The Masks We Wear
Chapter 6: Last Call
Sam didn’t have time to go back to the observation room before his next match. When the impromptu trial was over, Dean Blaine instructed him to report to combat cell 3H for his next match. As with his second match, the locks were already disengaged when he entered the vestibule. Walking through he saw his opponent, again no one he had met yet. The man standing opposite him was tall and lean almost whip-like in his appearance. He had outwardly visible signs of his nature as a super with hair that was the dull grey of iron and eyes that had no whites visible at all. He smiled when he saw Sam enter.
Sam activated his energy form just as the announcer asked them to “Introduce yourselves,” over the speakers.
“Ralph Weber,” said his enemy.
“Are you ready Sam? You’ve had some interesting fights from the whispers while we were waiting for a decision on your last match. There were some pretty hefty bets going as to what was going to happen.”
“How did you guys find out about it?”
“When the hold occurred, Professor Pendleton came in to let us know what was happening. I think they wanted to reinforce the concept of no lethal attacks by showing us they were ready to kick out the golden child.”
“I’m not the golden child.”
“Sure you aren’t. You’re their wet dream, a powerful super at the top of another field declaring publically that he thought it was more important to leave behind the money and the fame and become a hero. You are the ultimate PR bonus, especially with Meredith Falls still looming large in everyone’s mind.”
“I didn’t do this for any reason except I thought it was right.”
“Yeah and that makes it even better.”
“You’re a cynic.”
“I’m a realist… well sort of,” he laughed to himself at what was obviously an inside joke of some sort.
“Well good luck because I’m really going to try and kick your ass now.”
He laughed again even louder, “That would be a neat trick,” he replied.
The two stopped talking and the announcer took that as the signal that they were ready for combat. “Begin,” came from the hidden speakers.
Before Sam could even move, Ralph was suddenly gone. In his place was a gigantic writhing mass of tentacles surrounding a beak of a mouth. It wasn’t really Sam’s cup of tea, but it reminded him of nothing so much a monster from bad Japanese porno comics. He had no intention of letting this thing have its way with him in any way, shape, or form.
Sam ran forward grabbing and squeezing tentacles that struck at him. He had barely taken five steps before they struck at him, Ralph’s new form taking up close to half the combat cell.
Before Sam could close even half the distance, something happened to him. His vision began to blur, his emotions began to run wild, and he was having trouble thinking straight. It was as if his mind couldn’t tolerate the existence of this creature in front of him. The very sight of it caused his mind to rebel.
While he fought his own looming panic, his enemy struck at him. Tentacles no longer just grabbed at him but wrapped around his torso, his arms, and his legs. Sam fought back the urge to vomit, all he wanted to do was run and hide and hope this thing didn’t find him.
In the end, it was instinct that saved him. His desire to hide, to stick his head in the sand and hope that if he can’t see it, it can’t see him, led to a simple change in the energy form. The skin of it turned opaque. As soon as he could no longer see the horror that loomed in front of him, Sam’s mind cleared. His breathing eased, his heart rate slowed, and he could think again.
‘Powerful ability’, he thought, ‘raw physical power couple with a mental attack that struck at every instinctive fear a person possesses. But you need to see it to be affected by it’.
Sam stood for a few seconds to take stock of his situation. In the few seconds of absolute panic, the creature had completely engulfed him in tentacles. If not for his armor, he would have been squeezed into unconsciousness. He had to strike at the creature without being able to see it. Fortunately for him tentacles had to originate somewhere. He flexed and strained and grabbed onto a tentacle and tightened his grip till he literally tore through it. He moved onto the next tentacle and the next, and the next, until there were none holding him.
As more struck he grabbed at them and hand over hand worked him way down the length of the tentacle, heading ever closer to the central body, to that beaked maw he had seen briefly before the panic overtook him. Closer and closer he came, foot by ponderous foot, fending off more and more tentacles every step of the way but keeping his grip on the one leading him ever onward toward his goal.
Suddenly the tentacle he held ended in a solid mass, the main body of the thing. As he reached it at least half a dozen more tentacles grabbed at him, striking the energy form as hard as most strong men could, grabbing at his limbs, trying to pull him away from the body of the thing.
He couldn’t see it, not with his eyes and not with his enhanced sight. He was fighting blind. He held tight to the tentacle that led him here, but didn’t close his grip and sever it, that would defeat the purpose of it, which was to serve as an anchor.
He concentrated for a moment on his feet, suddenly spikes jutted from them and he dug into the reinforced concrete flooring, locking himself in place, not allowing the enemy to pull him away from his target. He only had one free arm now, and with that he started punching at the body of the thing, the central mass from which the tentacles radiated and the maw sat waiting. Again and again he struck, tentacles grabbed at him knocking aside his blows, forcing him to pull himself free rather than strike at the body.
‘If only I could see’, he thought, ‘then I could avoid these things, I could know where to strike, I could let go and use both arms to fight not just randomly flail at it with my one free arm’.
He kept punching away. He focused on each strike, each had to hit harder, do more damage, not be deflected by the tentacles of the creature. Strike… pull back… strike again… tear free from a tentacle that got a grip… strike… harder… again… again… again…
Suddenly the tentacle he had a death grip on vanished. His next strike didn’t connect with anything but the floor which it shattered as he felt fragments of concrete spray back at him. ‘Is this a feint? Some sort of trick?’ he wondered. He stood ready for the next attack poised to strike again, to grab a hold of another tentacle and use it to lead him back to the creature’s body. He was not going to lower his guard, he was not going to make his armor, his only defense, translucent until…
His thoughts were interrupted by the voice of the announcer. “Winner, Sam Fink,” came from overhead somewhere. Only then did he make the form translucent again.
When he could see, the first thing he noticed was Ralph lying on the ground unconscious bleeding copiously from his nose. Bending over him Sam saw Jim Sharp taking his head between his hands and a sudden glow encompass both of them. The next thing he noticed was the damage he had done to the cell. Just under him there were large divots where he had anchored his legs into the floor, bits of reinforced concrete and rebar were scattered here and there, his legs were apparently pulled loose at times during the fight but he hadn’t registered it, there were holes here and there in a five foot radius circle where the fight must have taken place. On the edge of it was a crater at least three feet deep with cracks radiating outward from it six or seven inches wide at the edge of the crater and tracking ten or twenty feet into the room.
The last thing he noticed was his own form. He had manipulated the energy form both intentionally and unconsciously in the past. The extent of the changes this time was surprising. His left arm which was the one he was using to bash at the beast was four times as thick and corded as normal. It was similar to the Popeye like arms he had created in his last match against Muscle Malone. The strength of it must have been amazingly high but there were additional changes besides the greater musculature. The fist was covered in spikes and knobs to do more damage and the forearm had bladed ridges extending out of it to catch and cut the tentacles so they couldn’t grab at the arm and simply entangle it.
The whole thing looked like something a gladiator might wear. Unseen he had manipulated the energy form into exactly what he needed to beat this opponent. It shook him somewhat that he was able to do that, it had never happened that way before. All the changes he made to the form in the past either came from better amplification of his strength as he himself became stronger, or alterations to the form which he thought out and implemented. This time all that had occurred was he had wanted to hit harder and do more damage and the form changed to accommodate the desire.
“Hey Sam,” a weak voice called from where Jim was attending the fallen Ralph.
“I guess my monster did have an ass after all and you kicked it six ways from Sunday. I guess there really was a reason they called you Smash.”
Sam laughed. “Thanks Ralph. He was pretty tough and it was a difficult fight.”
“I would never have known it. I thought I had you for a few seconds early on but you just ignored the psychic scream.”
“Well, once I couldn’t see you it didn’t do anything to me.”
“The gaze is only part of it, I’ve fought people who closed their eyes and it still affected them. That armor of your is really something else.”
Sam paused for a moment lost in thought before he responded. “Yeah,” he said a bit numbly, “it definitely is.”
The voice of the announcer came on again. “Sam Fink, please report to combat cell 3G for the final ranking match.”
“Kick ass again, it never feels that bad if you lose to number one.”
Sam chuckled again, “I’ll do my best Ralph.” Sam dropped the altered energy form and headed out of the room.
As expected, the vestibule to combat cell 3G was no different than any of the four previous cells. There was a palpable difference in how Sam actually felt however. This was the final fight in rankings, the title fight for all intents and purposes. Sam had been through title fights before, the initial one where he took the championship from Ironhide Clyde and thirteen fights where he defended his title. He didn’t hold the record for most successful defenses of the title but there weren’t many ahead of him and he was still the only one to retire as champion from the ULCL undefeated. He also had the dubious distinction of having the most title fights in the space of one year. Unfortunately many other ULCL fighters thought young meant “easily beaten” and put in their bids for the championship.
One more fight to go and I can have a new championship, one that puts me closer to my goal of becoming a hero, not just gets me another endorsement deal or bonus check.
He still wasn’t certain what to make of the rapid changes to his energy form. He had worked for every change he was able to make over the last year, and he made good use of those in the combats. He never imagined that what happened against Ralph could have ever occurred.
Clearly despite the use he had put to his powers over the last year and a half, the heavy duty combat and his own experimentation, he still had a great deal to learn. Nowhere was better to do that learning than the HCP.
He wondered briefly who he was going to fight, realizing that he didn’t know if Ray managed to beat Marvin or not. For all he knew, Ray was waiting in the opposite vestibule and about to walk into the room as some cheerleader who accidently got teleported down here or something. Well if it was Ray it would be a quick, if not particularly satisfying, victory.
The click of the three locks disengaging pulled him from his thoughts. He entered after the door swung open and raised his energy form. The figure opposite him was a bit of a shock. As he raised his armor, his opponent raised their own.
It wasn’t really the same. His opponent didn’t have armor that mimicked his own body, what he had was a single sphere surrounding him with cords of energy running from his body to the sphere itself.
Sam had to suppress a laugh as the image of his opponent in a giant hamster ball came to mind. He might find the mental picture comical but he knew better than to underestimate his opponent. Like Sam himself, this enemy had defeated all comers to reach this final fight. This wasn’t going to be simple.
The speakers came to life and the simple instructions were somewhat more complex.
“Welcome to the final ranking match, we caution you to remember lethal force is not tolerated. Best of luck to both competitors. Please introduce yourselves.”
“Nice energy sphere Dexter.”
“Thanks, nice armor Sam.”
“Thanks. Did you fight a guy named Ray in your last match?”
“No, his name was Marvin, a kinetic absorber.”
“Oh, I guess he beat Ray in their match. Makes sense I suppose. I don’t see how Ray could have beaten a kinetic absorber.”
“Well good luck Sam, this should be a good match. Feel free to challenge me for my spot later.”
Sam shook his head and chuckled. “I like your confidence. Don’t lose that when I crack that sphere like an egg.”
Now it was Dexter’s turn to chuckle. “Good luck with that Sam.”
One thing about the HCP, no one here lacked confidence it seemed.
“Begin,” came from the speakers and with that single word from above, the combat was on.
Sam started to advance toward Dexter in his sphere. He wasn’t sure what his powers were outside of the bubble of energy that surrounded him but he learned quickly.
The sphere started to move toward him, it spun in place for a second or two before it did generating dust as it ate into the flooring slightly with its rotation. It was like someone gunned a car on a dirt road and the tires spun out and suddenly caught. The sphere rocketed at Sam and impacted directly into him knocking him back twenty feet and throwing him into the wall with what would have been bone-breaking force if not for the armor.
The sphere came to a halt in front of him while he was still in the process of standing up. Dexter faced him and said, “it’s nice to not have to hold back. You can take the full impact of the ball. Just like Marvin could.”
“If he’s a kinetic absorber, how did you beat him?”
“Looking for something you can use against me Sam?” he asked. “Or just trying to slow my attacks and give yourself a chance to recover?” he added when Sam got fully to his feet.
“Nah, just curious actually,” he responded almost disinterestedly.
“Well I don’t think it would hurt to tell you. I made him hit his limits, he just couldn’t absorb as much as I could put out.”
“Good to know,” Sam answered with a smile. “Because if he couldn’t take as much as you could put out, and this is you not holding back, neither of you stand a chance against me.
With that Sam leapt at the sphere, intending to punch it so hard it would shatter.
Before he could land a blow, the sphere had moved out of the way and then struck him from behind knocking him back toward the middle of the room.
“Is that all you got?” Sam yelled at Dexter with a bravado he wasn’t truly feeling. If he couldn’t hit his enemy, he couldn’t beat his enemy. And while it was true that the impacts the sphere made were easily within his ability to tolerate, it would shift the whole fight into a waiting game and the speedsters he knew rarely tired out.
He recognized that it was the sphere itself that was the issue. It gave Dexter durability and the ability to deliver much more impact than a normal speedster could with their fists, even coming in at enhanced speed. It directed all the impact of the speeding person against him. Normally a speedster had to stop, even if just for a fraction of a second and throw a punch at greatly enhanced speed. It was still just a fist impacting the target. In this case, the whole of his mass was thrown against him, and the two rebounded off each other with Sam flying back through the air as the sphere just rolled off in another direction to prepare for the next attack.
While he thought about this Dexter attacked again and again, some were simply feints to allow Dexter to aim his attack better as Sam was pulled out of position. Others were small attacks that simply pushed him back but didn’t send him flying. Still others were like that initial attack which sent him airborne into the wall and rung his head like a bell.
Sam knew he had to negate the mobility advantage the sphere had. If he could somehow limit its motion or its path of attack he could do something. The problem now was something akin to an irresistible force and a very moveable object. That gave him an idea though it was a bit risky for him. It really depended on how much impact that sphere actually had and how much durability his armor had before it would give. He had never quite found that limit. Against some high end strongmen like Muscle Malone or Jack Force, he came close. When they managed to hold him down and pound on him, the energy armor got a bit shaky but it never cracked or dropped. He wasn’t sure it could crack, it was much more likely that if it was ever breached it would just drop completely leaving him absolutely defenseless. That was why this was a risky strategy.
Sam waited for an attack to push him back to the edge of the combat cell. He would need room for this to work but more importantly he needed to make sure the sphere came at him from the front. As he stood with his back to the wall, he used one of the same tricks he employed in his last fight against Ralph; he anchored himself using spikes on his feet, digging into the reinforced cement below him. Once he had penetrated the outer layer of the floor, he pushed out cross spikes anchoring himself in multiple directions with each leg. Ralph had managed to pull him loose from the floor in that last fight.
He waited for Dexter to attack again, he didn’t have to wait long.
This time when the sphere came at him, he leaned back into the wall and used his arms like a scoop. Together with the anchor into the ground, it let him stand immobile when the attack hit. When it did, he lifted with all his might. It was similar to judo and using the force of your enemy’s attack against them. Dexter’s sphere went flying into the air like a ball, heading toward the center of the arena. Instantly, Sam let loose the anchors and retracted the spikes he had set into the ground. Now he needed mobility. He ran as fast as he could, the energy armor allowing him huge strides and he positioned himself under the sphere before it could land.
He placed his hands together and knocked the ball back into the air with all his might, trying hard to bounce it off the ceiling. As soon as he could see the trajectory of the ball he ran to where it would land next. Inside the translucent sphere Dexter was bouncing around, Sam could see that the energy cords connecting him to the wall of the sphere acted like bungees stretching and holding him away from the edge of the sphere except where his legs were in contact with it so he could run.
As the sphere came in toward the ground and Sam set himself beneath it, he yelled out at the top of his lungs. “ULCL beach volleyball tournament. It was for charity, this is just for fun,” and he knocked the ball back into the air angling it to hit the wall and bounce back toward him.
As it came closer he yelled at Dexter again. “I also play racquetball and love a good game of hacky sack.”
As long as Sam could keep the sphere in the air where Dexter couldn’t control it, he had this match. Now it was about imparting enough force to the sphere that he could knock out Dexter despite the clear impact absorbing ability of the sphere.
Back and forth, Sam ran and kept the ball bouncing in the air for the next quarter of an hour. He was starting to get tired. He had been through four draining fights before this and he didn’t know how much he had left in him. He put everything he could behind the next hit and after the sphere bounced off the ceiling, it suddenly flickered and dropped leaving Dexter himself falling thirty feet toward the ground.
Sam reacted even faster than he had before. He placed himself directly under Sam and caught him like he was cradling a baby. He knew he wasn’t absorbing the force of the fall and just catching him would be no different than if Dexter impacted the ground. So as Dexter landed in his outstretched arms, he allowed them to drop along with him, absorbing only a fraction of the force. He bent at the knees taking out some additional fraction of the force, and finally he lowered the solidity of his energy form to be much more flexible and allow the form itself to absorb some of the impact. It wasn’t perfect but if it didn’t save Dexter’s life, it certainly saved him from breaking every bone in his body.
He checked on his enemy lying unmoving in his arms. His enhanced vision showed there was still energy within his body indicating life. As long as he wasn’t dead, Sam was confident that the healers could fix him.
As if summoned by the thought, Jim Sharp and the unnamed doctor who appeared after his match with Tony teleported into the room and he handed Dexter over to their ministrations.
The speakers announced, “Winner, Sam Fink.”
Sam had won his title match. Now all he had to do was defend it against all comers. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.