Masks We Wear: Chapter 1

Welcome to the second storyline I have set in Drew’s Super Powereds Universe. This one is based around one of the characters I created in Darkest Days who wasn’t joining up with Force Ops who I found I really liked and wanted to write more about.

Like Chad, the author of Second String Supers and 7 Random Days, I also want to read more bonus chapters.  Also like Chad, I can’t afford to simply throw money at Drew to insure that there IS a bonus chapter every Friday. If the thought of two bonus chapters wasn’t tempting enough, how do THREE bonus chapters every Friday (or thereabout) sound?

Every time the donation meter makes it to 100% and Drew posts a bonus Super Powereds or Corpies chapter, and Chad posts a bonus 7 Random Days chapter sometime that same weekend, I will post a bonus The Masks We Wear chapter within the next few days (unlike Drew I am not a full time writer and work might keep me from it for a few days).  Just like Drew did when he started the bonus chapters, and Chad did with 7 Random Days, the first one is free!

The other thing to know about this story is it is going to have much shorter chapters than in Darkest Days. This is not going to have nearly as expansive a cast or storyline so expect chapters in the range of two or three thousand words, not ten to fifteen thousand words.

It is set at Lander University at the same time as the third year of Drew’s novels. So Vince, Mary, Roy, Nick, and Alice are all juniors. You probably won’t bump into them but you never know for sure.

The Masks We Wear

Chapter 1: Can you keep a secret?

Looking around the lecture hall, Sam noticed a few things he didn’t expect.

The most noticeable to him wouldn’t even have made anyone else pause. Everyone seemed so normal. For the most part there was nothing to say that there was enough concentrated power in this room to level a city. This could be a classroom in any college around the country but it wasn’t. This was the first class of the new freshmen class of Lander University’s HCP. The “Heroes of the Future” he had seen one promotion read.

Sam leaned over, turning to face the man sitting next to him and paused. He had sat down with his roommate, Ray Rios, a short black haired kid built like a wrestler. Now a tall skinny blond guy was sitting there with a look of impatience on his face.

“Ray man, it’s going to take me a while to get used to that one,” he shook his head as he spoke.

“Sam… I mean Matt,” he said correcting himself, “you won’t have to deal with it much up above. I mean if I kept changing who I was up there, someone would tweak to the fact that I’m a super. After that I would be out of here on an SI infraction before you could even ask if that pale skinned redheaded woman was really me,” he winked and chuckled at the concept. Ray was certainly amusing and having a shape shifter as a roommate wouldn’t be dull.

A door at the back of the stage opened admitting a tall man with square-framed glasses, black hair, and a conservative gray suit. Sam looked at him with the experienced eye of a fighter sizing up an opponent. The suit couldn’t hide the fact that he was clearly in great shape, nor that he walked with the confident stride of someone in control and ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. The combination screamed that he was a super and almost certainly a hero too. While it was expected down here, it was something he knew he himself would need to be careful to avoid doing topside.

The man in the suit looked around the room, adjusted his glasses, and began what was clearly a speech he had made many times before. Even the glances and gestures made as he spoke seemed timed and rote.

“It is my pleasure as Dean of the Hero Certification Program to be the first to congratulate you on making the cut and being enrolled in our very elite little academy.” He took a sip of water from a glass that had clearly been left out for affectation and then continued, “My full name is Blaine Jefferies; however, I want you all to just call me Dean Blaine. It is my hope that each and every one of you grow stronger in the years ahead, and that the best of you graduate from here with full certifications and go on to become acclaimed Heroes. I want to watch all of you find the lessons you need to succeed!”

Sam was used to reading the mood of a crowd. He had been in front of enough of them. With the dean’s optimistic words everyone seemed to shift a bit, sit up straighter, smile a bit more. It was subtle but anyone used to watching for such cues could read it like it was written in large print.

“Now, I know all of you are a little nervous,” Dean Blaine continued in an understanding voice. “After all, most of you are from schools, if not towns, where you were the only Super present. Having peers around you who can understand and relate to what you’re going through is a new experience, and I’m here to tell you that it will be a wonderful one. You’re going to have friendships, support, and respect all built on the mutual understanding that only fellow Supers can share.”

Again the mood of the students shifted a bit as they considered this. Many of them fidgeted and looked around at the others in the room as if seeing them as potential friends for the first time. After a pause to let that new concept sink in, the dean continued. “You’re going to need that support network, too. As all of you should know, becoming a Hero is a grueling task. You’ll be taking combat classes, training your tactical skills, learning to think around corners, and – possibly most importantly of all – you’ll be learning about the ethics behind having and using abilities. And, of course, you’ll be doing all of that while maintaining your secret identity up top.”

Once more the mood changed. Either Dean Blaine was a master at manipulating a crowd or he had a great speech writer who was. This speech was clearly designed to keep the crowd off balance rather than focused on any one topic or even any one emotion. Pride then friendship then fear, one right after another in rapid succession. Next he would need to blunt that fear so as to keep them on edge without letting the fear get the best of them.

Whispers broke out throughout the auditorium. Little knots of classmates who were starting to become friends or competitors began to discuss the pros and cons of secret identities and the difficulty with keeping them among themselves. As Sam expected, the dean didn’t look annoyed at this sudden interruption of his canned speech. In fact, if anything, he looked like he was expecting it.

“Now, now, none of that,” said Dean Blaine without breaking his smile. “I know many of you have lived out in the open about your abilities for years, but this is how we do things at Lander. Learning to protect a secret identity helps you hone a lot of the skills a Hero will need. Ingenuity, thinking on your feet, and planning are all major elements of keeping your secret safe. Those of you who fail at keeping your secret… well, let’s just say that fail was the operative word there.”

No one laughed at Dean Blaine’s joke, Sam looked closely at him and realized this particular joke was meant just for him. Before anyone could latch onto the very real potential of failing out of the HCP, the dean continued on diffusing the concern, at least in part.

“Of course, there are always extenuating circumstances, but let’s just say you should do your best to keep the fact that you’re a Super close to the vest. If you need to show off, work out, or just get the powers pumping, then you are always welcome down here, where you can be the Super we all know you are,” Dean Blaine reassured them.

As Sam watched Dean Blaine continue his speech he noticed a slight shift, the kind of thing he noticed in announcers when something went off script. The dean was getting ready to do something different.

“Since we are on the topic of secret identities and SI infractions, I feel that I need to address the so called elephant in the room.”

Oh crap’, thought Sam and Ray shifted in his seat next to him.

“Many or even most of you know that the last Ultimate Level Combat League Champion, Samson Smash, recently retired undefeated and announced he had been accepted into the HCP program. The tragic events of Meredith Falls had made him reconsider his chosen path in life and he decided the world needed more heroes and at least one less cage fighter.”

The whispers started up again this time even more furiously as people guessed what Dean Jeffries was about to say next.

“Well, I can confirm that is exactly what he did and that he is part of your class here at Lander.”

Now the whispers changed to a dull roar as people started talking to each other faster and ignoring the volume levels.

“Samson Smash is here?”

“I don’t see him…”

“He must be in disguise…”

“Maybe they excused him from orientation…”

“So much for being number one rank…”

“He’s overrated, Muscle Malone was robbed in that last match…”

“Rick ‘Right’ Cross could beat him easily but they never fought…”

“I think I can still take him…”

All of them spoke over one another until a loud bang from behind the podium interrupted them. Dean Blaine had slammed a textbook down onto the flat surface and the noise broke everyone out of their conversations, shocking them into stunned silence.

“You may of course speculate on what this will mean to you in terms of ranking… on your own time,” the dean continued as if they weren’t already speculating. “However I am addressing what this will mean for SI requirements. Sam,” he said looking right at him, “would you please stand and introduce yourself to your classmates?”

Sam stood up, a bit embarrassed. He was used to performing in front of large crowds but these more intimate settings, less than one hundred people, always made him nervous.

“Hello everyone,” he started simply, “I’m Sam Fink, as Dean Blaine said I used to fight in the ULCL as Samson Smash and I was the champion there. People know I joined the HCP but not which school. Still, there will be reporters trying to uncover me, and fans, and who knows who else. I’ve had my face altered so I don’t look the same anymore,” he added unconsciously touching his face and unfamiliar features, “and I’m altering my voice and other details to try and hide as best I can. Above ground I’m Matt Norton, not Sam Fink, I live in the dorms just like the rest of you.” He turned to the seat next to him, “This is my roommate Ray Rios, he knew all this already, and he’s going to help me keep it all as quiet as possible.” With that Sam sat down and the whispers around the room resumed.

“It’s alright man,” Ray whispered to him, “they’ll get used to it. You came across humble and a little scared, it was good.”

“I’m a lot scared,” Sam whispered back, “any one of them could expose me if they think I’m too good and that’s it, I’m a known super, they don’t need to catch me doing something with my power, they just need to expose who I am.”

“I think the HCP screens out most major assholes man. If it were that easy to get rid of those above you the whole thing wouldn’t work.”

Dean Blaine interrupted the reverie again, “So, as you can see, the SI requirements are going to potentially be tested in unique and different ways this year and potentially over all four years your class will be with us.”

“This is not the first time a super with notoriety has joined the program, though it may be the most public persona who has ever been accepted. We have policies and contingencies in place to help deal with it. However each and every one of you must carefully guard yourselves as well. A casual slip using the wrong name up above might bring suspicion not only on Sam but on you as well.”

“I assure you that any infraction regarding Sam will be carefully scrutinized. It is your responsibility as students in the HCP to not only protect your identity but that of your fellows. This is no different than if you were both heroes and you let their identity slip.”

He suddenly turned and faced a student at random, a pretty brunette girl leaning back in her chair. “Ms. Powell,” he said with a bit of force in his voice, “would you like to be responsible for another hero’s family being killed because of a slip of the tongue?”

She sat up straight on being addressed and blushed slightly. “N… N… No,” she stammered, “of course not Dean Blaine.”

“That’s how serious the SI requirements are. They protect heroes, heroes’ families, loved ones, and even casual acquaintances. For our first ethics assignment of the year we will be reviewing the case of Roustabout and Abstract and the outcome for each of those heroes. It will demonstrate the very real consequences an SI infraction could cause.”

He gave that some additional time to sink in. Everyone seemed quite subdued and introspective. “With that out of the way, why don’t we move on to the rest of the day’s activities?”

Sam noted that the Dean sank back into the comfort of rote repetition. He was back on familiar ground where his speech and patter were highly rehearsed. “Since above ground classes don’t start until tomorrow, we’ll be using today to do our combat ranking. For those of you who don’t know, we do rankings among the classes at the beginning of this and end of every other year. This is so we can get a sense of where you’re starting from based on the previous test, and how much you’ve grown by the end. We won’t just be taking into account who wins each fight; we’ll be looking at how they use their abilities, bodies, and brains to make the most of every situation. Today’s will be a single elimination tournament, so the more you win, the more you fight, the better a chance you have to showcase what you can do.”

“I’d like all of you to meet the professors who will be overseeing the first battle of your college careers, the freshmen combat coaches: Professor Fletcher and Professor Pendleton!” Dean Blaine announced, gesturing to the side of the stage where a pair of people, both wearing sweats, walked in and joined the dean in the center at the podium.

Professor Fletcher turned out to be an old man, an old man in great shape but still an old man. He was tall and broad with grey thinning hair and bright blue eyes. He addressed them first.

“I am going to make this short. I am in charge of close combat training and as such will be the man you learn to hate over the next year. I can and will teach you and those of you who do well enough will leave here with the skills you need to be a hero.” He stopped and then gestured to the other man who entered with him.

He was slender and even taller nearly topping six and a half feet. He was younger than Fletcher, with black hair and a goatee with a touch of grey in it. “My name is Professor Pendleton and I will be teaching the alternative combat course this year. For those of you who don’t know what that means, I will be the primary teacher for those of you whose abilities are not directly suited for combat, but I will also be teaching all of you to think about and use your powers and skills in ways you have never thought possible. Some of you might even learn to hate me more than you hate Coach Fletcher.”

The mood swung yet again and now everyone was confused. Sam had been through things like this before with his prior trainers. It’s not the typical student teacher relationship. It’s much closer to drill instructors in the armed forces. They weren’t here to be their friends, they didn’t care about ratings or what you might say on any of the online rate my professor sites. All they cared about was that in the end they did everything they could so that their charges would not die. From Sam’s point of view that included pretty much anything that didn’t kill them now instead.

“Very good,” said Dean Blaine. “Before we head down to the combat cells for rating, does anyone have any questions so far?” No hands came up, everyone seemed a bit numb, which was, Sam was sure, exactly what they wanted.  Dean Blaine continued. “Excellent! I want the girls to go to Professor Pendleton and the boys to go to Professor Fletcher so they can pair you up for your ranking matches.”

Sam took a deep breath before standing and heading to Professor Fletcher. He was very conscious of all the stares from the other boys in the class. Each one of them was looking at him as the one to beat. After all he was the best fighter among all the supers who fought in cages for a living. He knew better, he never had to face people in the arena who didn’t have flashy, showy powers, or who could just stop people in their tracks. He never faced energy projectors, just other physical supers. Strongmen galore and other exotic physical supers but that was it.

He turned to his roommate, “Ray,” he said with a sigh. “I’ve got a lot of shit coming my way. I’ll try not to let you get splashed by it.”

Masks We Wear: Chapter 2

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