The Masks We Wear
Chapter 11: This Far and No Farther
Sam entered the same lecture hall he had just a day before, where he was forced to stand in front of the class and tell them who he was. This time however he and Ray didn’t just grab a couple of seats, this time they had assigned seating and Ray was all the way across the room from him. He wasn’t sure of the reason for that but he was sure the professors had one. If Ray was right, and Sam was willing to bet he was, the professors had a reason for everything they did and most of the time it wasn’t what they said it was. He looked across the hall which was only two thirds full of students in black uniforms so far and found where he was assigned to sit.
Sam sat down in his seat and to his left was a young man with brown hair in a short buzz cut. The seat to his right was empty for now though from the looks of things there were only about fifty seats in the entire lecture hall, which would account for the entire class. That was a change from the previous day, they started out with exactly sixty four students and only fifty were ranked, the rest had already quit, mostly after a poor showing in their first combat. Some probably realized this wasn’t going to be the life for them, others probably couldn’t believe they were beaten in the first round, or perhaps beaten so easily. Fourteen students gone before the first class was even held. The whole thing made him wonder, ‘When will the next student leave? Will it be someone I know?’ and the most dreaded thought of all ‘Will I be able to make it through?’ the last was something he never asked himself before.
“You’re Sam right? Samson Smash?” The question came from the kid with the buzz cut sitting on his left.
Sam turned to him to reply, “Yeah I’m Sam Fink, though I think the whole Samson Smash persona is behind me now.”
“I’m Manny Sullivan, I watched your last match with Dexter, pretty impressive. He’s my roommate and boy was he pissed he missed out on first place.”
“Well thanks for the compliment, Dexter was a tough opponent, not the type of fight I’m used to. For that matter except for my first fight, none of my fights were what I was used to. I guess that’s going to have to change.”
“Yeah, I don’t have that much experience fighting other supers, not too many where I’m from. My first fight was a guy named Garrett who made me shake in place but I was able to overcome his power and him. My second fight was with a guy named Ralph, he turned into some kind of thing… there were tentacles everywhere, I couldn’t think straight or breathe, he was just… I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Yeah I fought him. Crazy power set that guy has.”
“I missed that match, he had just taken me out of the competition and I was recovering in the infirmary. By the time I made it back to observation he was already eliminated. How the hell did you beat him? That thing he becomes… I still get the shivers just thinking about it.”
“I…” Sam started to reply, but before he could someone took the seat on his other side and interrupted him.
“Well,” came a woman’s voice, “fancy meeting you here Sam.”
Sam turned and looked into a pair of eyes he hadn’t seen in over two years. A petite and pretty African-American girl sat in the chair next to him with a shit eating grin on her face. He stood up so fast he almost knocked his chair over. “Holy shit! Jenny, what the hell are you doing here? And why didn’t you come find me before this? You had to know I was here after the whole announcement yesterday.”
“Which question did you want me to answer first Sam?” she replied arching an eyebrow while getting up and embracing Sam in a huge hug.
“Why didn’t you come find me before this?”
“Well Sam, you might have been sure you were going to make it through rankings but I wasn’t so sure.”
“Are you kidding Jenny, you have an amazing power.”
“Sam, everyone here has an amazing power.”
“Sure but, come on, you’re Flicker, fastest girl ever to come out of Vancel Academy.”
Before Jenny could answer, the two of them were interrupted again, still hugging. “Hi Sam…” said a slightly cold voice that Sam instantly recognized.
Stepping out of the hug and turning, Sam saw Jacqui standing there frowning.
“OK Jacqui, before this becomes a scene out of a sitcom where you think I’m cheating and I don’t realize why you’re mad at me or something, this is Jenny Parsons,” he said gesturing at the girl he had just been hugging. “She’s one of my best friends since third grade and I would no more think about sleeping with her than I would with my sister.” He paused and turned to Jenny, “Jenny, this is Jacqui Ramos, she’s in our class and I like her… a lot.”
“Hi Jacqui,” Jenny said taking it all in stride. “Sam was right. This did have all the makings of a scene from a bad sitcom.
“Hi Jenny, yeah it did, and I’m sorry I was getting a bit jealous, I didn’t think I had reason to be but, well… I guess I like Sam a lot too.”
“He’s a likable guy. I just surprised him; he didn’t know I was here.”
“That’s right,” said Sam, “Jenny was just about to explain why she didn’t tell me she was here before now. Something about not being sure she would make it.”
“Sam, when did we graduate?” asked Jenny.
“Two years ago, we graduated together.”
“Right and you went into the ULCL, I went to college. Here… to the HCP.”
“Oh,” Sam replied, realizing he put his foot in his mouth.
“Having an amazing power isn’t a guarantee of anything here. I didn’t make it through the first year last time.”
“But you’re back now. You must have improved a ton in the last year.”
“I did, and I still wasn’t sure I was going to apply again until almost the deadline.”
“Why wasn’t I sure? Or why did I apply again?”
“I wasn’t sure I was going to do it again because I still wasn’t sure I was good enough. I had been training hard, and I had part of the first year of training to help me but I still wasn’t sure I was going to make it through.”
“What changed your mind?”
“The same thing that made you change your mind and pulled you out of the ULCL, Meredith Falls or more specifically, Michael.”
“Yeah,” he replied sadly. “I could see how that could be, you were so close to him.”
“And those fuckers killed him. If more people from Vancel realized he was Rasa you would see almost everyone from Compete here.”
“Yeah,” Sam added sadly, “he was loved.”
“Sam, did you know Rasa?” Jacqui asked.
“Yeah, at school we called him Coach, he helped all of us time and time again. He graduated when I was in fifth grade but he still helped me a ton. I made my decision to go HCP before I found out he died at Meredith Falls, but it only strengthened my resolve.”
“Umm…” came a voice to their left, “maybe I shouldn’t be here for this?”
“Manny!” exclaimed Sam, “I’m sorry man, we didn’t mean to embarrass you with a bunch of personal stuff. Jacqui, Jenny, this is Manny, umm… well we just met, we’re seated next to each other.
“It’s OK, I…”
Before Manny could finish whatever he was going to say, the door behind the lectern opened admitting Dean Blaine.
“I’ll see you later Sam,” Jacqui said quickly as the other three took their seats. “Let’s get together after gym.”
“Better make that conditional on you still being able to walk Jacqui,” added Jenny as Jacqui hurried down to her seat, right next to that ass Leo Mack.
“Good morning, class,” Dean Blaine began actually looking happy to see the students in front of him. “As all of you recall, I am sure, my name is Dean Blaine, and in addition to being your Dean, I am the instructor for Ethics of Heroism. This is something I choose to do, each and every year, for as important as it is to build up your bodies and train your powers, it is equally as important, if not more important to train your minds. Honing your powers to a fine edge without also making sure you are grounded in ethical principles, would simply release a dangerous group of supers onto the world around us. Understanding why we do things the way we do them and what the difficult choices you will face as heroes is the most important lesson you will learn here. It is my pleasure to personally lead you on this pathway to knowledge.”
“Now then, no matter how much you as individuals feel you have prepared yourself and are aware of the challenges ahead of you, I can tell you right now you cannot begin to imagine what you will go through over the next year, let alone the three years that follow should you successfully make it through the program.”
Sam had heard some of this from Ray already, who seemed to have a deeper knowledge of the HCP than anyone in their class should. He was curious as to exactly what Dean Blaine would tell them though.
“The first thing to realize is your class has already lost fourteen people, that’s roughly twenty two percent of the entire class. Before the end of the first year most classes lose on average fifty percent. That would be another eighteen of you. That doesn’t count anyone we cut because we don’t feel they can progress in the program.”
A ripple ran through the class, most people knew the HCP was tough. This is the first time they were told expect half of the class to just up and quit the program.
Once the class quieted again Dean Blaine continued. “And we will cut some of you, we can’t afford to allow anyone through who doesn’t meet the most exacting of standards. Heroes die every day, to let anyone through who doesn’t meet those standards will only increase the deaths, and not just the deaths of heroes but the deaths of the public we are sworn to protect.”
“Look around you, each member of the class is your competition. Even if every one of you decided to stick it out. Even if not one single member of your class got cut along the way. Even if all of that happened there are only twenty eight spots for sophomores at each program in the HCP. Should there truly be more students deserving of a spot than this program can handle it is possible that students could transfer to one of the other four HCPs if they are better than the students in those programs. It is however just as likely that students from those other programs will be trying to take spots here. And let’s not forget that those students who made it through the freshman year but didn’t make the cutoff can challenge for one of those twenty eight spots. Every year there are some challenges. Some years they are successful.”
Again the chatter and whispering started among the students. Even if everyone performed at their best and above the cut off for next year, whatever that actually was, the fewest members of the class that would be lost is twenty two.
“And,” continued Dean Blaine, “let us not forget that each year, the number of students who may advance to the next year gets smaller. Twenty eight advance to sophomore year, only twenty advance to junior year. Only fifteen advance to senior year and of those no more than ten can graduate.”
Sam looked around the room. No more than ten of these fifty people sitting here would become heroes. He knew the cutoffs were significant but one in five of the already smaller group seemed daunting and he was ranked first among the men for now. How must the man and woman ranked last among them feel?
Jenny leaned over and whispered in Sam’s ear, “I told you making it through was not easy even with an amazing power.”
Dean Blaine moved on changing the subject before the class could focus on it too much. “For the rest of this year Professor Fletcher, Professor Pendleton and I will be educating your minds and bodies preparing you not to be heroes but to be second year trainees. Other than in special circumstances you will not even meet the other professors until you reach second year. The skills they teach are far more specialized and are not needed during your first year. Despite what you may think, the three of us are more than enough to handle this year’s education.
“Generally speaking, this class will only meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the time slot on the other three days allotted for personal study. I’m sure most of you are counting on that as a free period, but I assure you, it is time you should cherish. That is a boon we only provide to the freshmen, to help ease the transition. Now then, on to the syllabus.”
Another ripple ran through the class and Leo Mack let out an obvious groan.
Dean Blaine laughed. “Nearly the same thing happens every year, though only about one in five have an actual groaning student. It’s my little joke, there is no syllabus, this class is based solely on the discussions held in it and perhaps an assignment or two that will be handed out along the way. You will be graded on participation and attendance. Written work will be infrequent at best as, in general, it doesn’t mesh well with the subject matter we’re covering. Come to class prepared to talk and think, show me your wit and your wisdom, when I ask you a question I want to look you in the eye and hear what you really think.”
“Now then, that is the extent of what I wanted to discuss with you today. In general I find that on the first day the prospect of heading to gym and for the first time training with your powers in the HCP program makes students a bit too distracted to really get much out of my ethics class. So today we will be dismissing Ethics of Heroism early to give you all an extra half hour of gym. I think it will give you a proper appreciation.”
Three hours later Sam was sure nearly everyone had a new and ‘proper’ appreciation for gym. He was used to training, he was used to training hard. He was even used to the intensity of training before a title match where you needed to ride the edge without exhausting your ability to come out strong in the fight itself. He was not used to what the HCP program so innocuously called gym. He supposed that it was called that because hell was taken as a name.
To be fair, he did better than most of the others, the Professors had split them into men and women and each group started running one hundred and eighty degrees apart from each other in the gym. He had managed to basically stay at the front of the men’s group. At least two people, one of the men and one of the women, had simply collapsed during the workout, which was mostly running separated by bouts of intense calisthenics to work different muscle groups and try to avoid simply exhausting them. They were carried out of the gym and hadn’t made another appearance. Another one of the men had been pulled out by Professor Fletcher when he fell so far behind that the girls group caught up to him.
Surprisingly most of the group did not use powers during the time in hell. There were clearly a few who did, Leo Mack continuously lapped the group and while he wasn’t a speeder like Jenny, it was impressive how fast super strong legs could make you run. He also didn’t seem to get tired like the rest of them. There was another one of the men who essentially kept up with Leo, he seemed to be more winded at the end but he pushed his way through. Another of the men, a blonde haired kid with a slight build seemed to waver between exhaustion and being fresh as a daisy. Ray had pointed him out to Sam during one of the five two-minute breaks they were given by the Professors, or torturers, Sam was no longer sure of the proper terminology.
“His name is John Davis, ranked twenty second among the men,” Ray said, Sam realized that was just two slots from the bottom which meant he almost certainly lost his first match and didn’t even show the Professors that he could do something in the match to make him worthy. “He’s the only healer in the class,” Ray continued, and Sam realized that not only did his rank make sense but he really wanted to get on John’s good side. Ray himself was able to talk without panting which put him among the top performers in gym today.
Sam assumed that the waxing and waning exhaustion John evidenced was due to him using his powers to wipe away his exhaustion. That made him fairly versatile, not all healers could do that and not all healers had powers that worked on themselves.
Two others caught Sam’s attention during the class.
First was one of the women who definitely used her powers during the run. She was clearly a shifter, and her other formed looked like an anthropomorphized dragon. She had wings, a tail, and everything. As she ran an occasional puff of smoke would escape from her nasal slits. He was surprised she could run well with the wings and tail getting in the way, but she must have practiced running in this form previously because she actually made it seem graceful. Ray said her name was Lori and when Sam asked told him the guy keeping up with Leo was named Ted and he was also a strongman though probably not quite up to Leo’s level.
The second thing that caught his attention was Jenny. He knew her well and knew the kind of speeds she was capable of. Despite this she was not using her powers at all, he could see the concentration in her face as she struggled not to run too fast and leave the others behind. Knowing that Jenny spent at least part of a year here he had to assume there was a reason for it and resisted any temptation to use his energy form in today’s exercises.
After nearly three hours of almost non-stop exercise the Professors call the group over to a flat work out area used for stretching and floor gymnastics. Both groups came together everyone bearing an expression of absolute exhaustion.
“Well,” said Ray when they reached the Professors, “none of us are going to ask to be let out of Ethics early again.”
Jenny laughed, “They said the same exact thing last year. I think Dean Blaine takes a perverse pleasure in it.”
“All right,” said Professor Fletcher standing in front of the group of collapsing students. “speculate on Dean Blaine’s perversities on your own time. Right now is our time.”
Professor Pendleton simply loomed tall and thin behind Professor Fletcher, not adding anything, simply watching them coldly. It was almost unnerving.
“For a group of what are supposed to be outstanding heroes to be, this was a pretty pathetic showing. If you make it through the first semester you will look at this as a delightful little romp, a mild warm up that wouldn’t even cause you to break a sweat.”
That elicited a groan from the collective class.
“Yeah pity yourselves for the hard work, for the pain, for the exhaustion, for everything we are going to torture you with. But don’t expect us to care. This is for your own good, think of it as surgery without the anesthetic, it hurts but it cuts away something that would probably kill you if it was left in place.”
“We are slicing away your weakness, heroes can’t afford any, we are also amputating anyone who won’t be able to make it here. If you can’t get through this how are you going to fight your way through a gang of drugged up, insane supers, who just kidnapped a class of fourth graders?”
“Dean Blaine told you how many drop out of the HCP, how many more we cut, and how few of you can actually make it through to get your certification. But that still didn’t really make it sink in. Maybe this will…”
“Joshua Patton, rank 18 among the men.”
“Annette Garner, rank 17 among the women.”
“Garrett Rogers, rank 20 among the men.”
“These three have been dismissed from the HCP for physical deficiencies displayed during the first gym class.”
Stunned silence was the reaction of the class. Sam had known three people didn’t make it through the gym class but he never thought they would cut them immediately. He figured they would be given some extra help to toughen them up and get them past their deficiencies. None of them were ranked high but none were in the bottom of the class either, there were at least four people below the worst of them. He realized that while he didn’t know any of them it could just as easily have been Ray, or Jacqui, Vicki, Clay, Kerry, Jenny… well maybe not Jenny with her powers this couldn’t have been a challenge for her. Still he recognized the name Garrett as the one who Manny said he defeated in his first match, someone here knew him, maybe was friends with him, and the three of them were probably already gone with their memories of the few days they spent in the HCP wiped clean.
“For those three, they go this far and no farther. We do this because if we let them go any farther it will only hurt others more. We have removed their hopes, their dreams, and now their memories. And make no mistake; we would do the same to each and every one of you if we need to. Don’t make us.”
“Now then,” Professor Fletcher added, “that’s one half of today’s lesson, here is the other half. Sam Fink and Kerry Powell front and center right now!”
Sam heard his name and the tone in the Professor’s voice and he didn’t even think. He simply shot up, muscles twinging as he did so, and moved to the front of the class next to the Professor along with Kerry.
Neither of them looked fresh, both were bedraggled to one extent or another, it was clear to anyone looking that neither was physically enhanced. Sam looked out at his classmates and caught a smile here and there and a glare from Leo Mack who looked as if he didn’t sweat a drop. Given that he knew Leo hadn’t slept the night before Sam was secretly jealous of his durability and stamina. Seeing that, Sam looked out across the group and found Bethany and Dixie, they were leaning on each other, still breathing heavily. They were shaking noticeably and looked ready to collapse. Their faces still bore determination they weren’t going to let a little thing like no sleep and running way past normal capacity make them fail.
“Take a good hard look at these two. Both of them were out there with you in gym, both look just as exhausted as the rest of you, but these two are so far ahead of the rest of you as you are from those three we just removed. Sam and Kerry are ranked first among the men and women in your class. These two are your enemies. For the rest of the year, your only goal is to defeat them.”
Sam felt the sweat on his body turn cold. The Professor had just painted an even bigger target on him than he already had. Everyone would be gunning for him even more. He looked over at Kerry who looked like someone had hit her with a sledgehammer right between the eyes.
“At the end of this year your final will consist of combat trials again, we won’t simply be looking at who can beat who, we will be looking at who can use their strengths including their powers the best. We aren’t simply going to throw you randomly at each other and see who can beat the shit out of who. By the time you get to the final… if you get to the final… you will be ready for much more than that.”
Professor Fletcher gave that a few seconds to sink in before continuing. “Over the next year you will get stronger, you will get better, or you too will go no farther.” This led to an even longer pause where Professor Fletcher simply waited and Professor Pendleton scanned everyone in the room.
“Now then, don’t start thinking of things as hopeless if you can’t imagine beating the great Samson Smash.” These words came from Professor Pendleton, the first he said since they all gathered. “HCP isn’t only about who can dish out or take the most damage. The first half of the year gym will be about what you had today but gradually increasing in intensity. You will all get into shape that Olympians will envy or you likely won’t make it through. Every hero needs both strength and endurance to just keep going when they are out there facing down villains, disasters, and anything else thrown your way. But for those of you who make it back from winter recess the way we do things will change.”
He let those words hang there a few seconds as if daring someone to ask what the change will be.
“After the vacation, and vacation you will learn better not mean slacking off on training, the first half of the class will continue with exercise and general physical training. The second half of the class will be divided with some of you being in combat training under Professor Fletcher and some of you in alternative training under me.”
This announcement led to talk among the students. Sam was still standing at the front and couldn’t even talk to anyone but Kerry, not that he wanted to talk to anyone while standing here on display… again. Everyone was wondering what alternative training was, combat training made sense to them, everyone knew heroes fought villains, but most of them had no idea what heroes actually did or how they did it. Sam himself wouldn’t have known except for some very pointed lessons about the system from Ray.
“For those of you who didn’t prepare for HCP enough to know, alternative training is where students with powers and skills not suited for a direct combat role go. We teach you to use those powers and skills effectively as a hero even if you never throw a punch or a blast of energy.”
More whispering took place throughout the group of students. Sam leveled a look at Ray who just smiled and winked at him. The Professors hadn’t told them even half of it yet.
“And before any of you decide that alternative training is weaker or less heroic, I trained in the alternative group and graduated from this very school.”
The murmuring died down and people looked at Professor Pendleton with a new respect. Who did they think the Professors were? Of course they are heroes, probably the best of the best who have retired from hero work to teach the next generation. They had to be chosen for skill, power, and as examples of what it truly was to be a hero.
“Now one important thing to consider is we decide who goes in what group. The top five rated men and women will all automatically go into combat. The bottom five in the men and women will all automatically go to alternative. Anyone in the middle, their fate will be decided by Professor Fletcher and myself based on our review of their ranking battles, their power set, and their performance in this class.”
“Umm… Professor…” a woman’s voice from amidst the students interrupted as a hand rose out of the crowd.
“Yes, Lucy, if I may be so bold as to predict your question, you are currently ranked number twenty two of the women and you feel your powers more properly place you in combat and want to know what to do about it… Is that about right?”
“Y… y… yes,” she stammered, clearly not used to being put on the spot.
“Well that is simplicity itself. You will have to raise your ranking. You can do this by challenging people of your gender ahead of you in the rankings. If you beat them you get their rank and they get yours, pretty simple really. Of course there are a few rules to it, you can never challenge someone more than five ranks ahead of you, so if you really want to move up you need to do it step by step. You have to have a faculty supervisor and a healer at hand for any challenge and they of course need to be done down here in the facilities not up above in some alley. Lastly the top five in each gender can’t be challenged by anyone outside the top five. That means for all of you six and below, six is the highest rank you can aspire to until the end of the year.”
“Why sir?” Lucy asked finding her voice again.
“Experience has shown that the gap between the top five and everyone else is very wide. Some years it’s only the top three who are far ahead, some years it’s the top seven, there is some variation. But as a rule we limit the top five. If number five is far behind the top four they will drop down at the end of the year. If number six is far ahead of everyone else they will find it easier to keep their spot.”
“So anyone we challenge within the five above us has to fight us and can lose their spot?”
“No Lucy, they could refuse. Generally that isn’t done, in fact I can only think of a handful of cases where that happened.”
“Well what’s in it for them?” Lucy asked, her confidence finally back in her voice. “Seems like all they can do is lose rank.”
“True on one level, but remember we are constantly evaluating everyone in the class. Do you know what you call a hero who backs down from a challenge?”
Everyone looked confused.
“That’s right,” Professor Pendleton continued after no one supplied an answer. “You don’t call them anything because heroes don’t back down from challenges. Defending your rank will earn you points toward your grade and the respect of your Professors and peers. Losing rank only loses rank. Refusing a challenge will lose you points on your grade and the same respect. You will find that the respect of your peers and hopefully of we, your teachers, is important to you as you move on through the years of the HCP.”
“Now, are there any more questions?”
Hearing none Professor Pendleton concluded his speech with a statement that truly made everyone in the class groan. “This year you were unlucky enough to have classes begin on a Tuesday. That means no weekend to recover from gym. We will see you here tomorrow, let’s be ready for a more robust workout this time, shall we?”
Twenty minutes later Sam and Ray were coming out of the locker room, moving fairly slowly.
“You did pretty well in gym Ray,” Sam commented, “I was surprised you kept up like that, you haven’t had physical training like I have and you don’t have physical enhancements.”
“Sam,” Ray replied sighing, “you keep underestimating my power, that’s good, if you’re doing that everyone else is probably doing it more. I already told you this morning, food is fuel for me, mass is muscle. I can selectively augment my muscles without it appearing too distorted if I’m not trying to do something crazy. In addition to that I can make other subtle body changes.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“When you exercise, what’s the first problem you have? What makes it difficult to go on and keep exercising?”
“Getting out of breath I guess.”
“Right, you start to crave more and more oxygen to supply your muscles, you breathe faster and deeper, start panting, ultimately you still can’t get enough oxygen to supply the needs of the muscles and your muscles start working on anaerobic metabolism, a state of oxygen deprivation. That’s when your muscles start to burn and eventually get exhausted.”
“Yeah most people who work out seriously learn this. You need to regulate your breathing… well there’s a lot of tricks to use to keep things going.”
“Right, and who do you know who happens to be awesome at tricks?” Ray smiled a cheesy grin at Sam.
“OK so what did you do?”
Ray looked around to be sure no one else was close enough to overhear. “You know what a didgeridoo is?”
“Yeah,” replied Sam completely confused, “it’s an Australian musical instrument. But what in the hell does that have to with what we’re talking about.”
“Sam, you’re a good friend, you have frustrating amounts of integrity, but you are poorly read and need to work on your imagination if you want to find new and improved ways to use your powers.”
“Gee thanks, you’re my biggest fan Ray.”
Ray laughed, “OK do you know anything else about didgeridoos? How they are played?”
“No, not really.”
“OK they use a trick called cyclic breathing where the musician breathes in and out at the same time… sort of. Well I can alter my lungs and diaphragm enough to allow me to inhale constantly without actually exhaling. My lungs become less like a bellows and more like a wind tunnel. It lets me constantly take in more oxygen and expel more waste products. My kidneys get a change also, larger, higher flow, get rid of more waste while scavenging more water so I don’t dehydrate.”
“How the hell do you do that?”
“It’s all physiology Sam. Pretty straight forward, I told you that you are poorly read. It’s not even that impressive, just unexpected. Like I said before most shape changers can’t do what I can, that’s why my powers are so surprising.”
“It must be incredible to be able to change yourself on that level.”
“What I do isn’t so impressive; the number one ranked student in third year can alter himself on the molecular level. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff he can do.”
“How do you know what the third year lead can do?”
Ray winked again, “I told you Sam, information is more important than almost anything.”
“Also Sam, you are really gonna need to step up your game if simple uses of my power like this astound you. You are going to need to figure out new and interesting ways to use your powers and learn to anticipate unusual ways other people might use their powers against you.”
The two of them walked out into the common hallway that connected to the men’s and women’s locker rooms to find a pair of the women waiting for them. Kerry Powell stood there with a thin blonde woman, her hair in a ponytail. Sam her recognized from a video Ray had shown him of her fighting Vicki, Kerry’s roommate Kellie.
“Hey Sam, Ray,” Kerry greeted them.
“Hi Kerry,” Sam and Ray both replied simultaneously.
“Jinx… you owe me a beer,” Ray said almost instantly.
“Damn it…” said Sam. “Well I don’t know which places around here don’t proof, so you are going to need to wait on that Ray.”
“Actually,” said Kerry, “we were waiting for you two to see if you wanted to go out to dinner. Celebrate the end of the first day; maybe discuss the study group a bit? Oh this is Kellie by the way, my roommate. Kellie this is Sam and Ray.”
“Heya,” Kellie said by way of greeting them.
“Umm… I kind of agreed to meet Jacqui for dinner already,” Sam replied hesitantly. “I think her roommate Vicki was gonna tag along and she wanted me to drag Ray,” Ray gave a subtle roll of his eyes at that. Sam knew Ray liked Vicki but was interested in a wider variety of companionship than she seemed to be.
“Well…,” Kerry answered while glancing over at Kellie, “why don’t we tag along. It’s not a date or anything like that right?”
“No,” Sam said, while he thought ‘Not exactly a date anyway’.
“Great, let’s go find them then. Maybe a couple others too.”
Kerry stalked off down the hallway in search of others. Kellie looked at her roommates back, “Don’t mind her… she’s a bit of a forceful personality,” she smiled at them before turning and following Kerry. “Meet you guys topside, lobby of Hughes Hall, ten… fifteen minutes,” she yelled back as she hurried after Kerry.
It was a tired but happy group that ended up at Supper with Supers that night. It was cheesy but just what they needed to not take what they just went through too seriously. The hero memorabilia all over the walls and the wait staff in costumes gave their group a light hearted feeling that while what they were doing was as serious as the Professors made it out to be, there was also room for fun.
There were ten of them in the end. Sam and Ray of course, Kerry and Kellie, Jacqui and Vicki, Kerry had managed to track down Marvin and his roommate Doug. Kellie had found Clay though his roommate Dennis has already taken off. Lastly Sam invited Jenny to come along, another friend in this sea of strangers.
True to his word Ray sat down and ordered a beer, directing the waitress to give the bill to Sam. He pulled out a driver’s license which must have indicated he was over twenty one. Looking closely at his face Sam noticed subtle changes that gave it a more mature look. He wasn’t actually sure he could pinpoint exactly what was different but he would have guessed Ray was in his mid-twenties rather than just eighteen. The rest of them had to make due with soft drinks, this was a family restaurant and they took under-age drinking pretty seriously.
It was good noisy fun. The group of them got to know each other, where they were from, what they were planning to major in. It was a typical gathering of college kids. No one mentioned anything about their life under the school, and everyone remembered to call Sam Matt.
It wasn’t until the end of dinner where anyone made any reference to the day’s events. Surprisingly, it was Ray. He stood up and raised his glass and directed everyone else to do the same. Clay made a comment about how it was a sin to toast with non-alcoholic beverages and Ray told him he would have to gain a few years before he could stop being a sinner then.
Once Clay was shushed by those around him Ray raised his glass once more as did everyone else and gave his toast. “To going farther…”