The Masks We Wear
Chapter 7: Teacher’s conference
Sam walked out of combat cell 3G and started heading back toward the observation room. He wasn’t heading for the main hall where everyone would be gathering for the final announcement of rankings. Except for number one and two, it wasn’t just order of finishing that determined ranking, it was how you fought and how you used both your powers and your skills. Almost no one was sure where they actually ranked until they saw that listing.
He was as interested in the rank list as everyone else but he had something else to do. He looked around for instructors or students wearing anything but black as he went. Finally he crossed paths with a grey clad student with silver hair, “excuse me,” he said as he approached the more senior student.
The silver haired man turned with an open smile on his face. “Can I help you? Are you looking for the main hall to get your ranking?”
“No, I… umm… I already know my ranking. I’m looking for Professor Fletcher’s office.”
“Come on, I’ll show you how to find it,” he said with a friendly manner and walked off down the hall.
As Sam followed, the silver-haired young man glanced over his shoulder and asked “So are you first, second, or worried you’re last?”
“Well you said you know your rank and that you are looking for Professor Fletcher. The only people who definitely know their ranks are numbers one and two, all the people who lost their first fight are convinced they are ranked dead last. Since you are looking for Professor Fletcher, I’m guessing you lost and are either thinking about dropping out or are worried you won’t make it through the program. Well don’t worry so much, I lost my first fight and came out ranked eighth overall for the men. A lot of things go into ranking besides how fast you lost.”
“No, that’s not it, I… I’m actually first in my class.”
The silver-haired man stopped and looked at him. “That’s pretty impressive. The first rank in my class is ridiculously powerful and has total control over his body down to the molecular level. The first rank of the senior class, well I actually have no idea what her powers are but when she looks at me and speaks, half the time I want to piss myself.”
“I heard something about her I think, one of the seniors told me she held number one the whole time she was here.”
“Yeah I think so, so has Chad, the top rank from my year. You do know that after this year rankings for men and women are combined right?”
“Actually I didn’t, I’m not sure how comfortable I am fighting women.”
“You need to get comfortable. It’s not just about training here, though you are going to fight the women in your class and don’t be surprised if one or more of them beat the crap out of you. Remember there are just as many super villainesses as super villains out there.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“I’m not the most comfortable using my powers on anyone,” a far off, almost wistful expression came over his face. “It took something special to knock me out of that. But let me give you a piece of advice…” he paused and Sam realized he was waiting for his name.
“Sam. I was always worried about losing control and hurting people with my powers. Last year I really cut loose, and do you know what I learned?”
Sam just stood mute and shook his head.
“Everyone came out of it fine, some people were hurt, no one permanently so. I cut loose and let my power run wild and everyone survived it. It took a good friend to teach me that lesson…” he paused again this time it seemed more like sadness that came over him. “I hope you have some good friends here too Sam, in the end you’ll need them, even if you don’t know it now.”
“At least one, he’s already trying to help me fit in better.”
“Good. Anyway here is Professor Fletcher’s office. Good luck, I’m not sure what you did to need to see him on ranking day but… well good luck.”
“Thanks,” replied Sam as the silver-haired man in the gray uniform walked away. It was only after he had knocked on the Professor’s door that Sam realized he hadn’t even asked him his name.
“Come in,” came the Professor’s loud reply easily heard through the closed door.
Sam opened the door and said, “I’m here sir, as requested.”
“Required actually Sam,” he corrected. “Have a seat,” he said and gestured at a chair opposite his desk.
Sam took a seat and looked around. The room was almost excessively neat. There was a file cabinet behind him. On an otherwise clear desktop, there was a wireframe rack with several files placed upright within it and a small tray with a pitcher of water, two cups, and a couple of pill bottles sitting on the corner of the desk.
“Sam, how much do you know about super powers and classifying super powers?”
“About what anyone who has them knows I guess. I was classified when I was eight and my powers emerged. A man and woman from the DVA came to the house and spoke to me and my parents, then I went to a testing facility and was put through a ton of tests to determine exactly what I could do.” Sam paused, unsure exactly where Professor Fletcher was going with this.
“Go on. What sort of tests and what did they tell you?”
“Well some were written tests, almost like IQ tests, problem solving, spatial orientation, logic puzzles. Some were physical tests, kinda like the presidential fitness exams in high school both with and without using my power. Then there were tests where they subjected me to various stimuli to invoke my powers, make sure I could do so at will and was in control of them.” He paused and thought about it before moving on. “I guess that was trying to make sure I wasn’t powered but actually had control over it.”
“Yes, but what did they have you do with your powers once they saw you could control them?”
“A bunch of stuff, mostly physical tests, how much could I lift, how high could I jump, how much damage could I absorb, that sort of thing.”
“And what did they tell you in the end?”
“Well they said I was classified as a personal energy projector, construct type, and that I had amplified strength, speed, and durability with strength and durability in the superhuman levels. That I was essentially a strong man type just with a different way of getting there.”
“Is that it?”
“I think so. Professor,” Sam added a bit plaintively, “you have to remember I was eight when this happened. They explained it to me in fairly simple terms which I could understand. They talked to me a lot about not using my powers if I didn’t need to, then they spoke to my parents about special schools and suddenly I was changing from elementary school to the Vancel Academy where I could be among other supers and use my powers in ‘a safe and nurturing environment’ which had its own issues.”
“Yeah Vancel is a good school for supers but it tends to be cliquey from what I know.”
“Cliquey is an understatement. The ‘teams’ are everything to the students.”
“Well that isn’t what we are here to talk about. What did you learn about your powers at Vancel?”
“Well not a ton honestly. The power hours mostly had me exercising without the armor to develop my strength and coordination then with the armor to see how much better it made me. The armor is mostly an amplifier of my normal self. The tricks I mostly developed on my own through experimenting or sheer need.”
Professor Fletcher nodded as Sam talked about the power hours, like it was expected, then he moved on. “Ok let’s talk about those needs. What was the first trick you remember developing when you needed it?”
“Aside from the rebreather when my powers first emerged?” Sam asked unsure where the Professor was going with this.
“Yes, what was the next one?”
“I… I’m not sure I remember.”
“Well when was the first time you fought another super?”
“About six months after I got to Vancel.”
“Ok, what happened then?”
“Well I still hadn’t chosen a team and loners over there… well let’s just say some of the more aggressive teams used them for target practice.”
“Bullies are bullies whether they have super powers or not.”
“Yeah but they can do an awful lot more damage with powers.”
“True enough. What kind of damage did this particular group do?”
“Well two kids, couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen at the time caught me alone during recess around the side of the building. They went by the oh so clever nicknames of ‘Specs-tacular’ and ‘Fall Down’, they were tough kids and part of a team that called itself ‘Pain’. So you can probably see where this is going?”
“I can,” he said with understanding in his voice, “but what did they do to you and how did you react?”
“Well they caught me on the side of the school at free-time one day. I was in third grade I think, they were probably in fifth or sixth and kids that age can be… mean. Give kids super powers on top of that and some get really mean. The staff at Vancel kept watch but there were a lot of kids at that school and only so many teachers. There were incidents but they were mostly kept under control. I think even the worst of the lot knew if they went too far play time would be over.”
“We were playing tag, or something like it, adapted for super powers. My energy form was probably only about six feet tall at the time but that still gave me quite the advantage on how fast I could run. I darted around the building and there were these two older kids. They were wearing team patches. I wasn’t on a team, I hadn’t been approached by one, I hadn’t tried out for one, I didn’t really know what to make of them honestly. I only knew what the teachers told us about teams, I didn’t know the truth of them yet.”
“Specs-tacular spoke first, he was wearing a pair of greenish goggles and a kid’s trench coat with the patch for pain on the breast. I guess he was trying to look intimidating and, as I recall, the symbol on Pain’s patch was a fist gripping a knife by the blade which is a little scary to a kid who still didn’t really understand how that school worked.”
Sam let himself think back to the encounter over a decade ago, his first fight…
“Kid, you are in the wrong place. This is Pain territory,” said the boy in the goggles.
“What?” Sam asked confused. He was just playing with some of the other kids in his class.
“Are you stupid? High on strong, low on brains?”
“I’m just playing tag, am I not supposed to be here?”
“He is stupid Specs,” added the boy who hadn’t spoken yet. “Doesn’t know that we own this side of the building.”
Sam for his part just continued to float amidst the energy form looking confused as he could.
“That’s right Fall Down, so we are going to need to teach him a lesson,” the one call Specs answered back. “I think we’ll start with an old favorite, why don’t you just give me your lunch money kid, your allowance, anything you happen to have on you. Then tomorrow you can come back and give it to us again.”
While Sam didn’t really know what to make of this Pain business he knew bullies when he saw them and he knew he was strong enough to fight back. “No,” he shouted, “I’m not giving you anything.”
As if his shout had called another over, a small African American girl popped into existence off to their side. Sam recognized her as Jenny Parsons, one of the girls from his class who was also playing tag with him. He had never seen her use her powers before this, she must have been a teleporter.
“Get out of here brat,” yelled Specs, “this is none of your business.” He glanced over at her and a beam of light erupted from his goggles blasting the ground at her feet before she took off running and then disappeared again.
“No!” yelled Sam at the top of his lungs, “Don’t hurt her,” and he dove at Specs’ knees knocking him to the ground.
“Oh, thank you,” said Specs as he pushed up on one arm to look at Sam, “it’s always nice to have an excuse.” Then Sam saw the bright light from his goggles coming right at him.
The first thing he noticed was the smell, like roasting meat, slightly sweet, but strong. Then suddenly he was in agony. His shoulder was literally on fire where the beam of light lanced through him burning a hole through his body. He threw himself back, his balance off and his right arm hanging useless at his side. His armor hadn’t protected him from this attack at all.
Specs got to his feet as Sam was still scrambling away, tears running down his eyes from the pain in his shoulder. The other boy, Fall Down, was doubled over laughing. Spec continued to approach. Every few seconds he released another burst from his eyes. Sometimes they were aimed around him, sometimes right at him. None were as strong as the first one, they stung but they didn’t bring on the intense pain or the burning the first one did.
Sam looked about for somewhere to hide, somewhere to run to, some teacher to protect him. There was nothing and no one. So he did the only thing he could do, he charged straight at Specs who just smiled and released a beam even brighter than the one that burned his shoulder.
It struck him in the thigh but it didn’t hurt, it didn’t slow him down, he didn’t even feel it. A look of surprise came over Specs face. Sam couldn’t see his eyes but his jaw dropped open, right before he punched him in it and heard it snap.
Sam was strong, his strength was amplified by the armor, but it was still the strength of an eight year old to start. He couldn’t toss cars around but maybe a go-kart, he was probably as strong as the average body builder, far from super human levels but more than enough to break Specs jaw and knock him unconscious.
He stared at the older boy lying on the ground in front of him moaning in pain, then he looked down at his leg and saw that instead of the translucent energy form he was becoming used to the skin of his armor was jet black along the leg. He didn’t have much time to consider it though…
“I’ll kill you,” came a shout forcing Sam to look up quickly. The other boy, Fall Down, waved his hand at him as if to toss something to the side and suddenly he was flying up into the air. He went up about ten feet and then started to plummet back to the ground.
Before he hit suddenly gravity reversed again and he was flying into the air once more. This time he went up twenty feet before starting to fall.
“Normally,” yelled Fall Down, “I won’t drop anyone from more than ten feet or so.” He looked up at Sam with hatred, “but for you, I’m thinking thirty.”
Again he flew up into the air and this time he went above the roof, which was four stories up before he started to plummet. Below him he could see Fall Down turned aside and was floating Specs body up off the ground.
In the two seconds it took for him to hit the ground fear struck, he screamed at the top of his lungs with the primal terror associated with falling. He knew he was going to get hurt, maybe even killed from this fall. The armor would protect him somewhat but it wasn’t that tough.
He hit the ground traveling over thirty miles per hour… and he bounced.
He still felt the impact but it was no more than if he fell from a few feet, not even enough to knock the wind out of him. The armor was spongy enough to absorb the impact of the fall.
Thanking God that he had used the bathroom before free-time started, he picked himself up off the ground as he came to a stop.
Fall Down was staring at him in disbelief and Sam took advantage of that. He ran at him and tackled him, knocking the wind out of him and grabbing him before he could be hurled into the air again. He hit him a twice, nowhere near as hard as he hit Specs but more than enough to knock him out and give him a black eye that would last for days without seeing the school healer.
“Very impressive,” came a voice from around the corner where he had originally come from. Sam tensed assuming it was friends of Specs and Fall Down coming to their rescue.
The boy that came around the corner was older, his voice was deep, he had to be at least sixteen, an upperclassman. Right behind him, hiding in his shadow, was the young girl who Specs had tried to attack before.
“Take is easy Sam, I’m here to help you. Though it looks like you know how to handle yourself,” he added looking at the two unconscious boys. “Flicker had come to grab me thinking we might need to pick you up off the ground and teach Pain another lesson only to find you stopped two kids a couple years older and more experienced fighting with their powers.”
“I… I just tried to protect myself. I wasn’t trying to hurt them.”
“And you didn’t. Not seriously anyway. Sometimes a little pain is the best lesson,” he laughed, “especially for Pain.”
“I… I broke his jaw,” he said pointing at Specs.
“And he deserved that and more for what he did to you,” he said as he pointed at Sam’s shoulder, “and what he tried to do to Flicker.” When Sam appeared to be holding firm to the idea that he did something wrong the older boy continued. “Look Sam, there are plenty of bullies in the world. Being super doesn’t make you a good kid, for a lot of them it makes them more of a bully.”
“Who are you? How do you know who I am? And who the hell were they?”
“My name is Michael, but everyone around here just calls me Coach.” He stopped talking but Sam clearly heard his voice in his head, ‘and as to how I know who you are, well outside of Flicker telling me, I have a knack for that’.
Michael started speaking aloud again. “Lastly, those guys go by the names of Specs-tacular and Fall Down. The teachers know them as Chip Davidson and Kris McKenzie. They are part of one of the teams named Pain and they try to claim they own this side of the building. They don’t but bullies will be bullies.”
“I thought the teams were something we join for training later.”
“It started out that way, once upon a time, and that’s still the official line from the school, but the teams took on a life of their own. Now they are more like clubs or maybe gangs. But given who we are and what this school is, the kids on those teams tend to emulate actual super teams. Many try to be heroes, but some act like they are villains. Oh sure, when the teachers get involved they claim it’s ‘all in fun’ but I think some of them really are looking to a future of super villainy.”
“So I just pissed off a couple of bullies who want to be super villains? They are going to beat the shit out of me.”
“Man,” Michael said shaking his head in disbelief, “cursing gets started younger and younger these days.”
“Sorry,” Sam suddenly looked worried, “you won’t tell the teachers I cursed will you?” he asked almost forgetting that he had just gotten into a fight where he beat two kids unconscious and broke one’s jaw.
Michael laughed, “No Sam, I won’t tell them. I’ll bring you to one of our healers and I’ll help explain what happened here. It was self-defense so except for some notes in your file and a letter to Mom and Dad which will mostly be apologetic, nothing more will happen to you.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Sam, I’m the leader of ‘Compete’. We’re one of the teams here and we like to think we represent fair play and friendly competition. Most of us are involved in the interschool sports leagues. Flicker here is a member,” he gestured to the girl still hiding behind him. “When she saw what was going on, she came to get me as fast as she could. I just had to get out of a class, not too hard, but it took a couple of minutes.”
“Well thanks for trying to help.”
“Sam, you were right about something, those kids and the others in Pain are going to want to get even for what you did to them today. Embarrassing them by beating them is about the worst thing you can do to them.”
“Great,” Sam said despondently.
“So I’d like to offer you some protection. Join Compete. I think you’ll fit in with us and we can help keep Pain off your back. You might even find you like some of the sporting events we do.”
Sam stopped his narration and refocused on the Professor in front of him. He hadn’t thought of that day in a long time and he found the memories were still a bit painful. That first fight led him to join Compete. Then Compete led him to the ULCL and then ultimately to Lander and the HCP. The silence stretched for some time before he realized the Professor was waiting for more now that he had finished telling him the story.
“So looking back, I guess I did have other fights where the armor just reacted,” Sam concluded.
“So the solid headpiece you used in your fight against Weber and the impact absorption you used when you caught Richardson, those came from that fight when you were eight?” asked Professor Fletcher.
“Yeah I guess so. Before today I thought the reactive changes in the armor were all me subconsciously implementing changes I had already worked out myself. I hadn’t realized some of those changes were just things the armor did on its own and I duplicated later by planning.”
“Yeah I figured that would be the case.”
“Well what does it mean?”
“It means Sam, that everything they told you about your power set was wrong.”