Blackwater Academy was located on the east coast of the United States, its compound located right beside a massive crater gouged out by an A-Class Variant twenty years ago. The academy got its name from the blackened waters in the crater. Remnants of the monster's blood and corpse that had sunk deep down to the ocean floor below.
The crater itself formed a natural harbor leading out to the Atlantic Ocean, and a small port city called Haven stood there, presumably being the main source of supplies and people coming in and out of Blackwater.
All in all, Blackwater was quite isolated. Almost eerily so.
Getting to Blackwater consisted of a two hour long drive followed by a one hour long helicopter flight over vast swathes of overgrown forests infested with Variants.
Forests like these were commonplace after the Monstering as Variants spawned consistently throughout the world, with certain areas spawning them at enough rates that clearing them out and settling cities in was too difficult to maintain.
"You try to run from Blackwater, and Variants will eat your powerless asses before you can count to ten," said officer Fletcher from the pilot seat of the helicopter, making the obvious observation that ran through everyone's heads that much clearer.
Yeah, thought Aldrich. This place was definitely more a prison than an academy.
After landing in Blackwater, Aldrich and the three Duds that comprised the Frame Initiative were given uniforms, led to their dorm rooms, and barked orders to unpack and be out at the Training Grounds by three in the afternoon or suffer severe consequences
Notably, the dorms for the Frame Initiative students were segregated in their own little, rundown barracks infested with enormous cockroaches and non-functioning heating or cooling. It was obvious this was a building meant to be demolished that had been repurposed for the Frame Initiative students.
Wouldn't do to have Duds with those with real powers, after all.
As if to remind the Frame students what the academy thought of them, the actual student barracks was visible from their windows, and it was a proper three-story building with a sleek, modern cubic design that seemed surprisingly advanced considering the fact that Blackwatch was supposed to be a small academy.
"Well, atleast we get a place to ourselves!" said Adam as the group of four Frame students roamed around the hallways of the tiny barracks. Adam was the only one with any energy in him, actively swatting down cockroaches here and there with a stick when he could.
"The heating's broken, and it's nearly winter," said Jake, another Frame student. "They know we have no powers. We're going to freeze to death before we graduate at this rate."
"It's all good. I brought extra blankets," said Adam. "Come on, less gloom and doom here, folks. Together, we'll make it through this."
"How do you stay so optimistic?" said Elaine, the one girl that was part of the powerless group.
"I don't know," said Adam. "But what I do know is if I wasn't optimistic, I would have gone insane years ago. Or maybe I am insane, and I don't know it, heh."
Aldrich remained mostly silent as did Frank, the last of the Frame students, though where Frank stayed quiet due to fear highly evident from his barely contained trembling, Aldrich's quiet was more observant. Calm.
Footsteps from across the hallway, footsteps that did not belong to any of the Frame students, made everyone stand on alert.
"Huh, so this is where the Duds live," said a tall, built guy with slicked back black hair and sharp, predatory grey eyes. A student, it seemed, from the black uniform distinct from the officer's uniforms in that they lacked any stripes beneath the white wave crest on the uniform's breast.
Behind him, three more students followed.
"What a dump. But then again, a dumpster is the best place to throw out trash, no?" said the guy as he strolled forwards with a cocky smile and hands in his pockets. His companions laughed at his comment behind him.
These were students with powers.
Adam stood in front of the Frame group with confidence that Aldrich just shook his head at. Aldrich knew from experience that standing up to bullies like this only made you a bigger target. He wondered how Adam, a Dud just like him, had managed to even survive by being confident like this.
"You guys lost? These aren't your dorms," said Adam.
The slick back student walked right up to Adam, their faces just a few inches apart, and stared down Adam.
Then, a blur of movement followed by a cracking sound of impact.
Adam fell backwards, clutching at his face to stem blood pouring from a broken nose while he groaned in pain. He had been struck by an attack was too fast for the human eye to perceive.
"None of you Duds seem to understand," said the leader of the student bullies. "All of you are here to fill up a little diversity quota so that the academy can get some more funding. Overall, you're still just as worthless as you are in society. Those of us with powers, proper powers, we own you guys.
You will NOT talk back to us, and you will do what we tell you to do like obedient little dogs. That said, we'll try and not to dirty ourselves with this place too much. We'll only be coming around when we want to let off some steam, are short a few bucks here and there, or just feel like fucking with you."
"Can't fight without a sucker punch, huh?" said Adam as he shakily stood up only to eat a powerful kick to the stomach that sent him rolling several meters back, this time silent as he grit his teeth through pain while trying to stop himself from vomiting.
"Or you end up like him," said the leader. He smiled. "Oh, and just to make this really fucking crystal clear from the beginning: you try and bitch and moan about us and all the officers here will just laugh at you. Nobody gives a damn about Duds like you. Plus, I might as well make this clear from the start: I'm the son of this Academy's head - I'm untouchable, and so are my boys here.
Basically, unless we outright kill you, nothing will ever happen to us. Understand?"
All the students remained in silence. This time, all of them were silent in fear except, of course, Aldrich who just stood in the back and minimized attention to himself.
"Good," said the leader. He scanned his sharp eyes around the room, his smile growing manically wider as he indulged in the fear he inflicted. When his eyes landed on Elaine, he nodded to himself as he stared at her like a piece of good meat.
"And you, you're not bad looking. Shame you're a Dud," said the leader. "But my boys and I can be surprisingly…open minded when it comes to girls like you. If you want to come to our dorm and 'hang out', I wouldn't mind being nice to you."
The leader stared down at his watch. "Oh, evaluations are about to start." His sadistic smile grew even wider as he eyed everyone expectantly. "I very much look forward to seeing you all at the training grounds."
With that, the leader waved a callous goodbye and strolled out with his posse, leaving Aldrich as the first to tend to Adam because Aldrich was the only one calm enough to tend to the downed man.
"Your stomach will be bruised for a couple of days. That nose won't set properly either, considering how badly broken it is," said Aldrich as he inspected Adam.
"Fuuuck," said Adam. He smiled a bloody smile. "Good thing I'm already ugly as sin. Broken nose won't change a damn thing."
Aldrich could not help but ever so slightly smile.
"Hah, got you to smile! Think I wouldn't notice?" said Adam.
"Be quiet," said Aldrich as he rolled his eyes and called out to the rest of the room. "Anyone have first aid supplies? If not, I have some of my own."
"I brought a med-kit. I'll go get it," said Elaine as she rushed to her room.
"I-I don't want to do this!" said Frank, the quiet kid, his fear finally spilling over and making him talk. "First chance I get, I'm going to quit this program. This isn't what I signed up for!"
"Yeah?" Adam stood up as Aldrich supported him. "And then what? Crawl back to society where you'll get sh*t on anyway? Where you won't even get hired to sweep the streets or unclog the sewers because there's an Alter out there with a power for it?
This is our only shot of ever making it big. Feel free to waste it if you want. But I'm staying and when I graduate, I'll be a hero and make enough money to stay off the streets. You feel me, Aldy?"
"Yeah," said Aldrich, wondering when Adam found it comfortable enough to call him 'Aldy'. Regardless, Aldrich did find respect for Adam. The guy's words were packed with genuine determination that Aldrich could relate to, though where it came from was different.
For Aldrich, his determination came from his drive for vengeance. For Adam, it seemed like the guy had been homeless and this was his only ticket to getting off the streets. Either way, it was evident that the two of them had the highest drive out of anyone in the group by a long shot.
Jake seemed to just be your average guy, and average was not going to cut it here.
Frank seemed like he was too soft. Someone who, even as a Dud cast down by society, had not suffered too much hardship. Probably was a spontaneous Dud like Aldrich, meaning that his parents had powers but he had unfortunately popped out with none.
Regardless, seemed like Frank got enough sheltering from his parents that this was not the right place for him.
In a way, Aldrich would have been like that too. If his parents had stayed alive.
Elaine, surprisingly, Aldrich could see some strength in. Despite the leader of the bullies blatantly harassing her, she, though visibly fearful and unnerved like the rest, still managed to stay composed enough to get a medkit when asked.
Regardless, Aldrich only hoped that determination would be enough to get them all through what seemed like would be four years of pure suffering.