Chapter – XXXII
Sweat dripped from Christina Ross’ lean frame.
Ever since the Dean announced the exam at the end of the semester, Christina had thrown herself into training. Dean Smith and the coaches had been mute on what to expect, other than that if the students were diligent in their gym periods, they would be fine. But Christina didn’t want to merely be ‘fine’. Unlike her classmates, she had no nebulous ideas about what she was training for. She wasn’t in the HCP for some warm and fuzzy ‘ideals’ or to fight for truth, justice, or any pansyass stuff like that. Christina Ross knew what kinds of monsters really lived in the shadows. She saw first hand what a hero could be up against, so she wasn’t content to simply get by in the HCP. She knew what happened to supers who were weak.
A more poetic soul would have said that Christina Ross had her dragon to slay. But while Christina was a great many things, ‘poetic’ was not among them. In her mind, she had to be the baddest bitch to come out of the HCP, because she had an ass to kick, simple as that.
So she trained.
She knew that her power make her almost impossible to plan for, except for an all-out blitz. But without knowing what was coming, she was doing what was coming, she was in the gym doing what she could to get better. The Dean told them to trust their gym workouts, so she took him at his word and was running through those damn obstacle courses again and again. To keep things interesting, she had Coach Helen set the damn thing to randomly generate a new course each time she successfully finished one. They had also been recording her time for each configuration, so she could know if she improved the next time it came up, but the damn gym kept spitting out new courses. She had stopped counting how many configurations she had run through in her training sessions, and she still had yet to repeat one.
Christina had just finished sipping at a bottle of water, waiting for the course to re-set once again, when a buzzer sounded.
“What!?” She demanded.
“Your time is up, the next student is here for his time.” Coach Helen’s voice came over the intercom.
“Dammit, I wasn’t done yet!” she said, though the objection was more for herself than the coach. That woman was hard as steel. I wonder who it is? Christina thought to herself I bet if it’s some pussy like Hall or Johnson I can get them to give me their time.
“Hey! How was your workout?” A friendly voice said from behind her. Christina turned to see the massive form of Erik Danielsen striding towards her.
Crap… I’m not gonna be able to intimidate that big dope. She thought, but what she said was “Pretty good. I don’t feel like I’m done though.”
“That’s great!. Oh, uh… You might want to put a shirt on.” Erik said, suddenly blushing and averting his eyes.
Christina actually laughed at the display. Early on in her workout she had taken her uniform shirt off. It didn’t hamper her movement, but it had gotten drenched and just going in her sport bra was more comfortable. “You shy? Normally guys jump at the chance to see a girl in her underwear.”
“It’s not that, my momma just raised me to be a gentleman.” Erik said, chagrined.
“Yeah, sure. Whatever you say.” She said, making a bit of a show out of bending over to pick up her shirt before struggling into the damp material. “Better?”
“Umm… Hey, you said you weren’t finished yet. Want to work in with me?” Erik said, trying to change the subject “You said that you weren’t done yet. Maybe we can push each other?”
“Sure, why not?” Christina said, letting it pass. Besides, the big lug was strong as fuck, maybe she could get something out of it. “Just so ya know, I’ve been going on random and using a different power, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“That’s cool. That means I’ll be able to cut loose a little bit too. What do you say we make a bit of a competition out of it?”
“Okay, bitch. You’re on.” Christina said, a wolfish smile curving her lips. “Whoever has the most total wins by the end. So, what are you going to do for me when I beat your ass?”
“Buy you lunch for a week?” Erik proposed.
“Nope. That shit they serve in the dining hall is more like a punishment. How about this, when I win, you have to be my workout buddy and sparring partner until the mid-term. You look like you can take a beating, big boy.”
Erik gave this due consideration, which for him wasn’t particularly long, or far reaching. “Okay, that sounds good. But if I win, you have to get me lunch for a week.” He said with a smile.
Christina scoffed, but nodded once and held out her hand to consecrate the wager. After Erik tentatively shook it, She shouted to Coach Helen, “Yo Coach! Danielsen and I are gonna race. Keep track of who wins each round.”
“Noted. Get ready while the course re-configures.”
“Left jab! Left jab! Right cross! Left hook! Roundhouse!”
Max threw punches and kicks as Coach Strong called out the various combinations. When Max had agreed to let the mammoth coach teach him how to fight, he had envisioned learning exotic martial arts, maybe how to kill a man with his pinkie. What he had gotten, however, was kickboxing. When he asked Coach Strong about it, he simply replied “Kid, you don’t know what you don’t know about fighting. You’ve got a great defense, be we have to teach you the basics of kicking ass. Now hit that bag!”
And so Max hit the bag. Again, and again, and again, and again.
At first his strikes were slow and sloppy. He had to learn balance and footwork, form and technique, how to transfer his weight and drive with power. But slowly he got better, the heavy bag actually moving as he hit it, his uniform pants and sleeves snapping as his arms and legs lashed out.
“Right upper cut! Left jab! Right side kick!” Coach Strong called, Max throwing each strike in turn. But as his foot came back from the kick, the bag suddenly jerked to one side, propelled by a casual flick from Coach Strong’s wrist, and his other hand lash out, striking Max in the shoulder. It wasn’t quite hard enough to break bones but he staggered back, his shoulder suddenly hurting like hell.
“What was that for!?” Max almost shouted, grabbing his throbbing shoulder.
“You think anyone you fight is just going to let you hit them? You gotta keep your guard up. For you that means your shield.”
“How am I supposed to do that? My hits won’t do anything if I have my shield up.” Max said.
“That’s for you to figure out.” Coach Strong said. “I knew a guy once who flickered it, dropped it the moment he hit, snapped it back up as soon as his fist was on the way back. There was another guy who could form a force field into a shield. You still have a lot to learn about your power, but if you don’t want to get hit more, I would suggest you figure something out.”
“But” Max started, but he was quickly interrupted by Coach Strong
“But nuthin’! Right jab! Left jab! Left cross! Right uppercut!” Without thinking Max threw more punches. In between the second jab and the cross, the bag flicked to the side again, and almost without thinking Max threw his shield up. Instead of a painful hit, Coach Strong’s fist stopped just shy of Max’s chest, his guard dropped to throw the punch.
With a quick smile of triumph, Max threw the uppercut. But his smile quickly fell as his hand slid off the bag with no effect. He forgot to drop his shield and the energy of his punch was just deflected.
“Dammit!” He said, with frustration.
“It’s okay.” Coach Strong said “I never said you were going to figure it out the first time. I wasn’t kidding when I said that you have a lot to learn about your power, every student here does. But you should be happy you stopped that punch. It probably would have broken a rib it if hit. That shield of yours is plenty strong, you just need to learn how to use it.”
Max blinked in surprise, and after a moment said “Well, when you put it like that… Okay, I withdraw my ‘dammit’.”
“Good man. You’re getting better. You keep this up, you’ve got a decent chance to do something in the midterm. Of course, you won’t be going against a heavy bag.”
“Well, can we spar then?” Max asked.
“No.” Coach Strong said immediately “You can’t beat me, I’d have to hold back too much for you to get anything out of it but frustrated. But, and this is just a suggestion from a ole man who knows a few things about a few things, you might want to remember that challenges count in your final grade. You haven’t fought any.”
Max arched an eyebrow at the ‘ole man’ remark. Coach Strong didn’t looked middle aged at the oldest. “You think I’m ready for a challenge fight?”
“No clue.” the big coach responded “but there’s only one way to find out. Just remember, you’re the bottom ranked student, and you can only challenge someone in the bottom three, so it’s not like you’re facing Danielsen or Kearney.”
“Right” Max said. His eyes were distant as he ran through the various possibilities. Peter was in the bottom three, but Max didn’t want to challenge him. His shifted form could probably win quite a few challenges, but he couldn’t do anything against Max. More importantly, Max didn’t want to make his friend fight a battle he didn’t want to, and couldn’t win. But then he got to the final option and he made his decision.
“You know what,” Max said “I’m not sure about it, but I think I do need to fight for my spot in this program. And I think I know who I’m going to challenge.”