Classes and gym were cancelled so that the professors could talk about the attack. The upperclassmen had all had a meeting together in the morning and the freshman would be starting at one. But everyone had arrived much sooner than that and they had their own impromptu discussion.
“So none of you pussies could even lay a hand on this ‘attacker’?” Matt yelled from the back row.
“It wasn’t just us. Not even the juniors could do anything,” Rosa said.
“Yeah! The only one who even got a glimpse of it was Sam,” Lindsey said.
“And how’d you pull that one off Sam?” Matt asked with venom in his voice, still being sore about his loss to Sam.
“I enhanced my senses high enough to be able to see in the dark. It’s a skill very few people had available, and I also could increase my mental speed, allowing me to see the split second before she teleported out again.”
“Yeah right, I bet you were in on it and you’re just claiming to have seen something to play the hero,” Derrick said from right next to Matt.
“That would have been a neat trick; considering Dr. Gibson entered my memories. Would have been quite the feat to set it up, see the attacker and then keep all that hidden from a person literally walking through my head,” Sam said sarcastically.
“Whatever,” Matt said not meeting Sam’s eyes. “I still say I could have taken out that bitch.” A few people snorted at the idea of someone as slow as Matt being able to do anything but protect his own hide.
“So…” Someone started before a portal opened on stage and the dean, professors and doctors walked out.
“Good afternoon, students,” the dean said and waited for them to respond and calm down. “Today we are going to be talking about the incident that occurred Saturday night. We will not be holding back any information from you, but I’m not proud to admit that we ourselves have very little answers to share.” And then coaches Young and Tillman ran through the tactical analysis of the events of the attack, rehashing everything they’d told the investigative committee. As did Dr. Gibson and Dr. Peavy, but she also wanted to acknowledge the actions of some of her students.
“The healers that night made me proud; Mandy, Bradley, James, Hope and Rebecca, you all worked calmly and efficiently, considered the bigger picture; like maybe there was poison and you all worked well together to save lives. I cannot be more proud of you all,” she said to them and the rest of the class clapped along with her.
“And now I’d like to open it up to questions,” Dean Allen said and twenty-something hands shot up. “Yes, Mr. Camacho?”
“Do you think one specific student was the target or are you leaning towards a general attack on the HCP?” Hector asked.
“Good question, but unfortunately without a manifesto, or knowing who the attacker was, it means we can’t definitively say one way or the other. But, we are leaning towards general attack. If someone knew about the warehouse and the security measures then they almost certainly know the identities of those in the program and therefore, if they had a specific target they could just attack them in their home or dorm while they slept,” the dean said.
“Oh,” Hector simply said, echoing the thoughts of many in audience who likely never considered this a risk when signing up for the program.
“Are you going to be able to keep us safe,” Valerie asked without being called on.
“What do you mean no!?”
“We will of course change procedure and keep a closer eye on any and all threats. But short of locking you all down here until you graduate…no, we can’t watch you 24/7 and I’m positive you wouldn’t want us to…this is college after all. You’re all adults with super powers, so you are much safer than the average person on the street. But even so, we have come up with two things to help. Number one is we are slightly lighten the SI restrictions. This is a very real threat and we don’t want anyone to hesitate to respond to it out of fear of dismissal. Now the exact nature of what this grants you is still a gray area. It is still illegal for an uncertified super to engage another super in combat and that won’t change, but you may defend yourself and be safe in the knowledge that you will not be booted from the HCP, although you’ll likely be moved to another program if there are too many witnesses.
“And second we will be giving these to anyone who would like one,” he said holding up what looked like a heart monitor watch. “This is a tech genius created monitor. It will record more vital data then I can count here, which if you are seriously injured will inform a staff member and help will be dispatched to you in seconds. And they also come with a manual panic button, so if you see something you can summon help. Now, I know some of you won’t want this and that’s your prerogative, but this threat is very real and very serious and I recommend that you take one.”
The questions continued for over an hour and ran through a range of topics. One person had even asked Coach Tillman if he thought there was a way for them to stop the teleporter, to which he said, “Teleporters are damn hard to pin down. Even if you can get a hand on them or trap them in a force bubble, or paralyze them with a look, most can still port away. So you have to be able to incapacitate them before they can jump again, and this one could jump in and out as fast as I’ve ever seen. But, generally the trick is to break their focus. It is how most super security systems work; loud noises, bright flashing lights, small electrical shocks, or gases. There is no guarantee that even if one of you could create those effects that they would even be effective, but it is a general rule you should keep in mind when dealing with them.”
“Thanks for giving away all my weaknesses Coach,” Hector said sarcastically.
“No problem, Camacho.”
The dean had asked Sam to talk with him in his office after the meeting. As the door closed Sam asked, “do you think the attack was about our group?”
“Unlikely…your group has even more secrecy around them than the other students. It’s more likely a group with a general dislike for HCP. But, that is not why I wanted to talk to you,” the dean said as he sat in his chair and motioned for Sam to take one as well. “Are you going to be challenging for first place combat spot this weekend?”
“…yes. Why do you ask?” Sam asked concerned.
“A couple reasons. First, after the events of Saturday, something like this, properly hyped, can help people relax and get things back to normal. You’ve no doubt noticed all the attention from the last few matches. This one will be even bigger and I hope to entice the student body to get excited about it. But, I have also made a bet with Coach Tillman that you will take first place before the end of semester and I will be offering my advice to help make that happen, as I’m sure Tillman will be doing for Drew.”
“Really? You bet on me? I’m flattered,” Sam joked. “What kind of advice are you offering?” Sam asked suspiciously.
“Well, for instance in his second match with Michael and his first match with Jackson, he hovered high above the ground and attacked with long range powers. He won’t grapple if he doesn’t think he can win, and he’ll know he can’t win against you hand to hand. So you also need to attack from range.”
“What, like bring in a gun?”
“Right concept, but no, Pinnacle can shrug off bullets. You need something like the high density balls, but I was thinking more like you did against Jackson; using the broken floor as projectiles. If you make a crater like that, you’ll have plenty of ammo to use. Ultimately that won’t be enough and you’re going to have to get ahold of him, but this might be enough to get you an opening.”
“Doesn’t sound like you’re giving me great odds,” Sam said.
“Well, he is top ranked student for a number of reasons, and his ability to fly is sort of your Achilles’ heel here. I know you’re capable of jumping the hundred feet to reach him even at the top of the cell, but he’s very fast and will just move a little out of the way. You need to get your hands on him and not let go.”
“So…I should use super speed first thing and grab ahold of him?”
“Here’s the thing,” the dean said looking a little ashamed for a second, “Now we are sort of at a crossroads. If you do that, it probably will work, and one way or the other the match will be over in minutes, if not seconds. But, I want to hype this event to get people excited and help them get past the attack, to show them ‘real power’. So, I’d like for you to make this one last. If you lose because of it, then you can just challenge again and be ruthless next time, but for this one…I want a show,” the dean said staring Sam down.
“Is that an order?” Sam asked confused.
“Of course not. But, we all need something like this, and I think you can see the importance of that.”
Sam sat back in his chair and thought about it. He did see the importance of such a match and he would basically be doing the dean a favor, which could be worth something really good later on. And yet, for all his power, he had a problem; he’d watched Pinnacle and knew his strength, speed and regeneration and if Sam were to only match him, he’d only have about 90 minutes at that level, with exponential decay any higher than that. The dean would probably be alright with a thirty minute match, which gave him some leeway, but 10 minutes or less is what Sam had figured he’d need when he’d first considered the match. Or maybe he could use it to his advantage…if he just used enough energy to withstand Pinnacle’s attacks for long enough, then maybe he could lure him in, buying time and saving energy. And yet, the ranged energy attacks had taken out Jackson, and he was very strong, so that would be yet another risk.
Sam went back and forth between the pros and cons. Finally, he came up with the concept that he might be able to win like that, yet he wasn’t overly confident, but in the end he said, “Alright, I’ll do it your way.”
“Excellent!” the dean said in a very un-dean-like manner, stood up and shook Sam’s hand. “I’ll bring in the people; you just put on a show!”
“Just out of curiosity, will Pinnacle be getting a speech like this?”
“Ummm, no. He would never go along with that, too earnest.”
“Interesting, so I’ll be half-assing it against his full might…that will be something if I can win while doing that, wouldn’t it?” Sam asked raising an eyebrow.
“Yes, it really would.”
It wasn’t like super in your face with promotion. There was no announcement that started ‘Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! Watch the main event! As two titans of the ring go toe to toe! Get your tickets today!’ Yet somehow, everyone knew about it. Professors somehow slipped it into their lessons, ethics used it as a comparative debate, and upperclassmen could be seen chatting up freshmen, looking for the inside track on the match, which was probably for the betting pool that was making Sam the slight favorite; if they only knew he was going to be sandbagging it.
It was a little much, even for someone like Sam, who liked to be the center of attention. But Sam tried not to let that faze him, he made sure he was charged and put in several extra lessons with James and Hope, who were both very skilled martial artist and were helping Sam improve his technique. They kept pointing out that his punches wasted an exorbitant amount of energy and that if he was more precise he could do twice as much damage with half the energy. They were complicated techniques and ones he wouldn’t fully pick up in a week, but it helped focus his strikes, which in turn would help him keep his energy up and the match going.
He thought long and hard about how to walk the line between too much and too little, and yet not make it look fake. It was a massive extra layer of pressure that would have been high even if he’d ‘only’ been trying to win the match, but now…
Sam didn’t get much sleep the night before the match and not only because of the random girl that he had been up with half the night. He kept thinking about the match. And in fact, in the morning he’d had to use a small amount of his energy to wipe away the fatigue he was feeling, but he recharged that small amount on the walk to the complex. Michael had offered to drive him, but he wanted a little time to himself. The weather matched his mood; gray and foggy. He hated this weather, he hated the wind, and he really hated the clouds; god he missed the California sun. ‘I bet Lander would have great weather, all year,’ he thought.
He got down to the locker room and changed hours before his match and he sat on the bench in front of his locker and thought, ‘now what?’ Why had he gotten here so early? He found an out of the way classroom and laid on the floor staring up at the ceiling, ‘why did this complex have so many classrooms? They only use like three spread out across all major classes.’ His thoughts wandered into useless questions as he avoided thinking about the match.
“Hey,” someone said quietly from the door.
Sam looked up and saw Rebecca Stone standing in the doorway. Since he was thinking about anything but the match, he looked at her, really looked at her; she was cute, not the type of girl he went after, as he liked to seduce the 10s and she was only about a seven. Shorter and less in the chest area than he liked, and her blonde hair was always frizzy and wild, ‘maybe if she straightened it,’ he thought, but said out loud, “Hi.”
“What are you doing?” she asked sheepishly.
“Trying not to think about the match.”
“How’s that going?” she asked.
“Not too bad, maybe you can help,” he said and gave her his best smile; no reason not to put in a little groundwork.
“Sure,” she said and came in and sat on a desk, her legs hanging over the side as she started to swing them. “I’ve been meaning to say something to you anyways.” She paused as Sam sat on the desk across from her. “I never got the chance to thank you for protecting me during the attack last weekend,” she said blushing.
“Oh that. That was no problem. I wanted to catch that woman so bad, but once I saw I couldn’t I just picked the first person that looked like they might need a little help. Not that you are helpless,” he said back-pedaling just a little, as a form of compliment.
“I’m not so sure about that,” she said, “I can’t heal myself, like you, or Brad or James, and I couldn’t do anything to the woman with all of her skin covered like that; even if I could have touched her. So I felt really helpless there.”
“You’re not helpless. You have a great power.”
“Maybe, as a healer. I can work faster than Bradley. I just use my cure-all and can touch ten or twenty people in the time he can work on one, even if it will never be as effective as his miracle cure, so there is a place for me somewhere.”
“So are you thinking of quitting?” Sam asked.
“No, I’d never quit…I made a promise,” she said looking pensive.
“Well, that’s good. I wouldn’t want to see you go,” Sam said and gave another winning smile, which she blushed to. Groundwork laid.
Sam tried to get to the combat cell without drawing attention, but there was no way to get down there without passing the observation area. The bleachers that had held the entire freshman class comfortably for many classes were now filled to capacity. And standing at the windows above the cell they’d be using, people were lined up shoulder to shoulder looking down into the empty room. He saw all the professors and the doctors and the dean and the cleaning crew. Many, many students, including some white senior uniforms, all of the freshman class, except for his ‘archenemy’ Matt and his crew. And also in the crowd were several men and women in business suits, DVA agents maybe.
He tried to sneak by, but an announcement came on the PA and drew everyone’s attention, “Our first contender,” the voice said in some prize fighter manner, “six foot, two inches tall, weighing 205 pounds, by way of Southern California! SAMMM JOHNSONNN!” And the crowd cheered, looked like the dean’s plan for putting on a show was working, now he just had to deliver. He kept his head up high and walked by the crowds with confidence, accepting the pats on the back and shaking hands, before he finally reached the cell, stepped inside, and the door shut behind him, blocking out all the sound and giving him a few moments to focus.
Then the door on the opposite wall opened and he could hear the cheering again as Drew walked in, then it too closed and they were left alone. He walked over to Sam and said, “Hey, I just wanted to say good luck; as myself. Pinnacle does things his own way. I hope you can give him a challenge.”
“Thanks…I was going to say good luck, but I guess that would be for Pinnacle,” he said and smiled.
“Yeah,” Drew said as he walked back over to his side. “See you later,” he said then shifted.
“Greetings, Sam Johnson,” Pinnacle said in a precise manner that sounded arrogant, but really wasn’t.
“Hi, Pinnacle,” Sam said.
“Are you prepared for today’s match?” he asked with concern.
“As prepared as I can be,” Sam said.
“Excellent. I wouldn’t want anything but your best,” he said, then flashed a smile that put even Sam’s to shame.
The dean’s voice then came on over the PA, “Good afternoon students,” he said. “Only you two can hear my voice right now and I just wanted to wish you both luck. I’m going to announce you again out here and then you’ll get the three second countdown.”
It took about 45 more seconds before the first buzzer announced the three second warning. Sam had given his opening move a lot of thought and what he’d finally come up with is that he’d have to use super speed right away. He’d used it for every match thus far and it’d look fake if he didn’t do it here. He thought back to his first match with Pinnacle and knew that the punch he’d thrown there hadn’t taken him out, but it looked good; so super speed with the strength of that punch should make it look like he was trying, but wouldn’t end the fight. The buzzer sounded.
He flew across the cell at break-neck speeds, waited until the last moment to increase his strength and then slammed his fist into Pinnacle’s gut, launching him across the room. He’d been really worried that Pinnacle would just move out of the way, considering he was faster than both Jennifer and Jackson, who had both been able to get out the way of the first salvo. Drew flipped end over end and slammed into the wall, actually imbedding in it.
For a moment Sam was actually afraid that he’d won, but it only took seconds before Pinnacle began to stir, and then Sam was actually afraid nothing he could do would even allow him to win. He didn’t need to fake a show, it was going to be a show. Pinnacle floated out of the wall and hovered away from it and looked at Sam, perhaps for the first time considering him a threat. He floated higher and as he did his hands began to glow. Sam had two choices, try to jump and grab him or try and dodge the blast; he decide to attempt to dodge for a bit. It wouldn’t require much energy and he really wanted Pinnacle to come back down.
Sam watched and kept his speed and perception ready to activate at a moment’s notice. Pinnacle charged for a whole ten seconds before raising his hands and launching. Sam watched the blast and he moved well away from it; it was fast, but nothing he couldn’t track. The blast struck the floor and ripped massive chucks out of it; ‘well there’s some ammunition,’ he thought. As soon as he was out of range he cut off all energy again; if he had to quantify the cost of moving like that he’d guess it probably took about 1% of his total reserve every time, which if Pinnacle knew that, he’d just try to shoot him one hundred times, so hopefully he didn’t suspect the actual cost.
Even so, Pinnacle attempted to blast him from range six more times, each time missing by a mile. Sam made sure he always missed by a huge margin in order to show how fruitless ranged attacks were. And finally he got the hint and Pinnacle flew towards Sam at incredible speeds. Sam gave himself all the necessary power to defend and attack. As Pinnacle got close Sam moved out of range by the bare faction of an inch and punched into his back, similar to what he’d done to Jackson, but with Pinnacle’s forward momentum and the extra strength and speed Sam used, it caused Pinnacle to slam face first into the floor and carve out a trench with his body as he slid all the way to the wall.
This time Sam didn’t give him time to recover; show was over. He charged the downed Pinnacle, grabbed the back of his head and slammed his face into the floor again and again. It felt like a viable strategy to win, although it also felt underhanded. The floor under Pinnacle exploded, throwing both men away from each other. Pinnacle had charged his hands and blasted the floor while pinned to it. They both rolled violently across the floor, Sam hitting the wall, while Pinnacle had more open floor space and more gently came to a stop.
Sam had taken much less damage from the match and from the blast that had been shielded by Pinnacle’s body, so he easily returned to his feet, Pinnacle had a much tougher time. He wobbled as he stood and once he regained his feet Sam could assess the damage. The front of his uniform was all but destroyed, blood flowed from his nose, mouth and various cut on his bruised and battered face. Sam could actually see Pinnacle’s wounds begin to regenerate, it was one of the fastest regenerations in class, behind only Bradley and technically how fast Sam could do it. Sam was pretty sure if Pinnacle got 10 minutes it’d look like he’d never even been in a fight; therefore Sam couldn’t give him 10 minutes.
Sam gave himself as much speed as he was willing to risk and tackled Pinnacle milliseconds later, dragging him to the floor. He got on top of him and began to punch without mercy. He tried to remember Hope and James’ lessons about where would be the best places to strike, but he couldn’t focus on that and instead just destroyed the face. He was sure he was going to win, until a blast took him in the side. Even as durable as he was, it was a devastating hit and the force of it threw his light body away from Pinnacle. He rolled and slid across the floor before he was finally able to partial sit up and assess the damage. He looked at his side where the blast had hit and his jacket had a big hole in it, showing the massive bruise on his body. When he took a deep breath the pain was intense; bruised or broken rib. He debated not healing it, but as he tried to stand he nearly doubled over from the pain, and the choice was made, although he tried to go as slow as possible, even with Pinnacle across the cell also healing up. If he did one quick burst to heal then that’d be pretty much it for his reserves.
So he walked slowly across the cell, or at least slowly for a man that currently had energy flowing to his strength and speed. He struck out at Pinnacle, who blocked and punch back; unlike earlier when the strength and speed of their strike were terrifying, they were now more like boxers in the 12th round. Still strong, still skilled, but tired and in a lot of pain. It was a war of attrition and there was no way Sam could win that; Pinnacle had reserves Sam couldn’t hope to match. Time for the Hail Mary, god he hated doing the Hail Mary. He turned off everything, speed, healing, perception, and senses and put it all into strength and just enough into durability to survive the effect and he swung for the fences, right into the solar plexus, one of the spots he remembered James saying was painful.
The punch connected and Pinnacle was lifted off the ground, a good ten feet into the air before he came back down and slammed into the floor and curled into a ball. Sam cut off all energy, it was pitifully low, but every little bit could help, then he watched and prayed. Then he saw it; Drew to Pinnacle was so subtle it was sometimes hard to see, especially with the mess Pinnacle was in, but he saw the hair change slightly and the skin lighten and then Drew stood up. His face was whole and unharmed. Technically they were still in it, since ‘Drew’ could stand. Sam limped towards him and checked his energy again, it might be enough.
Drew looked confused and very concerned as he saw Sam approaching with a murderous look on his face. Sam had to wonder what Drew’s thoughts were here, he couldn’t know if Sam had energy left, even though the limp should make him suspect. Would he try to fight? Sam got within five feet and stopped, “are you going to fight?” Drew was a trained fighter, it was necessary for Pinnacle’s training that Drew also added to the muscle memory, so in a straight mano e mano fight, Sam would lose. Time to bluff.
“Do you have any strength left?” Drew asked and took a basic fighting stance.
“Yes,” Sam said with all the certainty he could muster and Drew flinched.
Drew hesitated for a second, then a few seconds more, then he charged Sam throwing out a wild yell. Sam was taken aback, but recovered as Drew threw out a straight kick, which connected with Sam’s hip bone. And then they started fighting, the kind of fighting that you usually get when one person isn’t as skilled as the other and the whole thing is not choreographed. They rolled around on the ground punching and grabbing. Sam still had a tiny reserve, nothing that could stand up to Pinnacle, but it might be enough for Drew; he just needed an opening. They rolled around for a minute, Drew kept focusing on Sam’s bruised rib, while Sam fought for an opening. Drew almost had him with a sleeper hold, but Sam had dropped them onto the floor and dislodged him.
Sam rolled and saw an opening. He swung at Drew knees, waited until the last moment and put it all his remaining energy into strength, not even bothering to protect himself from the backlash. Drew’s knee shattered, as did Sam’s hand. Drew let out an ear-piercing yell and clutched his knee. Sam stood back up to show he was still in it, although he definitely wobbled. Drew writhed around on the ground, crying out, but he hadn’t tapped out and the PA didn’t announce a winner yet. So Sam walked over to Drew, “Hey!” he yelled at him. “Do you give up?” Drew looked up, confused, he’d never done a challenge before. “If you don’t tap the floor three times, I am going to have to kick you until you do. I don’t want that and I know you don’t,” Sam said and Drew quickly tapped out and one of the dean’s portal opened immediately and Dr. Peavy came out and laid her hands on Drew’s knee.
The dean grabbed Sam’s left hand, as his right was shattered and held it up. That’s when Sam looked to the observation windows above and saw the cheering crowd pounding on the glass, none of which Sam could hear. “How long was the match?” Sam asked quietly.
“Only 12 minutes,” the dean said. “But, you did put on a show, I’ll give you that. Thank you.”
“Not a problem,” Sam said with no energy and in a lot of pain as he allowed the dean to show him off. And then Dr. Peavy came back through after getting Drew settled and led Sam through a portal into the infirmary where she started to work on his hand.
Neither Drew nor Michael challenged Sam for his first place spot that next week, finally giving Sam his first real weekend off since he’d gotten to college. Not that he’d been neglecting the social side of the college experience, but it was nice to know he didn’t have anything to bog him down for several days. He’d thought that being 1st ranked combat would feel different, but aside from the congratulations he got from anyone he met in the halls, he felt the same, except that his poor starting performance was not hanging over his head anymore. With his combat rank, and moving up a bit in focus, he was now ranked overall in the top-ten.