The Masks We Wear
Chapter 5: Smoke and mirrors
Sam arrived in yet another one of the identical vestibules and again wondered just how many combat cells the HCP had. No sooner had he stepped inside that the locks disengaged and the door swung open into the cell.
Sam stepped in and called up the energy form as he did so. He wasn’t going to get caught flat footed and eliminated in the first twenty seconds because someone struck at him before he was ready. Looking across the room he could tell his opponent had similar ideas. He was surrounded by a writhing mass of what looked like smoke. Tendrils of it stretched out into the room as far as ten or fifteen feet away. Sam couldn’t actually see his face well enough to describe him, his enemy’s appearance was a mystery this time. In truth, he couldn’t even match him up to one of the men in the prior room. While he noticed when he came in, he was too distracted by the group they were forming to do more than take a cursory glance at him.
After just a few seconds the now familiar voice of the “announcer” came from the unseen speakers. “Introduce yourselves,” it said.
Sam wasn’t sure if it was just that they were now more intent upon each match, more aware that each step further means tougher opponents, or that Tony was just a quiet individual but not another word was spoken until the announcer’s voice said, “Begin.”
As Sam stepped forward, heading toward his smoke encased enemy, the smoke spread out through the room. Foot thick tendrils writhed about going from Tony to every corner of the room. Every step Sam took toward Tony made him step over, or through a cable of smoke. As he got closer they began to wrap around his legs. They were just smoke, there was no solidity, nothing to restrict Sam’s movement, and still his enemy made no move.
Just before Sam reached him a voice rang out echoing hollowly through the room. “Not that easy!”
To Sam’s vision, enhanced by the energy form, there was a sudden surge of power along the smoke ribbons. He held back for a second unsure of what was about to happen when from the ribbons around the room multiple figures emerged looking just like Tony who was still standing less than five feet in front of him. Looking around as best he could without taking his eyes off his enemy he counted at least five other figures throughout the room.
As Sam glanced around the room, the smoke coming off Tony’s body intensified and began to wrap itself further around Sam’s energy form, snaking up his chest and around his neck. It was still smoke but now it wrapped around his head obscuring his vision and trying to cut off his air. He did still need to breathe in the energy form but he could pull out his oldest trick here, and use it in such a way as to not reveal it at all.
Sam thought back to the day his powers first emerged. He was eight years old and at the beach. His parents warned him about the undertow, but he was eight and knew better. He could remember the fear, the loss of his breath, the choking sensation as water entered his lungs. He clearly remembered begging god for daddy to come rescue him and then realizing he was going to die. An eight year old sure he would die… his most powerful memory. And then he didn’t, it wasn’t that daddy saved him as he had been praying for, it was because his powers emerged for the first time. The energy he was now so used to appeared as if by magic, surrounded his mouth, and filtered oxygen from the water to let him breathe. Fins and flippers made of the same energy formed to let him cut through the waves and then the strength amplifying form that everyone knew him for now appeared for the first time. But it was the filter and rebreather that first manifested itself eleven years ago.
Sam moved toward Tony easily able to see the energy of his body through the obscuring smoke. He did his best to appear as if the smoke were having an effect, stumbling a bit as he walked, coughing, trying to clear the smoke from his head by waving his arms. He was no actor but even though the ULCL was actual combat, it wasn’t without its theatrics. It was always best to appear more hurt than you actually were.
He grabbed at Tony taking care not to exert too much force, he had no idea if he was fragile or not. In one swift move Tony ducked out of the way of the grab, pulled out a combat baton and extended it to its full length striking at the knee of the energy form. It did no real damage and made a loud dull sound like smashing a baseball bat into the ground, it struck the energy form which was firm but not quite solid. It was clear from the blow that this particular enemy had no enhanced strength and probably no enhanced durability so Sam grabbed him while he was out of position having landed a blow on a nine foot tall opponent rather than one of normal size.
Just as his hand closed around the chest of his enemy, there was a quick surge of energy along the cables of smoke and Tony dissipated in his grip turning to smoke as if he were never even there. The smoke continued to collect around him. If not for the form’s ability to filter oxygen out for him to breathe, he would probably be close to collapse. What seemed to be more of an annoyance at first was now a serious threat.
Sam turned, keeping up the appearance that the smoke was affecting him more than it was. He glanced at the other figures. They were all dim to his enhanced sight but one of them pulsed energy down the conduits of smoke; it was the nerve center. He had to assume it was the real Tony, assuming the real Tony was even here anymore. The nerve center was two figures away from him. He had a plan, it was different from what they were used to seeing from him in the ring. The best part was that it didn’t reveal any more than he had to about him powers and, most importantly, it should work.
He lumbered toward the next figure, lurching his way there, fanning the smoke as he went, coughing and wheezing to play up that it was affecting him. He made a grab at it as he got there, this time there was no attempt to hit him with a combat baton. This time it just dissipated as he grabbed it and more smoke wrapped around and clung to him almost as if it had true substance. He watched closely, there was no surge of energy this time like there had been before. He stood up and spun, noticing there was a new figure in place where Tony was first standing. He glanced from side to side, playing up confusion but mostly preparing to move on to the one he thought was the real Tony, his actual enemy.
Once more he approached in what appeared to be a desperate lurch. He tried to make each move appear just a bit more harried than the one before it. He made a clumsy swing for the figure he was certain was the real one, purposefully overextending and putting himself out of position with an arm jutting out over Tony.
This time his enemy moved, the baton swung once more cracking across his elbow. This time Sam feigned that it caused some pain at least, pulling back to protect the arm, coughing and stumbling. He grabbed for Tony again going for center mass and saw the surge of energy once more along the smoke ribbons. This time it moved to a figure three over from where he was standing.
‘Perfect’ thought Sam.
The last figure he had dissipated had regenerated again. He moved on to the next one making himself stumble more frequently as he went. Forcing a flicker into the energy form to make it appear as if he was losing focus, he got to the next figure and made what looked like a desperate grab, only to hold nothing but smoke.
It was getting thicker and thicker in here. It didn’t seem like Tony could simply fill the room but the longer they were here, the thicker the smoke cables became.
Sam lurched toward the next figure, only looking far enough off target to be sure the same figure, now two away was still the central hub of the network, and it was.
He broke into a lurching run, “Face me you coward,” he yelled frantically as loud as he could then accented it with a coughing fit that threw him off balance. This time as he approached, he didn’t slow, he didn’t make a careful grab, he did an overhead punch straight down through the figure only to have it dissipate once more. His blow was so powerful it continued down and into the concrete of the floor, shattering it spraying fragments of cement everywhere.
‘Now’s my chance’, he thought as he grabbed a grapefruit sized chunk of flooring. Before his enemy had a chance to react, he whipped the jagged piece right at the figure he was sure was the real Tony. His aim had always been good, he had practiced many times with improvised weapons for the ring, and the fragment struck the figure in the left shoulder, well below the head and neck. The crack of shattering bone echoed through the cell. All of the figures screamed and a hollow sounding wail of pain surrounded Sam.
For a just a second the smoke writhed around him, flailing like it too was in agony. Then the real Tony crumpled to the ground and the smoke and additional figures disappeared.
Sam waited for the voice to announce his third win but instead he heard, “Hold combat, this match is currently suspended.”
Both doors remained closed but suddenly several figures appeared in the room with him. Looking over at the fallen Tony he saw his fan from fourth year, Jim Sharp and a man in a long white doctor’s coat bending over the fallen man.
Approaching him were Dean Blaine and Professor Fletcher. He started to ask what was going on when suddenly his energy form disappeared from around him and he fell three feet to the ground.
“What did you think you were doing there?” asked Dean Blaine nearly shouting. “People lose control in combat all the time. However you are experienced, even if it’s just as a cage fighter. We expected better from you. You used lethal force on one of your classmates in a situation that could have easily led to his death if that figure you smashed your way through wasn’t a duplicate.”
“I’m sorry son but we are going to have to pull you for safety,” added Fletcher, “we can’t have a super with your power level go through training until they can keep themselves under control enough to not be a risk to others.”
“You will have a chance to talk at the formal inquiry later today,” continued Blaine, “you are expected to not activate your powers pending that hearing. You will report to conference room 3A at six P.M. where the proceedings will take place, until then we will escort you to holding where you will wait.”
“But what about the rankings?”
“I told you Mr. Fink, you are being pulled from the HCP as a danger to others.”
“But, that’s not fair, I’m not a danger.”
“I’m afraid you are. We just saw you smash through what was luckily a duplicate. You were disoriented by the smoke, possibly oxygen deprived, certainly frustrated. But the fact is this combat isn’t even the smallest fraction of what you will face if you were out in the real world as a hero.”
Professor Fletcher took up berating Sam, “this isn’t necessarily the end for you in the HCP, unless the inquiry decides you made that attack with forethought or malice. I would suggest you spend the next year practicing your control and maintaining your cool in difficult situations. If you can demonstrate that, you could become eligible for next year’s class.”
Unlike what the Dean and the Professor were assuming, now was the first time Sam was beginning to feel some panic. ‘A year’, he thought frantically, ‘I can’t wait a year. Far From Noble is out there, other crazies, other villains. I need to be a hero… I have to train now… I need to become a hero NOW! Waiting is not an option’.
“But I didn’t lose control and I knew it was a duplicate,” he pleaded with the faculty. “Damn it, I knew there was no risk.”
“Why?” asked the Dean, “Just because he hadn’t struck at you? Did you even think that could have been a ploy to lull you into thinking it was a harmless duplicate? Tony Graves is extremely lucky to be alive because if you had actually hit him with that punch, the healers wouldn’t have been able to save him.”
“No, it had nothing to do with that. I wasn’t disoriented, I wasn’t oxygen deprived, and I wasn’t out of control. That was all acting to lull Tony into thinking he was winning. Didn’t you even consider that I was using a ploy?”
“Even if we accept the fact that it was a ploy on your part, how could you be sure that was a duplicate?” asked Fletcher.
“I could tell,” Sam said, instinctively lowering his voice so others couldn’t overhear secrets about his powers. “It’s part of what the energy form lets me do. I can see energy when looking through it. More specifically, I can see whatever energies are involved with super powers. And I can use the form to filter oxygen like a rebreather for diving, so I wasn’t even close to oxygen deprived.”
“Assuming we believe you Mr. Fink,” began Dean Blaine, “why were none of these variant uses of your powers mentioned on your application. I believe the exact powers listed were, creation of energy armor which amplifies your strength and durability significantly and has limited alterability of the actual form.”
“I didn’t think about it, about all the little tricks I’ve learned over the years. Damn it, I got my powers at eight years old. In the last eleven years I’ve learned all sorts of tricks and unusual ways to use them. I listed the major ones. Until I started the combat trials, I had no idea how important the sensory abilities were. In the ULCL, they helped here and there but it was a minor thing. Here it looks almost as important as the energy form itself.”
“I should say so Mr. Fink,” said the Dean, “knowledge is power. That is even truer when it comes to the world of supers. If you get through this you, should ask Professor Pendleton about that.” He paused in thought and then turned to Fletcher. “He’s one of yours Professor Fletcher, what do you say?”
“Hmmm… first we have the good doctor and Mr. Sharp pick Mr. Graves up off the ground and put his shoulder back together. Next we have him repeat his trick and observe Mr. Fink. If he can demonstrate one hundred percent accuracy in using this sensory power… well, then I am of a mind to allow him to continue and grant him the win for this match.”
“So I’m still in the program?”
“First,” said the Dean, “show us that you really have this sensory ability on command the way you claim. Show us that you aren’t wrong about it, that relying on it won’t cause lives to be lost.”
“Don’t worry,” Sam said with relief, “I will.”
“Then,” added Professor Fletcher, “You will meet with me immediately after the rankings are complete, we have to discuss additional testing and training.”
“Testing and training?”
“You should have mentioned specific uses of your power in your application to the HCP. If you become a hero, lives will depend on you being able to use every aspect of your power fully under any circumstance possible. We cannot train you to do that if we don’t truly know what your powers are. We understood you to be a strong man essentially. That is clearly not the case. So first we will learn what it is you actually do. Then we will teach you to do it better.”
He looked at Sam’s expression. “I hope you picked easy classes upstairs, because your year just got a whole lot busier.”
Ten minutes later in the faculty observation room, after Sam had given an impromptu demonstration of the sensory aspects of his powers, Professor Fletcher turned to Dean Blaine. “I told you there was something more to that kid’s powers. I know strongmen and he had too many odd things happen in his ranking matches. In his ULCL bouts as well if you look closely.”
“Going through those hundreds of hours of recorded matches was something I was happy to delegate,” replied Blaine.
“Sure, but you can see it there too. It’s just more subtle because he never fought anyone who wasn’t primarily a physically enhanced combatant.”
“Plus now we got to see how he would act when confronted with having his dreams taken away when he couldn’t even use his power. He didn’t panic, he dealt with it, there is good steel in there waiting to come out when we temper him.”
“Just remember,” cautioned Sean Pendleton, getting into the conversation for the first time, “when you forge a weapon, sometimes the metal doesn’t do well as you heat it up and impurities come out, sometimes it snaps when you work the metal too hard.”
“All these blacksmithing metaphors are coming a little thick,” said Blaine. “We train him and we test him, we figure him out and we help him become a hero if he is good enough.” He looked at each of them in turn, it was easy to forget this was only their second year teaching, “just like we will with the other forty or so members of his class.”