapter 9:

Finding Ways Forward

Amelia didn’t look up from the benchpress as the door to the extreme-weight room slip open to admit someone. She did notice when that someone strode angrily to the press she was using and pushed the bar down with an impressive amount of force. Focusing her attention on the newcomer, the skinny blonde found herself less than surprised to see the scowling expression of her Combat Instructor.

“Something I can do for you, Coach?” The sophomore pushed against the bar harder, trying to overcome the extra downward force coming from the bald man leaning over her.

“You can stop fucking sandbagging, Jacobson.” Rachd hooked a foot under the impressively large machine that the young woman was working out on, and used the leverage to force the bar back to its lowest position.

Amelia only answer was a glare of her own and a growl, as she dug down and tried to push even harder. Slowly, with both Supers straining visibly, the massive bar inched upwards until, at about halfway up, the muscular Instructor released it and turned away with a dismissive snort.

Sitting up and feeling slightly dizzy from the incredible effort she’d just put out, the blonde’s voice held more than a little anger in it. “What the fuck was that, Coach? You think I’m holding back?”

“No, Jacobson. I KNOW you’re holding back, and you’re too fucking stupid to even REALIZE IT!” The vehemence from Rachd washed over the skinny girl, but she didn’t flinch or back away. Stalking back up to the student the bald man leaned in close. “How much weight are you up to, Jacobson?”

“61 tonnes. I’ve been keeping on the program we developed back last year whe-…” Amelia broke off as the man was obviously no longer listening, instead he reached past and tapped the control screen for the weight machine a few times.

“Tell me what the screen says.”

Looking confused, Amelia leaned far enough over to read the display, and felt her jaw drop open in shock. That can NOT be right.

The display stated that the last workout had consisted of 27 reps, which the braided girl’s internal count told her was accurate. And stated that the workout had been performed at the machine’s maximum level. 101.3 tonnes.

“You didn’t even notice that the machine had been reset, you just laid back and did your workout like always.” The gravelly voice seemed to be coming from farther away as the girl continued to stare blankly at the numbers on the screen, before a sharp impact on the back of her head drew her attention back to her other surroundings.

“Ow,” Amelia rubbed her head where the coach had slapped her.

“Pay. Attention.” The growled words locked the incredibly strong girl’s focus back on her Instructor. “I’ve been waiting for you to realize this yourself since you stepped up and dismantled Gauge during the ranking match opening weekend. But you haven’t. Then I reset your workout program so it would just scale to maximum resistance every time you worked out, and you still didn’t notice.” The muscular man sighed and seemed to deflate a bit as he sank onto one of the other machine’s benches across from Amelia. “Do you have the slightest idea of how dangerous that makes you?”

The stunned, yet defiant expression that appeared in response to the question gave Rachd all the information he needed and he continued before the girl could find her voice again. “Yes, DANGEROUS. You, all of you, are here to learn how to be Heroes. The biggest part of that is learning to use your abilities above and beyond what almost anyone else would even contemplate. And as long as you stroll blithely through life not accepting HOW powerful you are, you aren’t going to learn what you need to.” The muscular man hesitated, something that shocked Amelia far more than the yelling, accusations, or even revelation of the subterfuge with the weight machine had.

After a long pause, the Combat Instructor continued. “You are skating dangerously close to the line of washing out of the program right now, Jacobson. You wouldn’t be the first. Sometimes the most powerful Supers can’t make it as Heroes because they can’t, on some mental level, accept all of what they can do. As strong as I am, I can barely imagine what it’s like for you to walk around a world so fragile. To me, a world built for normal humans is like something made of spun glass. To you, those things must barely be more solid than a soap bubble.”

“I have it under control, I’ve HAD it under control fo-…”

“No, you don’t.” The interruption this time wasn’t angry, but the gravelly voice was attempting to sound compassionate instead. Amelia found herself laughing as even the Instructor stopped at the sound of his own voice, and chuckled.

“Alright, so touchy feely shit is not my thing, glad we got that out of the way.”

“What do you mean, I don’t have control?”

“You don’t, because you can’t. Before five minutes ago you didn’t know you could press a hundred metric tonnes with barely more effort than sixty. How can you have control over your ability when you don’t know what its limits are?” Rachd stood as he spoke, seemingly preparing to leave. “You have to start PUSHING yourself, Jacobson. Push until you start failing, so you know where that is. Then learn to use EVERYTHING between where you are now, and where those actual limits are.”

“How do I do that?”

“Hell if I know, Jacobson. I’m mostly just here to teach you how to hit things without dying. But I can tell you this.” The Combat Instructor waved around the room as he spoke. “You aren’t going to find your limits in here. Go try to do something impossible. Pick a fight with one of your Instructors. Get one of those teleporter girls to zip you off somewhere remote and try to knock over a mountain. You’ve been coasting on everything except your boxing lessons with Carerra, it’s time to step it up.”

Amelia sat quietly for a long time after the muscular Instructor had left the room. Finally she stood, and shook her head as if to clear it. Looking back at the monstrous weight machine the HCP had provided for the physically enhanced students, she made a note of the manufacturer. I’m not quite ready to try and punch out a mountain, though punching out a Combat Instructor might be worth trying. Let’s see how big they actually make these things first.

Groaning, Iris Todd forced her eyes open to see a face leaning over hers, framed with bright red hair. “You should really try to avoid shots like that, Iris. Why do you keep letting Erin hit you?” The mocking question drew a scowl from the downed girl, even as she felt her strength returning and pain fading.

Ignoring the Instructor for a moment, Iris flashed a look of gratitude towards Tasha as she regained her feet. “Well, what’s your answer Iris?”

“I’m not LETTING Erin hit me, Dani. She’s just impossibly good at this, and I’m still learning.”

“But you’re so much FASTER than she is.” Another scowl from the blonde girl as the Instructor threw back the words that Iris had used when she’d been told she would be paired with Erin instead of working directly with the Instructor.

“Yes, fine, it was a stupid thing to say. Happy?”

“Nope. You have to defend the honor of all speedsters everywhere, and get in there and land at least one REAL hit before the end of class!” Iris noted that, behind the animated Weapons Instructor, Erin seemed to be fighting to keep herself from laughing.

“Right.” A glance at the clock indicated that this left Iris approximately twenty minutes to accomplish her goal. Looking to her opponent the speedster wore a plaintive expression. “Don’t suppose you want to give me a freebie, Erin? You already laid me out like ten times.”

“Only nine so far, Iris. You’re getting better. And no, no freebies. Dani told me if I gave you any freebies that I would be her EXCLUSIVE sparring partner for the rest of the year. Not a price I’m willing to pay.”

“Oh well.” Iris accompanied her acceptance speech with a furious rush at her opponent, only to have her attack again deflected by her opponent’s incredible reflexes and skill. “Worth a shot.”

As the two women closed again there were no further words, save the occasional excited cheer from the engrossed Weapons Instructor. Still, when the class ended, Erin still stood triumphantly with no more than bruises along her arms where some of Iris’ high speed strikes hadn’t been perfectly deflected.

Dani approached the dejected looking blonde with a conciliatory expression, then placed a white ballcap on the younger speedster’s head. Iris sighed, as the hat was settled into place. Dani Reyes was definitely the oddest of the six Overton Instructors, and the cap was one of the key pieces of proof for that argument. Rather than yell, threaten, assign extra work that hadn’t been announced previously, or any of the other myriad ways in which the other professors made it known you hadn’t met their expectations, Dani had the failure hat.

The ballcap was plain white, adorned only with an ASCII frowny face, and a student who had the cap placed on their head was expected to wear it att all times while in the HCP facilities. For a full week. Failure to wear the failure hat resulted in Dani assigning an entire weekend of ‘personal instruction’ with the student in question that was rumored among the upperclassmen to have resulted in every student subjected to it washing out of the program. Needless to say, Iris was planning to wear the damned hat for the rest of the week.

How the hell do you do that, Erin? I mean how can you possibly be keeping up with me?” Iris had considered approaching the higher ranked girl several times in the past, but the hat was giving her some extra incentive to do so now. I do not want to get stuck with this damned thing again next week.

“You mean the speed difference?”

“And the reaction time difference.” Iris grabbed her bag as the class began filing towards the locker rooms and produced two bottle of water, offering one to the other girl. “I mean, I know you’re stronger than I am, and faster than a normal person, and I can’t do the full on perception enhancement while I’m fighting yet, but I move close to THIRTYtimes faster than a normal person and my reflexes are at least five times better. How are you keeping up with that?”

“You know what my powers are?” Erin accepted the water bottle and took a small sip, leaving her blonde companion feeling slightly more frustrated as it emphasized the fact that the slightly taller girl seemed barely tired from the strenuous workout.

“You mess with light, you see really good, and you’re low end physically enhanced.”

Erin chuckled briefly at the abrupt description. “Technically accurate, but not very complete. Do you know how ‘really good’ I can see?” The blonde girl shrugged her response and offered a querying look. “Right now I can see the Close Combat class working out through the wall we’re walking by. I can see how the sound from out footsteps, and from the conversation we’re having right now, is disturbing the air. I can see the nerve impulses underneath your skin, I can tell where blood is flowing by watching for subtle changes, and I can also see certain types of radio frequencies well enough to have a primitive radar.”

Iris found her expression dropping further and further into one of shock as Erin ticked off details. “So… you can see what I’m going to do before I do it?”

“A little bit. It took a lot of practice to be able to read muscle signals very well, and it’s not much of a warning against someone as fast as you are. But think, I’m seeing and interpreting all of those things ALL THE TIME. The speed I can interpret information at is probably close to the same as what you’re managing right now, and as a result my reaction time is similarly heightened. If my brain COULDN’T process that much faster than normal, I’d just be a vegetable staring at all the pretty colors and shapes, never being able to completely make sense of them.”

“Jesus, when you put it like that it sounds like you almost ended up with a really awful power.” Or maybe a really awful Powered. Iris shuddered slightly at the thought.

“There were some… things last year that made me think about what my ability would be like if I didn’t have the control that I always remember having.”

The blonde girl lapsed into a quietly contemplative state at this information, as the two students entered the locker room together. After showering and changing, the Iris came back alongside Erin as they exited, again wearing the hated failure hat. “So, think you have time to give me some extra lessons?”

Erin giggled at the question from her classmate. “Think that’s a good idea when we’re on competing teams?”

“Don’t you want to make sure your team has a challenge? I mean a challenge OTHER than the ridiculously indestructible students in our class?”

The taller girl laughed again. “All right, you’ve convinced me. Although if you really want a big jumpstart on your training, there’s an easier way.”

“What’s that?”

“Throw the hat away, and wait for the weekend.” Iris laughed along with Erin at the suggestion, but one hand unconsciously crept up to check and make sure the cap was still in place as she did so.

“Mr Jameson, a word please.” Scott found himself caught off guard by the unexpected voice behind him as he had moved to exit the Control class with the rest of the students. Turning he found himself face to face with the Instructor. “I’m curious why you’ve remained completely ground-bound in all of my classes this week, Mr Jameson.”

The sandy haired youth’s eyes widened a bit in surprise at the not-quite question. “Umm, ground-bound? As opposed to?”

The look the petite professor returned was not quite a glare, but still a bit more emotion than the young man was used to seeing on the normally expressionless face. “During your class’s first team exercise you demonstrated that you can use your ability in order to fly, or a close approximation thereof. An aspect of your power that would make the exercises you are completing in my course MUCH easier, yet you haven’t used it once all week. I am curious as to why this is.”

Dear Lord, she doesn’t actually ASK questions does she? Don’t answer that. “Well Professor, I didn’t think it was really in the spiri-…”

“There is a teleporter in this course with you, Mr Jameson.” Scott’s halfhearted excuse was interrupted with a bit of force from the petite woman. “And also a VERY fast speedster. Seeing as how neither of those students is being discouraged from using THEIR abilities to better master the exercises presented, I’m forced to wonder why you would feel YOUR power wouldn’t be ‘in the spirit.’”

Scott hesitated before answering, seeming to consider several possibilities before slumping slightly and muttering a response.

“I didn’t quite catch that, Mr Jameson.”

“I can’t control it accurately enough to do it in tight spaces without running into things. I haven’t been doing it in class because I didn’t want any of the other students to know I don’t have it figured out yet.”

The impassive Instructor merely nodded in response to this information. “In that case, Mr Jameson, I will leave the obstacle course as is until later this evening. Thank you for your time.” With that, Professor Nguyen turned away from the dumbstruck young man and headed in the direction of the faculty offices.

Sweet merciful Lord, did the most emotionless Instructor at Overton just do me a favor? “Uhh… Thanks Professor!” Scott flinched a little as he spoke, realizing immediately that he sounded far more surprised than grateful, but the retreating form of his Instructor simply gave a small wave of acknowledgment without turning around.

The rapid clicking of typing on a keyboard and the soft sounds of breathing were the only things audible in the small room. Antoin watched as the information on the monitor in front of him flickered, changed, but stubbornly refused to become anything other than indecipherable garbage. A brief pause in the clicking while hands were run through short, platinum blond hair in near-universally recognized gesture of vexation.

“Where’d you get next week’s assignment?” Antoin literally screeched in shock and fell out of his chair at the sudden question from right beside his ear. Managing to catch himself before a damaging landing could occur, the young man attempted to force his heart rate back under control as his brain rapidly associated the voice with its owner.

“Professor Martinez, I, um, well…”

“It’s good work getting this much of it, but I don’t think it matters what kind of decryption you throw at it. Might be worth some extra credit though.” The middle aged hispanic professor faded completely into view looking intently at the monitor. And not bothering to hide the wide smile she wore as her gaze flicked momentarily to the student still making his way off the floor.

“It’s… why not?” Antoin gave up the battle to salvage any real dignity from the situation as lost and simply pulled himself up and back into his chair, attempting to ignore the fact that he was still flushed with embarrassment as he spoke.

“Well, mostly, because it’s an incomplete file.”

“How can you POSSIBLY tell it’s incomplete from what’s on the screen right now?”

“Oh, that?” A hand waved at the garbled data being displayed. “That’s nothing, just a bunch of junk data that goes along WITH the real assignment. I did a bit of work making it all look like legit files to see who would waste all their time trying to translate garbage into something useful. I know you don’t have the real files for the exercise because I haven’t actually made them yet.”

The healer felt his jaw drop open at the conclusion of the professor’s matter-o-fact statement. “Wait, so all this is…”

“Yep, this is the chaff you were going to have to sort out. I guess I’ll have to change it now that I know it’s already out there. Maybe I’ll change it up completely and have you kids play ‘Watch and Spot’ next week instead.” Elena trailed off as she seemed to be considering her own thought before she suddenly turned back to the blond youth. “Though you still haven’t answered my question, Mr Montaine.”

Antoin flinched slightly at the intense look the professor had suddenly turned on him, and ran back mentally through the conversation as he tried to figure out which question he had failed to answer. “Ah, you mean where I got this from?”

“That would be the one, seeing as it’s the only question I’ve actually asked.”

“I got it off the HCP computers, obviously.” Antoin motioned towards the workstation he was currently seated in front of. “The networking is pretty solid an-…”

“And there is no way a sophomore without an Advanced Mind or Technological Brilliance type ability could POSSIBLY have broken through from the student terminals to lift these files off of my personal computer.” The perfectly timed interruption was performed with a mostly playful tone, but there was a look in the older woman’s eyes that indicated things were going to become a lot more serious if Antoin didn’t become more cooperative.

“Ah. Well, in the spirit of the Subtlety discipline, I kinda bribed one of the other professors to let me use their terminal from inside the REALLY high end firewalls to get access to your computer.”

Elena met the young man’s steady, if somewhat nervous, stare for several seconds before she burst out laughing. Antoin felt greatly emboldened by this result as he continued.

“You said it yourself on the first day; ‘There’s always a weak point in the security, even if it’s not always in the security you’re looking at.’”

Getting her laughter back under control, the professor nodded in acknowledgment of her own words. “Dani?” The Subtlety Instructor made her guess as she ran through the short list of her colleagues mentally, realizing quickly that there were only two real possibilities.

“Professor Vree, actually.”

“Let me guess, really expensive bottle of brandy and he made you promise to come tell him the full story of when I find out as his price?”

“Spiced rum, actually, but otherwise yes.”

“Well if it makes you feel any better Mr Montaine, you will be getting a small amount of extra credit for your efforts.” The hispanic woman turned her attention back to the monitor and studied what was there before speaking again. “I never realized you were this into computers. Recent change?”

Antoin remained silent for a long time after the question was asked, but Elena simply waited patiently for the young man to collect himself. Finally, he answered. “I can’t think of any other way to stay with the program than Subtlety. Unless I suddenly develop a secondary power like Tasha, I’m just not the kind of healer that usually makes it in the HCP. I can’t make myself almost invulnerable, I can’t use my ability to harm instead. I can’t even do phantom injuries like Kaori. So this stuff, spycraft for Heroes, this is my shot.”

“There are a lot of other paths you could take that would let you help just as many, if not even more people, as you could as a Hero. This is not exactly low level stuff you’re working with Mr Montaine.” Elena reached out a hand and swiveled her student’s chair around so that he was facing her directly. “You look like you haven’t slept all week. Do you really think you can keep this up JUST to have a ‘shot?’”

Antoin met the professor’s questioning look with one of steely determination. “One of the things my ability can DEFINITELY make up for is sleep deprivation. As for if I can keep this up,” the youth turned back to the keyboard and brought a familiar image up on the monitor.

This particular version was mostly silhouette, but as the original image had practically become an HCP meme at Overton all the details were instantly recognizable. The skinny female form with a thick braid trailing behind it, frozen at the exact moment her outstretched fist began crushing its way through the head of an anti-tank missile. “She did that. No hesitation. So if I can’t manage a little lost sleep to learn some new programming languages in my quest to be a Hero while someone in my class is willing to do THAT… Well if that’s the case than I really don’t deserve to ever earn the title.”

“I’m not sure if approaching everything as ‘Well it’s not as extreme as punching a MISSILE so I should definitely be able to do it!’ is a sustainable approach, Mr Montaine.”

“It’s not about punching a missile. Ames was willing to die for someone else on an instant’s notice, the fact that the manner she did so is the most epic thing I’ve ever seen is beside the point.” Elena smiled as Antoin unconsciously made a short punching motion as he spoke. “That willingness is what set the bar so high for the rest of us. That’s why I’m willing to endure a lot of discomfort to stay wit-… To earn my spot here.”

“Alright then, Mr Montaine. You’ve convinced me of your sincerity, if not your sanity.” The professor smirked at the mock glare the student shot her way in response. “Check your ‘private’ email later tonight and you should find a whole suite of new software to learn. I’ll be making some of the more advanced toys available to this year’s class a little early and see who decides to use them. But for now,” the older woman leaned in very close to her student, “go to SLEEP, Mr Montaine. At least a couple hours. Your ability may be able to handle the worst of your self imposed sleep deprivation, but you still LOOK like hell.”

Antoin chuckled in response, and then his form seemed to shimmer momentarily. “Better?”

Elena found it to be her turn for her jaw to drop in shock at the apparent transformation of the young man in front of her. “That is quite an impressive talent you have their, Mr Montaine. I dearly hope you do manage to find your way through the program and all the way to becoming a Hero.”

The freshly rejuvenated youth blushed slightly as he smiled in response, and rose from the chair to head out of the small room, anxious to make it back to his shared townhouse and discover what new tools the Instructor had just made available to him. I’ll earn my spot and stay right alongside you, Kyle. I promised.

“Wait, what the hell is ‘Watch and Spot?'”

“You need to be more aggressive with that.” The bespectacled redhead bit down on her lip slightly and forced herself not to jump in response to the surprise voice from behind her.

The Instructors must spend HALF their free time practicing how to sneak up on students with ‘helpful advice’ to scare the bejesus out of us with. “Good afternoon, Professor Banning.” Tara grimaced slightly as her voice came out a bit higher pitched than she’d planned. “How am I supposed to be more ‘aggressive’ at a target range?”

The tall African American Instructor strode up to the line beside his student. As his normal countenance included the smile he was currently wearing it was difficult for the shorter girl to tell if the grin was his normal one or a response to her not-quite control over her response to his surprise arrival.

“It’s a target range, yes. And many view the various targets and dummies as simply something to aim at, but you won’t get as much out of the training that way.” Tara waited patiently for the Ranged Combat Instructor to continue. And continued to wait. And smiled sweetly back at the tall professor until he finally chuckled softly before continuing.

“That cannon you’re using is impressive, though we both know it’s NOTHING compared to the gas in the canisters you’re using it to launch. Now I look out at the range and see you’re mostly working against targets at fifty to seventy yards.” The technologically gifted Super nodded along with the Instructor, hoping the continued attention would keep the conversation from stalling again. “And you’re hitting right around the targets you’re aiming for on the range, and that’s good. But if this were a real fight, and that target out there” a finger pointed towards the dummy standing at the 75 yard marker, “was a rogue Super coming to do you harm, would you fire just one shot right at him? Think more tactically, Ms Warren. You’re carrying potentially the widest array of methods to disable an opponent of any student currently at Overton. You have to be more aggressive using the tools you have at your disposal.”

“But… it’s just a dummy. It’s NOT coming towards me, professor.”

“Let’s see… Ah! You’re also with Dani in Weapons, yes?” The tall man continued without waiting for confirmation. “You have probably heard many times in that class; ‘The only thing we’re taking out of practice is the part where the loser dies at the end.’ If you don’t practice like it’s a real fight, how are you going to know what to do when the fight becomes real? Having watched the team exercise from last weekend, I can tell you need to make your practices more real. You did very well when you surprised your opponents and your attacks came before they could properly respond. You did not do so well when your opponents were the ones on the offensive.”

Tara bit back the objection she felt forming in her throat and gave her overactive mind a moment to process the information before responding. “You’re… right. But how do I try to translate that kind of action to a shooting range? There was just so much… chaos during the exercise.”

“Visualize the worst way in which a situation might play out and plan for how to counter it, at least in part. You have several long range aerosol sprayers, a rapid fire canister launcher, two dart guns, a telescoping baton you seem to have coated with something interesting, and…” The professor’s expression turned curious as he examined the combat harness the girl was wearing. “A jet-injector?”

“Ah, that one isn’t for offensive use. It’s… stimulants and stuff. Combat drugs is the catch all term.”

“An impressive arsenal still. Now, assuming that your opponent is coming in offensively from the 100 yard marker, how would you best engage them if they are approaching quickly.” The tall Instructor noted as his student seemed to drop into deep contemplation of the scenario, and opted to try to move things along. “STARTING NOW!”

The shout was accompanied by a shove back up to the firing line, and Tara froze for only an instant before her body began to operate seemingly on its own. A flicked switch on the cannon and three rapid *THOOMP* sounds deployed a cloud of gas only about twenty yards in front of the young woman, before the larger weapon was dropped to hang from it’s sling. One arm sporting a high velocity aerosol jet pointed down range into the nearly opaque field of paralytic gas, while the other hand drew the baton from its holster and snapped it out to full extension.

“And there you have it.” Tara blinked in surprise as the Instructor’s voice snapped her out of the odd spell that seemed to have briefly taken over her body. “You have good tactical instincts, Ms Warren. You need to practice acting more, and thinking less. You ability may be centered in your brain, but all the benefits of your ability should be happening AWAY from the battlefield. Not to discourage you from thinking during a fight, but you must learn to draw the line firmly between thinking and overthinking.”

With this last bit of wisdom imparted, the Ranged Combat Instructor turned to walk away from the range. Tara, lost in a new line of thinking, didn’t notice that the man’s trademark grin was even wider than usual as he left the young Super’s presence.

“Do you have a moment, Professor Vree?” The elderly British Instructor turned from the papers he’d been examining and smiled invitingly at his student.

“Perhaps even more than one for such a dedicated student as yourself, Mr Sexton. Please, sit.” As if in response to the words the chair facing the Focus Instructor’s desk slid out, seemingly of ts own volition, and the door swung softly closed.

The blond youth seemed to have been anticipating the brief display of ability from his Instructor, as he slid easily into the seat and did not react to the sound of the door shutting behind him. “I’m reasonably certain you know why I’m here, professor. For some reason though, that makes it harder to figure out where I should start.”

“Advanced Minds don’t know everything young man. The broad strokes, usually. The details, only when we truly have the time and energy to focus on a single person or very small group. I’m aware you have concerns regarding the program, that you are feeling a mixture of smug satisfaction and confusion regarding your efforts in profiling both your Instructors and classmates here at Overton, and you’re still frequently distracted by thoughts of a spring break dalliance last year with a particular redhaired beauty.” Aaron simply nodded in acknowledgment of the first two points, though the third left him blushing and coughing as his surprise apparently caused him to forget how to breathe for a moment.

Waiting until the younger man had himself back under control, Laurence continued. “So, I would recommend picking whichever one of these three topics you are most comfortable with and starting there.”

“Only two topics, and you know it you sneaky bastard.” The Instructor accepted the description with a look indicating he felt the term to be a compliment. “But to pick one, I have to say I’m a little surprised that you don’t seem to care about the profiling.”

The professor offered a dismissive wave at the idea. “Completely ignoring the fact that I would be among the greatest of hypocrites if I were to use my ability as often as I do yet object to something as mundane as psychological profiling, we are ultimately here to teach you young people how to become Heroes. I say the type of analytic thought processes needed to dissect another’s personality in order to predict their likely actions is something that should be encouraged, since we cannot outright require it of our HCP candidates.”

Aaron’s eyes narrowed at what sounded to be a practiced response from the British man. “You… you’re intentionally staying as perfectly centered within the predicted responses as you can, aren’t you? So that when you deviate you can derive more shock value from it.”

“And that is WHY this practice should be encouraged in our young Heroes-to-be.” The expression on Laurence’s face became earnestly serious. “Not many can work past the next response, to see the one after that and the one after THAT. I was aware you’d received more instruction in this art than a single year at a University could possibly provide, might I inquire as to where you received your initial training in psychology?” Nearly as soon as the question was asked, the Instructor’s expression flickered slightly as he processed a new piece of information. But the older man waited patiently for the vocal response from his guest.

“As I see you already know, I received a great deal of ‘training’ from both of my parents. They both work for different branches of federal law enforcement, and they both earnestly hoped I would follow in their footsteps.” The young man wore a slightly sour expression as he finished speaking, prompting Laurence to dig a little deeper.

“They were… not pleased that you decided to apply to the Hero Certification Program?”

Aaron sighed and leaned back in his chair before responding. “To be fair, they know the numbers a lot better than most parents. Both the failure rate for the students, and the… casualty rates for Heroes. It’s not like they tried to forbid me from doing it or anything, it’s just…”

“They wanted you to do good, somewhere safer.” The blond man nodded as the professor finished the thought for him. “Well, now that MY curiosity has been assuaged for the moment, what area of your profiling do you feel needs my kind of assistance?”

“Dani.” The answer, spoken without hesitation and with a great deal of frustration evident, caused Laurence to laugh in response.

“Yes, our Weapons Instructor does tend to be a bit… Erratic in some ways.”

“It’s… some of her responses are perfectly predictable. And then the rest of the times it’s like… Is she actually crazy?”

“Mr Sexton, you’re asking if a woman, that has spent most of her adult life wearing a costume while transformed into a giant anthropomorphic cat in order to fight beings with superhuman abilities that commit crimes, is crazy. By most textbook definitions, every Hero on the planet is COMPLETELY insane.” Laurence kept his tone deadpan serious during his response, but his eyes twinkled with humor.

“Okay, point. But if you put aside the ‘unusual career choice’ portion, most Heroes seem to be pretty easy to analyze. Supers in general, for that matter, all tend to be easier to profile because their abilities become so much a part of the things they do that certain responses get far more weight than they do with a normal human.”

“And you were hoping I could shed some light on why Professor Reyes acts outside the boundaries you were expecting as often as she does?”

“If anyone could, I figure it would be a telepath.”

The elderly Brit laughed again at the somewhat defeated response from his student. “I fear that I cannot offer your further insights towards my colleague, Mr Sexton. However I have great confidence that as you continue to apply yourself, you will find the answer for yourself.”

“You’re afraid of her too, aren’t you?”

“Oh God, yes.” It was the student’s turn to be surprised into laughter at the sincere response from the Focus Instructor. “She’s bubbly and happy and passionate almost all the time, and I would rather face off against every other member of our faculty combined than a Dani Reyes who seriously wanted to do me harm.” The continued serious tone from the professor quieted Aaron’s laughter quickly.

“Now, I believe you also have some concerns regarding the program itself that I may shed some light on?”

After pausing an extra moment to finish collecting himself, the blond man nodded. “This whole program, the way you have us simultaneously pitted against each other and relying on our classmates in order to advance; the way the exercises are handled and the amount of force we are not only allowed, but ENCOURAGED to use from day one; none of it makes any sense. It doesn’t take an expert on psychology or game theory to look at the way the HCP is managed and see so much room for improvement.” Aaron ran his fingers through his hair in a sign of frustration as he continued. “The high pressure courses, the fact that the whole thing is contained within a normal college campus as part of the program’s requisite, why do things this way?”

“You told me a few minutes ago that your parents are ‘more aware than most’ in regards to the failure rates of HCP students and casualties amongst Heroes. Are you also familiar with those numbers?” The older man paused just long enough for his student to nod before continuing. “Did you track those numbers back, say, a couple of decades?” A headshake from the blond. “The training structure within the HCPs has changed a lot over the years. The current incarnation is, to put it politely, chaotic at best. And in this current incarnation, more than ten percent of those that actually graduate never finish their internships to become full-fledged Heroes.

“If you go back a ways, you can see that number fluctuate wildly. In the earliest days, right after Captain Starlight brought Supers fully into the public eye, there was no real formal training of any kind. And the mortality rates and collateral damage were both staggering. Various countries all founded their own versions of the Hero Certification Program in order to combat both of these things. A responsible government, or even an irresponsible one that wishes to remain in power, could not stand by and allow people with these incredible abilities to simply act as they wished. Several tried to force all Supers into military programs, but the backlash from that was… unpleasant in several places.”

“History aside, professor, this doesn’t really explain why the CURRENT program is still so…” The young man seemed to be groping for an appropriate word when the older man supplied an inappropriate one instead.

“Fucked? Indeed.” Aaron actually flushed slightly at hearing the proper British accent carefully enunciate the profanity. “And originally the programs were far more ‘ideal’ according to those who studied such things. Camaraderie was the sole focus in the training interactions between participants, the ‘washout’ process was far less harsh and usually simply sent someone back to repeat a portion of their training instead of sending them all the way back to the start. And the initial training programs were all carefully isolated away from everyday civilians. And for the most part, it was a disaster.” The Focus Instructor paused for a moment and stared up at the ceiling before continuing.

“I’m actually a product of the older systems, though not the ones in this country as you may have guessed. Very few of my contemporaries are still around.”

“Why was it such a failure? I mean, it shou-…”

Because the world we live in is FAR from ideal. Supers were trained, but they were given so many chances that some of the training wasn’t truly ingrained. They weren’t forced to deal with any REAL hardship during the early programs. And they were isolated from the very societies that they would have to live within AND protect. Trust me when I say that even the most hellish exercises that James or Dani will put you through PALE in comparison to what you will likely face in your first year after graduating from this program. Going out to face, and possibly be killed by, criminal Supers or rogue Powereds every day is to live a life fully immersed in insanity. The HCP, and its sister programs in other countries, had to adapt to try and find those that could TRULY stand up to such rigors. That is why the program is as harsh, contradictory, and whimsical as it is.

We’re not just teaching you to use your abilities and minimize casualties while doing so. We’re trying our best to learn if you have the mental fortitude to survive in the world that will be waiting for you on the other side, WHILE teaching you those things to the best of our abilities.”

Aaron remained silent for several long minutes as he processed the information the elderly Instructor had just unloaded on him. “If you’re telling me all of this now, it’s pretty obviously not a secret or anything. Why don’t they just tell the students all of this?”

Laurence smiled widely before replying. “Because, Mr Sexton, the students very rarely bother to ask.”

So, In the interest of consolidating Comments to where they are easier to track, click over to the Forums to talk about this chapter! ^_^

Second String Supers: Sophomore Siege: Chapter 8
Second String Supers: Sophomore Siege: Chapter 10

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