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Annual #1
 
an FDC original series...

Higher Learning
#8
"Growing Pains"
By David Marshall


Strategic Theory 101

Chaucer St. Claire was bored as usual. The guest speaker failed to hold his attention but perhaps that was unfair to the kooky old man in the cape and long underwear. How could he be expected to jar Chaucer’s great mind from the exciting world of quantum theory? After all there were still holes in String Theory to explore. The last thing Chaucer wanted was to listen to someone who wore a fin on his head. The only thing interesting about the old man was that Professor Knott deemed it necessary to sit in on the class himself. The eccentric old man didn’t seem dangerous so why would Professor Knott do such a thing?

“... is correct, young lady! Careful planning is the key to a well-designed caper,” said Dr. Light. “And strength in numbers! Professor Hand tells me your group recently passed an assessment against the legendary All-Star Squadron!”

Did the man really use the word, “caper” in serious conversation without cracking a smile? Perhaps he would be as interesting an anachronism as Gernsback, the All-Star’s robot valet. Chaucer perked up.

“We totally kicked their ass!” Bo bragged. “You should have seen us, dude. We rocked!”

Dr. Light laughed gleefully. “Ah, the enthusiasm of youth! Who knows? In a few years some of you may serve in my new Fearsome Five!”

Professor Hand was obviously taken back by the news. “You’re getting a new group together?”

“Not yet,” Dr. Light answered. “I’m only in the planning stages. It’s more possibility than reality at this stage. But I feel our legacy is in fine hands with a group such as this.”

A knock at the classroom door interrupted the presentation. Professor Hand walked to the door and opened it.

His secretary Rosa entered followed by the largest young man Chaucer ever saw. He stood at least six and a half feet tall. His broad shoulders barely squeezed through the door frame. A mop of unruly, fiery-orange hair crowned his massive head. He was covered in thick brown hair. His face looked slightly deformed - rather like an ape or a Neanderthal. He wore a spandex suit that strained to cover his massive body. Chaucer suspected hypertrichosis. Even heavily-clothed the boy’s muscles were so well-formed you could diagram them like a picture in a freshman biology book. If Chaucer were prone to hyperbole, he would say even the boy’s thumbs looked more muscular than his own skinny frame.

“Class, we have a new student,” said Rosa in her thick accent. “Please welcome Jake Thurston.”

Everyone but Bo clapped politely.

“Jake? Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?” asked Professor Hand.

Dr. Light stepped aside and offered the boy the floor.

The new boy’s lips curled into a menacing snarl. “For starters, the name’s not Jake! Anyone calls me Jake, I’ll rip off their head and feed on their guts.”

“Such a kidder!” Rosa laughed.

The hulking boy turned to Rosa. “Try me.”

“Then before someone gets hurt, please instruct us on how to address you properly,” Professor Hand interrupted.

“Call me… Mastadon!”

Bo snickered.

“And what’s so funny, little boy?” Mastadon sneered. He lumbered over Bo’s desk, eclipsing Bo in his shadow.

“N-Nothing dude,” Bo stuttered.

Professor Hand grabbed the boy’s shoulder. “Please accept my apology on Mr. Freebird’s behalf. He suffers from a rare mental disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at the worst possible moments. He meant no disrespect. Now please take a seat. We have a guest speaker and don’t wish to be rude. His time is very valuable.”

Mastadon looked for a seat and chose the one in front of Tristan. It broke as soon as he settled his mass into it.

No one dared to laugh. Not even Dr. Light.

“Why don’t you sit on the floor and we’ll get you a special chair next class,” Professor Hand suggested. “In fact, why don’t we all sit on the floor?”

Everyone eyed everyone else to see who would move first. Chaucer didn’t care one way or the other. He pushed his desk aside and sat next to the young behemoth. It didn’t escape Chaucer’s notice that the others took a cue from him and did likewise.

While the class continued Chaucer pondered the significance of his classmates mimicking him. Was the cue social? A sort of biological programming within their ecosystem? Ordinarily his genius was the last place the others looked to for answers, however illogical that oversight happened to be. Yet in the face of this danger they deferred to him.

He tucked the topic away for later introspection and tried to pay attention to Dr. Light. It was a difficult task as the doctor was hardly an exciting speaker. He was prone to break into long diatribes about the superhero community in general and the Titans in particular. In between his heated fulminations he paused long enough to gloat like a megalomaniac. Chaucer suspected he was asked to speak more to assuage his ego than to actually teach anything of value.

Just when Chaucer was ready to tune out the sardonic monologue, Dr. Light said something of interest.

“I suppose some of you are wondering why Professor Knott invited me to speak here today. I know the last thing a bunch of teenagers wants to hear are the prattles of an old man in a crazy costume.”

Chaucer nodded his head in agreement. He just assumed Dr. Light was another of the school’s sponsors.

“Just as Professor Knott has a vision for this school, I have one of my own that is near and dear to my heart. At one time we super-villains enjoyed a close-knit camaraderie. Many of our number belonged to a Secret Society and worked together to achieve common goals. Over the years that professionalism devolved into a mistrusting collection of individuals who preferred to work alone. Who knows why it happened? I blame it on the self-absorbency of the nineties. Me! Me! Me! But I’m getting sidetracked! One of the greatest tools at our disposal in those days was a trade rag, The Underworld Star!”

Chaucer’s couldn’t believe his ears. Villains with a newspaper of their own? Preposterous!

Dr. Light continued. “The Star outlasted even the Society! In fact, I put together the original Fearsome Five by placing an ad in the Star’s classifieds. Eventually it too folded. But all great ideas are one day reborn! I’m pleased to announce that I have acquired the rights to put the Star back into publication! And how does my announcement tie into your school, you ask?”

Chaucer wondered.

“The Star has agreed to serve as the primary fund-raising arm of the school. Furthermore our offices will be located right here on this campus. We will operate under the guise of your school newspaper but will be distributed around the world, or should I say underworld?”

Dr. Light cackled gleefully while the class looked to Professor Knott for instructions. Surely the man was insane!

Professor Knott clapped his hands politely and motioned for the students to do the same.

They echoed the Professor’s sentiments but Chaucer wasn’t sure why they were clapping. Perhaps Professor Knott was overdue for a mental evaluation himself.

Indira raised her hand.

“Yes, young lady?” Dr. Light asked.

“That is certainly wonderful news, but shouldn’t students be involved with the school newspaper?”

“I’m glad you asked,” said Dr. Light. “Allow me to introduce your new Journalism professor!”

Chaucer waited for the door to open but it never did. Instead, Dr. Light took a bow.

“Whoa! Dude! You mean... you?” Bo asked.

Dr. Light looked slightly perturbed but maintained his composure. “Yes, of course me. Who did you expect? Superman?”

“Let’s everyone give Dr. Light another big hand,” Professor Hand interrupted. “Show him how much we appreciate him joining our faculty!”

Even Dr. Light had to know the applause wasn’t genuine.

Lunch

Bo sat his tray down across from Mastadon.

Tristan joined them.

“So where you from?” Bo asked.

Mastadon looked up from his snow peas. “Did I ask you to sit there?”

Bo shrugged off the comment. “This is our table.”

“Was your table,” Mastadon replied. “If I see you sitting here again, I’ll break both your legs.”

“We didn’t mean anything by it,” said Tristan. “We’re trying to be friendly, but we sit here at lunch. We’ll share it with you.”

With surprising speed, Mastadon’s huge hand wrapped around Tristan’s neck and jerked him across the table. The large boy held him face to face. “I didn’t say anything about sharing.”

“Hey dude! That’s not cool!” said Bo.

Mastadon shoved Tristan across the table and into the floor. He turned to Bo. “You gonna do something about it, hick?”

“What did you call me?” Bo asked.

Bo wasn’t sure where he appeared from but Zeke was suddenly on the scene. He jumped between the two boys. “Dammit guys! The Professor will have our asses if we tear up the cafeteria! Bo, why don’t you and Tristan eat with us today and we’ll work this out?”

Indira and Portia grabbed Bo’s arm and pulled him away from the altercation.

“Yeah,” said Portia. “Tell us again about how you took out Tsunami.”

Mastadon towered over Zeke. “You trying to tell Mastadon what to do?”

“C’mon Goldman! Pop him one!” Bo yelled.

“Be quiet, Bo!” Zeke replied. “Tristan, I could use your help! Now!”

Mastadon pointed to Tristan who was picking himself off the floor and laughed heartily. “That weak pathetic...”

Calm replaced the anger on Mastadon’s face.

“It’s cool, man. That’s it. Calm down. We’re all friends here,” said Zeke, talking the massive young man down.

The girls finally wrestled Bo back to their table. They tried to push him into a seat but he managed to fight them off. “It’s a good thing they rescued you, Fat Boy! You have any idea what it’s like to be buried under five-hundred tons of rock?”

“Tristan, can’t you do something about Bo too?” Indira asked.

“No can do,” Tristan answered. “We have an understanding!”

Portia twirled Bo around. “For once in your stupid, miserable life - shut up!”

Bo considered his options. Mastadon was big, like a baby Bane but not nearly as smart. Still he had to save face in front of the others. “You’re right. He’s not worth it.”

“What’s going on here?” Dr. Norton asked. Bo didn’t see him slink into the cafeteria, but he didn’t look happy. “Mr. Goldman! Fighting again? I would think you’d have a sense of understanding since you were the new student not long ago. I want to see the two of you in Professor Knott’s office now!”

“No! You don’t understand...” Bo protested.

Dr. Norton crossed his arms. “Now, Mr. Goldman! You too, Mr. Thurston!”

Mastadon looked confused. Bo understood the feeling well. He’d felt it the night he and Goldman nearly got into a fight before their first mission. Tristan used his empathic powers to place a suggestion in their minds that they were best friends. The first few seconds when Tristan dropped his contact were disorienting. He couldn’t imagine the effect it would have on a dumb ox like Mastadon. He hoped it would cause irreversible brain damage!

Dr. Norton marched Zeke and Mastadon out through the cafeteria’s double steel doors.

Portia glared at Bo. “Way to go, jerk! Zeke tries to keep that monster from killing you and now he’s in big trouble! Zeke of all people helping you!”

“I was trying to protect Tristan,” Bo argued.

“I can protect myself,” said Tristan.

“You were more interested in him being at your table than you were in protecting Tristan,” Portia shot back.

“Umm.... guys. Could we not talk about me like I’m the wimp not standing here in the room?” Tristan asked. “I can fight my own battles.”

“May I make a suggestion?” Georgia asked.

“I think that may be wise,” Indira answered. “Before these two join them.”

“We witnessed the whole thing, right? That big bully had no right to do that to Tristan. We should talk to Professor K. Bo’s not the bad guy this time.”

Bo was surprised. No one ever stuck up for him before. “Thanks, Sivana. You’re alright.”

“This time!” Georgia huffed.

A few minutes later the students filed into Professor Knott’s office.

Rosa greeted them with a curious look. “Surely the cafeteria food wasn’t so bad?”

“We need to talk to the Professor,” said Georgia.

“I’m sorry, but he’s in a meeting,” Rosa answered.

Bo stepped forward. “I should be in that meeting, not Goldman. He was... helping.”

“Oh,” said Rosa. “So you take the blame for this unfortunate situation?”

Bo shook his head. “No... yes. I was protecting Tristan.”

Tristan threw arms the air. “For the last time I don’t need anyone to protect me!”

The heavy oak doors guarding Professor Knott’s sanctuary flew open. The Professor didn’t look pleased. “What is all the noise out here? You students shouldn’t be here. This is a school disciplinary matter.”

Dr. Norton, Zeke, and Mastadon peered through the doorway into Rosa’s office.

“But Professor K,” Portia pleaded. “Zeke didn’t do anything wrong.”

“He was trying to stop that bully from hurting someone,” Indira added.

Professor Knott turned to Zeke. “Is this true?”

Zeke nodded. “Yes, sir. Jake picked Tristan up and threw him across the room. He was going after Bo next. I knew I could absorb the impact better if he decided to hit someone.”

“Zeke asked me to calm everyone down,” said Tristan. “My powers kept him from hitting Zeke.”

“You got in my head?” Mastadon asked.

“It’s a good thing he did!” said Professor Knott.

“They tried to make me move,” said Mastadon. “They started it.”

“Lie like a dog!” Bo drawled. “He was sitting at our table and I tried to make conversation with him, Professor. He said we’d have to move. Tristan tried to be the good guy and offered to share the table. That’s when he grabbed Tristan’s whole head in one of his hands and threw him. I was trying to protect him.”

“I don’t need anyone’s protection!” Tristan shouted once more.

“Enough, Mr. Stoner! Your ego’s not on trial,” Professor Knott snapped. “Barrabas, is there any possibility you could have misinterpreted what you saw?”

Dr. Norton met Bo’s gaze. “It is a possibility, Hugo.”

“Everyone listen to me,” said Professor Knott. “We just rebuilt this school. Your dorms will be ready any day now and you can move out of those miserable cracker boxes you’re in now. I will not... I repeat... will not have it leveled again by your petty squabbles. That goes for all of you! Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Professor,” the students answered.

“Abundantly clear?”

“Absolutely,” Bo replied. Everyone else stammered their agreement.

“Good! I want everyone to return to the cafeteria. Barrabas, see to it that all the tables are pushed together. Until everyone demonstrates significant maturity to interact as human beings we will remove the privilege of open seating. Assign each student a seat as you see fit.”

“Yes, Hugo,” Dr. Norton answered.

Professor Knott disappeared into his office and slammed the door shut behind him.

The walk back to the cafeteria was a long one. Bo felt lower than a rattlesnake’s belly. He was only trying to help. Thanks to Fat Boy everyone would be miserable. At least he wasn’t to blame for once.

Was he?

Later That Evening In The Dorms

Chaucer hated living in the temporary dorms. He was too far removed from his laboratory. At least he preferred to think of it as his own. He shared it with his teacher and mentor, Dr. Jenius O’Jones, but compared to his own experiments his mentor may as well be working with Tinkertoys.

“Where you going, egghead?” Bo asked.

“To my laboratory,” Chaucer replied.

Bo laughed and shook his head. “La-bore-a-tree, huh? Try it this way. Lab-ra-tory. It’s English.”

It would be easy to point out to Bo that both pronunciations were acceptable and both were in fact English, but decided it was better to avoid trouble. After all, Bo was much more physical and could crush Chaucer like a bug in a fight. Perhaps a more fitting response would be to engineer some flesh-eating nanites to crawl into his underwear while he was sleeping? Was it possible an emasculated Bo Freebird would be more pleasant?

Chaucer heard Bo’s inane laughter in his ears as he shut the door behind him. He crossed the campus yard and made his way into the school. He hated that the new building required him to go by the gym to get to the science wing. Why didn’t Professor Knot consult him regarding the ergonomics of the architecture prior to approving the new blueprints?

The lights were on in the gym and Chaucer heard someone talking. It was unusual for anyone to be in the gym so late, so he carefully moved to the gym to see who working out at such an hour.

“…. and they don’t suspect a thing,” said a voice.

Chaucer’s ears perked up. Who didn’t suspect a thing? What kind of thing didn’t they expect?

“I will,” the voice answered. “You know me.”

Chaucer wished he had a device that would allow him to hack the signal to hear the other end of the conversation. The voice was familiar but he couldn’t place it.

“I need to go,” said the voice. “Before they realize I’m gone.”

A few seconds lapsed before the voice continued. “If I get caught I’ll just tell them I was flexing my muscles.”

Chaucer’s curiosity was piqued. Ordinarily such a conversation would be beneath his notice. What did he care of subterfuge and espionage? Was it possible he too shared that character flaw others called curiosity? He damned his curiosity and peeked around the corner and ran face-to-belly into Mastadon.

“You spying on me squirt?” asked Mastadon. He pushed Chaucer across the hallway and into the brick wall.

It wasn’t often Chaucer was scared. He usually had a device of some sort on him that allowed him to avoid physical confrontations. He called them his equalizers. This time his luck came up empty. He cowered in anticipation of the beating that was to follow. “Please, don’t hurt me!”

Mastadon laughed and plodded toward him. “Hurt you, little boy? How much did you hear?”

“Hear of what?” Chaucer asked as he uncurled himself. “I was on my way to the lab and saw the lights on in the gym. I was going to turn them off.”

Mastadon weighed Chaucer’s story. Then he did something so out of character Chaucer was stunned.

“Don’t just lie there whimpering,” said Mastadon. He reached out his massive right hand.

Chaucer was afraid the boy-beast would rip his arm off but was even more scared to not do as he asked. He took hold of Mastadon’s enormous appendage and surrendered himself to fate.

Mastadon pulled him to his feet and cocked his fist. “Boo!”

Chaucer jumped and ducked. He knew it was too good to be true. He hated bullies.

Mastadon laughed. “What a wuss, but you’re not worth my time. I’ll let you live.”

“Th-thank you,” Chaucer stammered. “I – I appreciate… thank you.”

Mastadon walked off without answering.

Chaucer decided that returning to his room would be a wiser course of action than tinkering in the laboratory and headed back to his dorm.

Professor Knott’s Office, Later That Evening

Dr. Norton sipped a perfect iseul cha blend. He swished the Korean tea’s slightly sweet flavor over his palate and swallowed. Was that fruity aftertaste a touch of aniseed? He loved his daily evening chat with Professor Knott. Hugo’s eccentricities matched his own and they shared a love for fine, expensive teas. They often contemplated the school’s direction over an exotic blend and toasted its continued success.

“What of Dr. Light’s hiring?” Professor Knott asked.

Dr. Norton pulled his tea cup away from his lips. It clanked against his saucer when he set it down. “A weighted quandary old friend.”

“Explain.”

“His successes are few and far between. I don’t consider him a suitable role model for the children. For lack of a better term, he’s a laughingstock, Hugo.”

Professor Knott sipped his tea then continued. “A bit harsh, old friend.”

“Harsh? I don’t believe so. Everything the man attempts ends in failure. I don’t want him to drag this school down with him.”

“Neither do I,” Professor Knott answered. “Nor will I allow that to happen.”

“But Hugo, he’s another of those “glass jaws” as you call them. The Teen Titans defeated him when they were as green as our own students,” Dr. Norton argued. “What can he possibly offer this school that will benefit our students?”

“What about one-hundred million dollars?” Professor Knott replied.

Dr. Norton nearly spewed his next sip of tea. “What? You can’t be serious! Where is Arthur Light going to get that kind of money? Beware his schemes, Hugo!”

“How long have you known me, Barabbas?”

“Many years, old friend,” Dr. Norton replied. “Many years.”

“Do you honestly think I’d bring in someone like Dr. Light without a plan to stay ahead of his clumsy ambitions?”

“You have a backup plan then?”

“Of course.”

“Care to share?”

Professor Knott settled into his chair. “Another time. What of the Thurston boy?”

“A dangerous wildcard, I believe. We know little of his background or his powers,” Dr. Norton replied.

“Is the very idea of such an institution as ours not a wildcard? From our opening gambit the odds have been stacked against us, but we’re growing,” Professor Knott argued.

“Growing, yes, but a young brute knocking over a few gas stations is hardly an adequate resume for our institution,” Dr. Norton replied.

Professor Knott rolled his wheelchair to the globe by the door. “But that’s the vision, Barabbas - to bring them from all over the globe, from every background, and mold them into the next generation of A-list villains. By its very nature our business requires a degree of anonymity. So he comes to our attention when our scouts see his exploits on the nightly news in San Diego? He trashed the city’s finest and held his own against a few minor heroes.”

“He’s not fitting in well.”

Professor Knott hung his head. “I didn’t think he would.”

Dr. Norton was astonished. It was unlike Hugo to shake up the status quo when it was going well. “Excuse me? Did I hear you correctly?”

“The students are learning, but they’re not hard enough,” Professor Knott answered. “Simulations have limited personalities and parameters, even with Mr. St. Claire’s prodigious upgrades. They lack creativity and the power of reasoning, mere slaves to their programming. The others need to be exposed to those like Mr. Thurmond. My hope is that his edge will wear off on them and they’ll balance out his aggression.”

“It’s not aggression, Hugo. He’s a bully.”

“Good. Maybe Beauregard will learn his mouth isn’t as effective against a foe as forming a bottomless pit beneath his feet. Or perhaps Tristan will understand that he can break the boy’s mental capacities and leave him a vegetable.” The Professor’s features hardened as he spoke.

“And if they don’t learn quickly enough?”

“Then they learn how dangerous a seven-hundred pound human-ape hybrid can be,” Professor Knott replied.

“So that’s our direction then?” Dr. Norton asked.

“I’m bringing in another,” Professor Knott replied. “I only hope it’s not too much too soon.”

Neither man said anything else. They drank the remainder of the tea in silence and Dr. Norton excused himself. He shuffled to the recently-completed faculty wing. Professor Knott once told him they were not good men. At the moment, he couldn’t help but agree. “Indeed we’re not, Hugo. Indeed we’re not.”


 

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