The Masks We Wear
Chapter 8: Everything you thought you knew is wrong
“What?” shouted Sam at Professor Fletcher, forgetting himself momentarily. “How can that be, that’s always how the energy form functioned.”
“No that’s always how you thought it functioned, it’s how the experts said it functioned. They were wrong and so were you. That’s ok because what you thought your power was is actually kind of limited.”
“What do you mean kind of limited?”
“Strength amplification will only take you so far, it’s not the same as super strength. Super strength isn’t actually dependent on muscle mass, we still don’t understand where the power for it comes from, but strength amplification gets better as your normal body gets better and that has limits.”
Sam looked at Fletcher, confusion still marking his face. Fletcher sighed inwardly and took on a lecturing tone he was forced to learn over the last year. “Let’s say you did nothing but body building you could get to the point where you could lift maybe four hundred pounds in a meaningful manner. That’s probably a high estimate, the world records for weight lifting of a normal human are around five or six hundred pounds depending on the type of lift but those lifts aren’t much use in hero work. Now your energy form amplifies that but you still have that limit, which to get to you pretty much gave up all your flexibility and any other sort of training.”
Sam thought about that, he thought about some of the power lifters he had seen in the Olympics. Professor Fletcher was right, those guys had raw strength but not much else. They were built for one thing, lifting heavy weights over their heads. You can’t fight supers that way.
“OK, I can see that.”
“But you don’t actually have to worry about that because it’s not how your suit actually works. Or at least that’s the smallest part of how it actually works.”
“So what is my power?”
“Unless you have something really unusual, you have one of the rarest and potentially most impressive power sets there is Sam; adaptation.”
Sam thought he was confused before but Professor Fletcher’s last statement floored him. After what seemed like at least five minutes of silence he worked some moisture in his mouth so he could speak. “Adaptation? I’ve never heard of that. I thought I knew all about the power classifications.”
“Yeah,” replied Fletcher, “everyone always thinks they know all about power classifications, but it’s not surprising you don’t know about adaptation, like I said it’s one of the rarest power sets.”
“OK, but what does it do?”
“Simply put it lets you adapt to and overcome things which challenge you. The best known example of adaptation is Titan.”
“Titan? That makes even less sense, he’s about the strongest strong man there ever was.”
“Maybe, though there are a couple who could give him a run for his money on pure strength,” Fletcher got a faraway look for a second and then shook his head as if to clear it. “But what made Titan so impressive wasn’t just that he was strong it was that he adapted to any challenge he faced. Sometimes quickly, sometimes over time, but he always did it. He became stronger when he found something he couldn’t lift, he became tougher when he faced something that could hurt him, and he became immune to powers which were used against him.”
“But I don’t do any of that.”
“Titan had an almost purely physical power, his body grew permanently stronger and tougher every time it needed to and he developed more and more immunities to specific threats. If not for his personal troubles he might be the single greatest hero of all time. In some ways your power might be more impressive.”
“I mean that, if Titan has a weakness, it’s that he can’t turn his adaptations off. Let’s say Titan goes against a super villain who can teleport him away. After a while he adapts and the power doesn’t work on him anymore and he easily defeats the villain. Unfortunately next time he needs a teleporter to take him somewhere fast, he just might find it doesn’t work on him anymore.”
“Yeah, that could be a problem, all the power in the world and no way to deploy it appropriately.”
“Yes, but that’s not a problem you’ll have to face. You’re different, it isn’t your body that adapts, it’s your energy form. You learn to change it to compensate for different challenges, different powers. And as you showed in some of your fights, especially that last one in the ULCL, you can turn off the form even in the middle of combat, even when it might be dangerous to do so,” Fletcher looked at Sam with a meaningful glance. Sam could read volumes in that single look, an admonition to never do anything stupid like that unless it was actually important. He could tell Professor Fletcher didn’t consider winning the ULCL championship important enough to risk his life over.
Ignoring the disapproving stare from Professor Fletcher, Sam started questioning him again. “So why have I never heard of any of this? I studied all sorts of strong men and read every article and book I could find on them including Titan. Nothing I read ever implied he was anything but a strong man.”
“Of course it didn’t. Do you think the DVA wanted that sort of information as common knowledge? No. Titan being portrayed as a strong man gave him another advantage. His opponents always underestimated him.”
Sam had finally hit his limit, he just sat there and looked at Professor Fletcher dumbfounded.
“Sam,” he said with a bit a gruffness to shake him out of his shock, “I’m not saying you’re the next Titan or even that your powers could match his. I’m saying the differences in your version of adaptation and his are going to make certain things better and easier for you than his power set did for him.”
“Yeah… I… Sure.”
“Why don’t you go off and think about it. Tonight is the big freshman party night, celebrating the last night before classes start. The University hosts Casino Night and most of the students seem to have fun with it.”
“Yeah… yeah… sure… sounds like fun,” Sam replied numbly in a monotone as he stood up and headed to the door. He paused before opening it, his hand on the door knob. “So, Professor Fletcher, what does this all mean for me in the HCP?”
“Waking up a bit from the shock are you?” he chuckled. “Not that much really, though it does mean we will probably need to arrange for some special training sessions for you. Most people have pretty straight forward and limited powers. Even if none of the professors has a similar power, we know the basics in training it. Your powers though are incredibly broad, you don’t just adapt to a new ability used against you, in many ways each adaptation is almost like a breakthrough of a new power. As far as I can tell once a new ability of the suit comes online, you can use it at any point from then on. Is that right?”
“Umm… yeah I think so. I’ve always been able to use the rebreather, and once I changed the shape of my energy form I was able to do it again and start trying new shapes even without needing to. The sensory stuff is just always there now.”
“So each one in some ways is like another power. You, Mr. Fink, are going to be interesting.”
“Isn’t that a curse? May you live in interesting times?”
“If that’s so, you better get used to living a cursed life. You signed up to be a hero. No hero lives a boring life. Go enjoy yourself tonight. Just remember that classes start tomorrow both above and below ground. Tired is not a good way to start in my gym class.”
“Right Professor, I’ll be there and I’ll be ready to go. And… well thanks.”
“You’re welcome Sam.”
As Sam headed toward the elevators which would bring him back to the surface, he found himself lost in thought and was barely paying attention to where he was going. He might have walked right past the elevators if his thoughts hadn’t been interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. He spun around, barely taking a hold of himself before he raised his energy form, and found himself face to face with Ray.
“So you still part of our class Sam?” Ray asked with concern on his face.
“What? Um yeah… I just well… I…”
“Well,” Ray said seriously, “consider me here to help you get unconfused. What’s got you so off kilter you walked right past me and didn’t notice it when I was actually me?”
“I… I don’t know if I really want to talk about it Ray.”
“Of course you want to talk about it Sam, you just don’t know if you should talk about it. Well why don’t you just get it over with, talk about it with me, and I’ll help you work your way through it.”
“Ray, this is no joking matter.”
“Of course it isn’t, you got sent to the principal’s office, OK no biggie, I was sent to the principal’s office so many times in high school you would never believe it… well someone was sent… but it should have been me,” he stated emphatically and then broke out laughing. Sam was so floored by the righteous indignation he put in his voice that he started laughing too.
“Ray, you are going to be the death of me.”
“Nah, I’m your pal, I’m gonna help you keep that first place and graduate a hero. You’ll never do it on your own if something could floor you this much on day one. Sam, whatever it is can’t be that bad. You’re still here, memories intact, and you have first place for our class, that’s awesome!”
“First place for the guys. Next year we get combined and I hope by then I’m ready to fight girls.”
“Don’t worry, you will be, this place will beat it into you.”
“Hey Ray who was first among the girls anyway?”
“That girl Kerry who agreed to join our study group. So we have both of the first place students in the group. Should be awesome.”
“Yeah hopefully the group has some synergy, we don’t know what any of the others do yet.”
Ray rolled his eyes, “Yeah about that, I knew what most of the class did before we even started. I now know more details.”
“How?” Sam asked in disbelief.
“Come on Sam, I’m never gonna be a guy like you standing toe to toe with the bad guy. That’s a one way ticket to the morgue for me. But there are plenty of heroes out there who are… hmmm… shall we say a bit more shady.”
Sam looked dumbstruck.
Ray shook his head and took Sam by the elbow, leading him to an empty classroom before he started talking again. “Come on Sam, you never thought about this? Are you that hero struck or just naïve?” Ray looked at him and shook his head. “Well at least you know how to deal with women, I don’t think I could handle it if you were righteous, naïve, and girls reduced your brain to mush.”
“Hey I can handle myself around women.”
“Yeah that’s one place I know you have more real world experience than I do, just remember to put a tie on the doorknob when entertaining. Everywhere else… well I think that’s why the staff put us together.”
“Put us together? Weren’t we just randomly assigned by housing?”
“There’s that naïveté again. Sam, nothing that happens here is random if they can prevent it. You remember Dean Jefferies mentioning having ‘policies and contingencies in place’? Well don’t you figure I’m one of those? Contingencies I mean, I’m not much of a policy.”
“I don’t understand,” Sam answered back with another look of confusion on his face.
“Sam I really do need you to keep up,” Ray said with a smile on his face. “Let’s say you had a high profile super in the program you were running, one you don’t want to lose but were worried someone might ferret out his hidden identity, after all with cell phones and tablets everywhere it’s nearly impossible to keep a secret anymore. Now if you wanted a way to cover for said person in case someone suspects, don’t you think a shape shifting roommate might be a convenient thing to have?”
“I… I never thought of it.” Sam was reeling on the inside, it felt like he was up against the cage bars and was just getting pummeled again and again. ‘What in the world is going on today’, he considered, ‘First I got censured for using my powers and nearly kicked out, then I took the title fight, only to find out next year I’ll need to defend it against the girls too and oh yeah my powers aren’t what I thought they were at all. Now my roommate, a guy I thought was actually a friend here was what? A plant by the teachers, a keeper, or…’ his reverie was interrupted as Ray continued.
“Nope, and I did, right away. It’s a fundamental difference between you and me, you’re a tank, I’m a spy, we both have our places in the world of heroes. The teachers got more than they bargained for in me, I’m sure they know or will know it soon,” then his voice dropped as he muttered “damn telepaths,” almost to himself. “But trust me when I say I’m ready for my role in all this.”
“OK Mr. Spy, what did you find out about our class?”
“That would take a while. We can discuss it later behind actual closed doors, where I’m sure monitoring devices aren’t recording us.”
Sam looked disappointed. “Monitoring devices here? Just in a random classroom and on when class isn’t in session?”
“That’s the way I would bet, so no, I’m not going to give a long drawn out thesis on the other members of our class, but, if you want, I can tell you a bit about our study group.”
“That sounds great,” Sam answered, not even realizing he was starting to feel more centered.
“Well let’s start with the leading lady, Kerry Powell, for lack of a better term she’s an anti-healer and projective on top of that. She can’t cure a damn thing but she can cause physical harm to anyone she can see. Unfortunately she didn’t go up against anyone with enhanced durability so I can’t tell yet about limitations she might have. She’s tough and will be hard to beat for anyone. Her weakness is that she has no durability herself and is limited to line of sight. For the right enemy, she’s an easy mark.”
“Umm, why are you telling me her weaknesses?”
Ray looked at him and winked, “Come on Sam, I’ve got your back here, and they are pretty obvious.”
“I suppose so, it just doesn’t feel right.”
“OK then, I’ll just tell her your weaknesses and call it even.”
“Don’t you dare!” Sam shouted at Ray, at the same time wondering what Ray thought his weaknesses were, especially since it was based on wrong information about his powers.
“See now, this is why people like you need people like me. You get all righteous indignation when someone suggests having a little extra knowledge, I can just fake it. Spies are needed just as much as tanks in our world Sam, that’s something that the sooner you understand it the better. In fact, spies make things much easier for tanks and for people in general. Can you even guess how many battles in the middle of population centers would have taken place and killed people, knocked down buildings, etcetera, etcetera, if not for the spies?”
“I’m sure the people of Meredith Falls would have wished a spy was involved there,” Sam answered with more resolve than sadness.
“Yeah,” Ray added, with more sadness than resolve, “I’m sure they would have.”
“So how is it you know so much about this already? Is your Mom or Dad a hero?”
Ray looked thoughtfully at Sam before answering, “that’s not information I’m ready to share now Sam, maybe not ever.”
“Just leave it be.”
Sam considered but he didn’t want to press his roommate too far, it was clearly not a subject he was comfortable with, and Sam thought Ray was comfortable with far too much. “OK well how about you tell me the rest about our study group?”
“Right, Kerry’s roommate is named of all things… Kellie, and whoever did that needs a good smack.”
Sam laughed, “yeah I could see where that would get annoying fast. Maybe her roommate won’t last.”
“Don’t count on it, she is ranked third among the girls, in fact it was Kerry who beat her in the second to last match.”
“Well what does she do?”
“That’s harder to say, as far as I can tell she’s kind of strong and she thinks really well.”
“So she’s a techie?”
“No, she’s not technical brilliance, she’s not smarter than anyone, she just thinks better than most, and faster, much, much, much faster. To call her a lightning calculator would be an insult, her brain is like a computer in the way it processes, but even faster, I couldn’t guess how fast, input-output devices don’t exist to allow her to be properly measured.”
“How does thinking fast get her to third place?”
“Hmm, well take a look at this video of her second fight, with Victoria Snyder, the number 11 seat,” Ray said as he pulled out his phone.
“How did you get the video of the fight?”
Ray winked at him, “So naïve…” and shook his head. “Anyhow Victoria is a shifter, she becomes a walking tree, watch what happens.”
On the small screen the scene played out like a video game. The two entered from either side of the room, a pretty African-American girl with, oddly enough, green hair, and a thin blonde girl with her hair in a ponytail. There was no sound but the two clearly exchanged some words and then the green haired girl shifted into a fifteen foot tall walking tree. Even expecting it, Sam was surprised. The blonde girl didn’t move at first, knowing her powers Sam didn’t understand how she could win but then she suddenly shot to the side as the tree charged at her. The blonde dodged a swipe of her gnarled fist like branches and suddenly grabbed hold of branches high up along her body and swung putting her weight into it and spinning the tree around. Exchange after exchange the tree tried to grab or slam the small girl but time and again she wasn’t there to be hit, she wasn’t particularly fast and she moved only exactly as much as was needed to avoid the blow and counter attack. She constantly knocked the tree over or spun it around, always coming out the better of the two. Finally on one lunge the blonde jumped upwards and brought her whole weight down on the arm branch, Sam could only imagine the crack as he watched the limb fall to the ground. Suddenly the tree flickered and the green haired girl was back grabbing her arm in obvious pain. Sam almost thought she would reform without an arm but it was there, dangling limply at her side as the blonde snaked past her and applied a perfect sleeper hold till she passed out and was lowered to the floor.
Ray put away the phone as he said “Impressive isn’t she?”
“Yeah, I’d say so,” replied Sam.
“You should see when she decides to throw something.”
Sam wasn’t sure what Ray meant by that so he just took it at face value and moved on. “OK so those are the girls in the group. What about the guys?”
“Marvin was my last match, he absorbs kinetic energy and redirects it. He’s pretty much indestructible, at least by purely physical force.”
“My last match, Dexter, beat him by overloading his ability to absorb energy. Hit him with too much, too fast.”
“Yeah well that might work for him, and it might work now, but I’m betting within six months Marvin will be able to take almost anything anyone can dish out. You included Sam. My bet is he will move up from fourth place.”
“Maybe,” Sam said sullenly, then perked up and smiled slyly as he remembered strength wasn’t his actual power.
“What’s that smile for?” asked Ray suspiciously.
“Tell you later away behind actual closed doors, where I’m sure monitoring devices aren’t recording us,” Sam quoted his own words back at him.
“Hmm, maybe you can learn Sam.”
“Marvin’s roommate is Doug Holt, he’s a technical brilliance super and I am glad you have him in the group, those guys are so damn unpredictable. I’d like to see what he can really do. For now he’s ranked fifteenth, techies sometimes do phenomenally in the HCP and other times fail miserably, same with all non-physical powers really.”
“What about Clay?”
“Now Clay is really interesting, he freezes time around him for very short times and can still act within it. It’s incredibly powerful if he can learn to fight dirty enough to really use it. He’s a bit like you though Sam, too righteous for his own good. He would have ranked higher than sixth if he thought like I do. His weakness is the same as Kerry, same as most of us really, outside of what he does with his powers, his body is that of a weak and fragile human.”
“So is mine when my field is down Ray.”
“Yeah, so keep the field up Sam. It will contain your body odor,” Ray added as he waved his hand in front of his nose.
“Hey I went through five fights, not to mention a trial of sorts, and a private meeting with Professor Fletcher. I’m lucky they can’t smell me down in Overton.”
“OK last one is Clay’s roommate, our number sixteen rank dude, who as you already know is an advanced mind. Overall I would say we lucked into a very well rounded study group.”
“Yeah I guess so.”
“OK Sam, straighten your head out, let’s get back to the room and get you that shower that you clearly need. You need to get into your Matt persona.”
“Why I think I’m just gonna take a shower then veg until I fall asleep.”
“No you’re not, I have two words for you Sam. Casino Night.”