Chapter 2: Not quite the cage
Sam waited in a small vestibule for the door to open and admit him to the combat cell for the first ranking match. He didn’t have long to wait before three separate locks disengaged and the steel door swung outward into the cell.
Sam entered cautiously. Gazing around the room he was struck with one difference immediately. ‘It’s bigger’, he thought, automatically comparing the concrete room he stepped into to the cage he was so used to. The differences were profound. The cage was smaller, fifty feet across and thirty feet high, dome shaped, and made of bars spaced far enough apart to see between with a clear unbreakable polymer in-between and for the high power matches it was supported by a force field as well… just in case. The cage was certainly meant to contain the supers within and protect the audience, but it was made for an audience. Hell, in most venues the bars were gimmicked to turn clear so as not to obstruct the view. It was also made for combatants who were primarily based around purely physical powers, strength, agility, speed. They didn’t have blasters in there or tekes or anyone who didn’t give a good show. ULCL fighting was mixed martial arts on steroids, take trained fighters and add super powers, strength, durability, speed and let them fight it out.
This room clearly had a different purpose. Contain anything. It was a cube seventy feet to the side, the walls were reinforced concrete and other than two doors on either side and a viewing window set high above, it was featureless. Max realized again that he might be fighting someone with powers he couldn’t just rush in and overwhelm. He was also fighting people who might not have any level of durability. Everyone in ULCL had some form of durability, enough to last in the cage. Without it, there wasn’t much point. An occasional upset match that ended in a knock out in seconds was OK, but day in and day out, for maximum profit, they needed fights that lasted and entertained. Fights that went back and forth, changed who had the advantage, and had some thrills to them were the best. His last fight with Max Malone was already the highest selling pay-per-view and DVD in the history of the ULCL. ‘Well’, he thought as he chuckled to himself softly, ‘the residuals will help me pay for college’.
Across the room a similar door had opened simultaneously and admitted another black uniformed student. He didn’t look familiar to him but there were almost seventy of them all waiting to fight one another and get ranked for the year. ‘At least I don’t have to beat up my roommate’, he thought as he looked over his opponent. ‘Then again, with Ray, I suppose I can’t really be sure of that’.
A few seconds spent inspecting his foe told him it wasn’t his roommate in disguise. He was large and radiated the cool confidence that said strength based to Sam. He had seen and fought enough of them over the last year that he had a feel for it.
Instantly he felt more at ease. This was a fight he was used to and unless there was something out of the ordinary, a fight he knew he could win.
A man’s voice came from nowhere, “introduce yourselves,” it said. Sam started to think of the voice as the announcer, or maybe the referee. He shook his head realizing he still had to break out of thinking this was going to be like the cage.
“I’m Sam Fink,” he said nodding and raising a hand in salute to his opponent who stood more than fifty feet away across the room. This wasn’t a match they didn’t come to the center and shake hands. Distance could be an advantage or disadvantage in some of these fights and no one was going to start next to their opponents. He was going to have to close with them and take whatever they could dish out while doing it.
“I know who you are,” his opponent said, also raising his hand to wave in salute. “Hell everyone knows who you are. And when I beat you, everyone will know who I am.”
‘So that’s how we are starting’, thought Sam, ‘there’s going to be a lot of that’.
“My name is Leo… Leo Mack, everyone calls me Mack, as in hits like a Mack Truck.”
‘Stupid’, thought Sam, he was already pretty sure he was dealing with a strength based super here but his opponent just gave it away, no strategy, no element of surprise. ‘I doubt he’s thoughtful enough to try and trick me about his power here’.
“Well,” Sam replied as he activated his power, enveloping himself in a shimmering energy form that mimicked his own body… if his body was nine feet tall and built like Mr. Universe. “I wish you good luck.”
Actually seeing the size of Sam’s energy form his opponent paused for a second, “Yeah, uh thanks… you too,” he answered, dropping the bravado.
“Begin,” came the voice again over the sound system.
Sam began a slow methodical approach toward his opponent but before he got halfway toward the center of the room “Mack” came barreling toward him full speed.
‘Idiot’, he thought, ‘or just never really trained and always counted on his powers’.
As Mack was making his grab for Sam, he quickly sidestepped and dropped to one knee, throwing his arm out at what was now just below neck level on Mack. It was a classic clothesline in the ULCL, never go for the neck where you could snap it, always go just below and let the chest take the blow.
No one in the ULCL would have fallen for that, they wouldn’t be allowed to step into the cage if they weren’t trained that well. Mack didn’t even have time to realize what was going on when the breath was knocked from him and he was thrown onto his back finding it difficult to get air into his lungs.
This is where Sam made his first mistake of the day. He stepped back and let his enemy recover. This let Mack get his breath back, his feet under him, and allowed him to start pummeling Sam’s energy form. He didn’t do it well, he had very little skill depending mostly on brute strength, but he had a decent amount of that.
He needed to start thinking of him as an enemy not just an opponent. In the cage you didn’t relentlessly smash your opponent. That’s part of why some people thought ULCL was fake; it wasn’t fake, it was putting on a good show. You didn’t just pummel your opponent into submission, you played with each other, had some give and take, and then you pummeled them into submission. He had to start thinking like a hero in training, anyone he was fighting was an enemy not simply an opponent and they needed to be put down.
Sam looked down at his enemy, he had to remember enemy, through the sheath of energy that surrounded him. There was the slight distortion the glow caused that was always there and there was more. It was a trick he never told his coaches about, an advantage he kept in the cage that let him deal with people who were sandbagging or had hidden talents. He could see the energy moving throughout Mack’s body. He could sense the flow of whatever it was that enhanced his muscles. And, since he was so used to it from fighting other supers in the cage, he could measure it.
Mack was strong, he had nothing on Muscle Malone but he was strong. In Sam’s estimate, he could probably lift about a ton, maybe a ton and a half, right now. His skin and musculature were dense and absorptive he could take even more damage than he could dish out. That was good because Sam figured he needed to make up for his mistake and show the coaches… professors… whichever they were, what he was capable of. It was too bad there was no cage wall to bounce him off, the reinforced concrete just wouldn’t have the same effect if he didn’t shatter it and Mack wasn’t quite that tough. ‘Maybe it shouldn’t be about strength’, he thought, ‘beating a strongman at his own game is all well and good. Beating a strongman using my mind is better’.
Instead of simply exchanging blows with Mack until one of them passed out from the damage, and Sam was sure that would be Mack not him, Sam stepped into the next blow and grabbed Mack around the head with his oversized hands. As all of his prior opponents did when he first pulled this trick on them, Mack panicked. Having your face covered complete like Sam was palming a basketball and then having it engulfed in that massive hand, was too much for many people to take. Mack tried to take a deep breath and Sam extended the energy of the hand just a trifle and it gagged him over the open mouth which in turn induced more panic. Mack flailed and flailed until he finally passed out from lack of oxygen, happening all the faster for his struggles.
“Winner, Sam Fink” said the voice over the sound system and a white uniformed student entered through Mack’s door and bent over to make sure he was OK. After a few seconds Mack began to stir, the man in the white uniform kept him calm and helped him to his feet.
“Good fight,” Sam said walking over and offering him his hand. He had already dropped the energy form once he was declared winner. He was smart enough not to think about dropping it before that announcement.
Mack just looked at it with a sneer on his face. “Yeah, nice trick choking me like that. Very heroic,” he said dripping sarcasm. “Next time I’ll be ready and you won’t be able to pull that crap on me.”
He turned and stalked off through the door leaving Sam holding his hand out to no one.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the man in white. “It’s a common enough reaction to losing, especially in the first bout, especially among the physically enhanced.”
“Yeah, I’m used to poor sportsmanship. I… well I just didn’t expect to find it here among would be heroes.”
The man in white threw back his head and laughed so loud it echoed off the concrete walls. “Oh, that’s great. I love freshman naiveté.”
“Thanks a lot,” Sam answered a bit sullen despite the win.
“Don’t worry about it. Everyone comes here with preconceived notions. None of them hold true in the end. Everyone here are just people. Eighteen year olds for the most part and, just like all eighteen year olds, they are finding their way. Most of them are looking to explore alcohol and sex as much as they are looking to be heroes. At least none of them are stupid enough to want to experiment with drugs. The few who are that dumb are gone before the first day ends. Healers can sense things like that.”
“Yeah, I guess I never thought about that. I’m nineteen and spent the last year… working… plus I’ve already done a fair amount of experimenting before getting here. I’m ready to focus on being a hero. I guess I thought everyone else here was too.”
“Oh they are, don’t get me wrong. On the whole, the HCP students are a bit more mature than the average college student, but they are more driven also, and they don’t like to lose.” He smiled briefly and chuckled to himself. “I remember one fight my year where the loser who was the toughest strength super in the whole year ranted and raved about losing to a ‘god damned wannabe playmate of the year’. She’s been number one ranked all four years and is a sure shot to graduate first in the class this year. The strongman was cut after junior year, he couldn’t keep up. They had become good friends before that.”
Sam laughed despite himself. He held out his hand to the upperclassman, “I’m Sam Fink.”
The white uniformed man stared at him when he introduced himself. “Damn, they really did a number on your face. I couldn’t recognize you even knowing who you are.” He shook his hand, “I’m Jim Sharp. I’m a senior and one of the healers. I’m also a fan.”
“Well, find me sometime outside of ranking and I’ll be happy to chat about ULCL but right now I probably have to get out of here and find my next bout.”
“You have a little time, but yeah you don’t want to be late.”
“Thanks for chatting.”
“Listen, Sam, can I give you some advice?”
“Sure Jim,” Sam replied with just a bit of hesitation.
“You already know this isn’t the same kind of fighting you’re used to. And I’m sure you’ve thought about what you are going to be going through a great deal.”
“As you face the challenges of the next year and beyond, just remember your ultimate goal. We are all here to be heroes and only the best of us will make it though. But there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last four years. The best of us isn’t the strongest, the toughest, or even the most powerful. The best of us have a hero’s heart, you need the power but that only takes you so far.”
“What I’m trying to say but mangling terribly is this. I watched your last title fight with Max Malone.”
“Muscle,” Sam corrected automatically, he hadn’t called him Max since that night. Sam felt a bit guilty about what happened to him afterwards. Maybe if he had been a bit more respectful about his name Muscle wouldn’t have lost it with that fan.
“Ok, Muscle,” Jim said quickly trying not to let himself be interrupted. “My point is I listened to your speech, and I watched what you did, taking the risk to drop your armor so you could get back in and win the fight. That was the stuff of heroes. That is the stuff that gets you through four years of this. It inspired me. I might not have made it through last year’s cuts without that inspiration. So I wanted to thank you and I wanted to tell you to keep it up.”
Sam didn’t know what to say. He just stared at Jim. It was like someone came up to him and said you’re my hero having nothing to do with being a champion of the ULCL but for who he was on the inside. It was something he hoped he would have to get used to.
“That attitude and that willingness to take the risk when you need to,” Jim continued, “that’s what being a hero is about. Don’t let the trivial crap make you forget that. And don’t let shit like what just happened eat you up inside. Taking grudges outside the cage… well that gets people kicked out permanently.”
Sam nodded, and then he turned and walked toward his door, leaving Jim in the middle of the room. Just before he walked back through his door he turned back to face the healer. “I won’t forget it Jim. I promise. I’m walking out of this school with a white cape on my back in four years. When I do, I want you there at the ceremony wearing yours cause I can tell, you have it in you too.”
He stepped out through the door and sought his next match. One down four to go to get that number one spot. ‘The number one in Jim’s year held it all four years…’ he thought, ‘well I hope she likes being in company with me because that’s what I’m going to do too’.