For the next few weeks there was very little slacking. Many people needed, or at least thought they needed to spend time studying and actually found a great tutor in Professor Anderson. She apparently had several advanced degrees and also apparently years of experience (however that worked). Nearly everyone was in her classroom for an hour or more everyday just doing reviews. After that people went their separate ways to do some independent study. Some went to the Super library and tried to find new tricks and techniques. Other tried to strengthen aspects of their powers. And some, whose powers were too straightforward stuck with the Gym.
James was spending much of his time working with his secondary absorbed powers. He still couldn’t seem to get the electricity down to ‘safe’ levels and he couldn’t seem to find a good combat option for the heat, but Sam’s solar energy was proving very useful.
Hope was spending time on the range. She hoped to be able to bring in some form of ranged weapon to the mid-term; even though she had no idea if it’d even be allowed.
Michael’s power was one that was too straightforward. Too few people agreed to spar with him, so he couldn’t practice with new forms and was mostly forced to continue with gym.
Sam looked like he was slacking. He had gone to the focus professor and asked if there were techniques to help improve the efficiency of his energy use. She believed there was and offered up more meditative technique, so Sam had been spending hours every day sitting alone and quietly near the corner.
Tony had asked similar questions of the control professor in hopes of being able to switch from one animal form to another quicker. Ideally, he’d like to be able to switch from one animal form right to another, although, that might not be possible. As a general rule mimics must return to a neutral form before changing again.
Allison was actually approached by the subtlety professor, Coach Young. He suggested (ordered?) that she spend every class focusing on very carefully affecting various people’s moods and then ‘feeling’ the results from them. Allison felt like it was an invasion of privacy, but couldn’t deny it seemed to be helping.
Jennifer was actually all over the place. She really didn’t know how to improve her powers, but she tried. She’d been down on the range, practiced fighting, practiced flying, spent time looking for unique aspects of her powers in the library and talked at least once with every professor, looking for some advice.
Slowly, but surely the mundane exams came and went and the only thing left was the HCP mid-term. Six AM, Saturday morning, snow thick on the ground, sun not even risen over an almost deserted campus. Most students, those who weren’t in the HCP, had finished up the day before or sooner and rushed back to their homes as quickly as possible. The freshmen flowed down into the underground complex and into the standard classroom they had for ethics and meetings. People were tired, both physically and mentally. And many speculated that the early hour was another part of the test; as a hero, you never know when a crisis would arise and you might not always be at your best. It was more than just the early hour though, normal classes also took their toll. For the average student the stress can cause them to crack, but these HCP students also had something much greater hanging over their heads the entire time and were expected and required to pass. Allison felt all of this. The nerves, the fear, the anxiety; both from what was ahead and the tests that already passed. Most had an itch of fear about failing a class and thus the HCP.
A portal opened on stage at exactly six. The dean liked to joke about teleporters not being late, but it seemed much more like his life’s philosophy rather than a half-hearted rule. He was once again impeccably dressed, looked well rested and it also looked like he had a new tan; maybe he’d spent a day on a tropical beach, while the rest of the class slogged through the Chicago snow. “Good Morning Class!” he said way too cheerfully for six am. “Today you will be traversing the labyrinth!” The class stared at him with blank expressions. They’d been there for months and had never heard of an area called the labyrinth; of course none of them had any idea about the true size of the underground complex and today would be a lesson in humility for some.
“As the name suggests, the area is modeled after the labyrinth from Greek myth. It is a truly massive maze filled with monsters…” Several hands shot up before he could continue, he knew the question, but he called on someone anyways.
“Real monsters?” the student asked.
A bit vaguer than he would have liked from his students, but conceptually on the right track. “Depends. What does ‘real’ mean?” The student stared blankly back. “In a world where men and woman can become ‘monsters’ or make illusions, or summon strange things from thin air. What would be ‘real’? Are the monsters that Mr. Sullivan summons from his deck of cards real? If you’re asking if we somehow found some magical land and brought back creatures to stick in an underground maze to test freshman, the answer is no.
“I don’t mean to pick on you, most of the rest of hands in the room were of a similar nature. I just want you to think a little more about the world that supers can create. But, to ultimately answer your question; they are robotic creations with very realistic coverings and artificial abilities that match their looks. So two things about robotic opponents. Number one, if you have a power that effects technology, but not biology, you may use the power to locate and analyze them, but not to control or defeat a ‘monster.’ And second, for powers that can work on the biological, but not robotics opponents. Many, but not all of the creatures will respond realistically to known abilities in this room. Paralysis stare, drain tendrils, and fire should affect them as if they were real. Unfortunately, there is a limit to what we are capable of reading, such as telepathy or empathy; we can’t know how you would be trying to affect the creature, so therefore it won’t be affected.
“The rules for this test get a bit complicated. That is because, real life is complicated and the things that heroes are called out for are complex. There is more than one way to achieve victory in any given situation and we want to encourage different and creative solutions here. Strength, speed, stealth, cunning, teamwork; all have their place in this test and in the hero world. You will all start in a different random location and your goal will be to gather these spheres,” he said, holding up a three golf-ball sized spheres, one gold, one silver and one white, “find the center of the maze, and deposit them in the fire.
“This gold sphere has a base value of 100 points and are held by the monsters in the maze. There are one hundred gold spheres and one hundred monsters; this is one of the strength strategies I was talking about. This next one is a silver sphere. It has a base value of 20 points and there are 500 of them within the maze. Most of them are found lying randomly on the ground, but some are traps and some are guarded by monsters. These are what the fast ones should be going for. And finally we have these white ones and they have this digital counter on the side,” he said showing them the red area. “The value of these spheres change depending on who is in possession of them. You will all start with your own, so therefore, there will be 35 of them. I am going to come back to how they are scored.
“I said ‘base value’ because there is a system in place to multiply the sphere’s value. As I said a few weeks ago, this test will go for six hours. For the first three hours the values will be as I said, 100 and 20 respectively. For the next two hours, double that and triple points for the last hour. This is the part of the test where intelligence and cunning comes in. ‘Do you hold onto what you’ve found until the 3x multiplier and risk them being taken from you or do you get what you can, when you can?’ The white spheres are not affected by the multiplier, but cannot be placed in the fire until the last 30 minutes.
“Now, as you’ve heard, spheres can be taken from the other students. Combat, trickery, ambushes, and thievery are encouraged here. Since the white spheres depend on who is holding them when placed in the fire, I’ll explain how they are scored. Everyone will be handed a sphere and the point value will depend on your overall rank. I’ll use the first place student and last place student to explain the particulars. Drew/Pinnacle is currently still in first place overall, so his sphere will be worth 100 points, the lowest any white sphere will be. The last place student, I believe that is still Mr. Cartwright, his sphere will be worth about 1500 points, it varies depending on the number of students left at this point.
“I can hear all your wheels turning, along of the lines of ‘that’s unfair, he gets a major advantage just for being last?’ Which is why taking white spheres is so important. So the second part of scoring and why the display is necessary; the score will change depending on who takes it from whom. Let’s say, Drew engages Kenny and takes his sphere; not that impressive for the 1st to beat the 35th in combat, right? And the score will reflect that. If Drew takes it, the score will go from 1500 for Kenny to about 150 for Drew. If on the other hand, Kenny comes out on top in that fight and takes Drew’s sphere, that’s a much more difficult feat, and Drew’s sphere would be worth about 2900 points for Kenny. The exact formula used to calculate those changes is on the board behind me,” he said pointing to a math problem that most couldn’t even begin to decipher.
“So…as you can see there is an innumerable number of ways to go about this challenge. There are also responsibilities, as the higher ranked students, ‘do you go after the lower ranked simply to prevent them from getting the massive boost from their spheres? Maybe giving up hunting monsters and silver spheres? Do the lower ranks team up and ambush higher ranks for the massive point boost they offer? Or do you hide to retain your white sphere? Ultimately, you all have to get to the central room at some point, so do you hang out there and just pick off anyone who enters, but leaving yourself exposed in the open room?
“In the end, I think, the real skill you all need to exercise here is ‘strategy’. When to make your move? Which spheres will be the best time verse points method? Running, hiding or fighting? It’s up to each of you to figure that out,” the dean said and let it settle for a minute as people mulled over everything a few times, figuring how their powers would work in the given situation. “As for combat, the rules will be the same as for a challenge match. No deadly force and you win if your opponent taps out or is rendered unconscious. Once they have submitted, all of the spheres they are carrying will be forfeit to whomever defeated them; even if you’re trying to hide them on your person, you must relinquish them.
“Also, once you have tapped out or been knocked out, I will open a portal under you and you will be dropped into the infirmary. The doctor will look you over and heal you if necessary. Then you may leave the infirmary and make your way back to the labyrinth and reenter. It will take between 5 and 10 minutes to get from the infirmary back down there, so that will be the ‘penalty’. And also, you may not ‘give’ your spheres to another person, they may only be won in combat and you also cannot purposely drop a sphere once you have collected it; so no hiding spheres until late game or trying to squirrel them away in case you are knocked out. It will also help avoid helping another player by ‘accidently’ dropping some in their path. However, if you are taken out by a monster or trap, then they will drop where you did, except your white sphere; that can only be taken by another student. And finally, and this is a big one, so listen up. The person who has the lowest score after this mid-term…will not be returning next semester.” The class broke into loud, angry whispers as soon as he stopped talking. “Alright, you will now have 30 minutes to plan and gather equipment.”
Friends broke into groups, some people rushed out of the room, likely getting weapons, and others sat quietly, centering themselves or planning solo strategies. Finally, the dean told everyone it was time and to follow him. He moved quickly towards the lifts, forcing the class to rush after him. The lift went down and continued down for an oddly long time. The lifts were fast, but it was still over a minute before they stopped. The door opened to a small waiting room, similar to those outside the obstacle course. Then the dean called out “Tara Reese,” and she stepped into the room and was told to follow the instructions given on the monitor. The doors closed again and the lift could be felt moving sideways this time. Then the door opened again and the dean called another name, seemingly at random and it went on like that for every student.
James got into his room and read the monitor that said ‘please standby until all participants are in position’. James was thinking about his strategy, this was pretty perfect for him. The dean said the monsters would respond to his draining, plus he could use his electric touch without fear, but what would really help him today is his power against the other students. If he could drain someone and then they are dropped into the infirmary, they can’t or shouldn’t be able to be easily healed, his drain caused fatigue rather than injury. Therefore, he could knock people out of contention for possibly hours, although he’d be a fool to doubt Dr. Peavy’s healing potential against that.
Hope had only heard one thing in the dean’s speech that gave her some hope. ‘Teamwork’; if she offered her enhancing potential to some of the physically weaker students, she/they could form a small team and share any loot. Ideally, she’d like to find Sam and offer her services to him, since he becomes more effective with a boost. She hadn’t been approved from any ranged weapons, but she was approved for electric stun weapons. In this case she had two carbon steel batons capable of delivering a nasty charge. She had skill wielding them as blunt instruments, and the stun charge, while limited, presented options.
Michael dreaded when he heard ‘robots’ again. The dean said they would respond to powers, but that didn’t mean his power would respond to the robots. Fortunately, every student would also be down there and if he could find someone strong, and shift into a strong form then he could attempt to hold onto that throughout the test; although his power resisted being held once the initial fight was over.
Sam really needed to conserve his energy. Six hours was a long time (at least for him). The ‘melee’ wouldn’t take place for five and a half hours and he really wanted to be there for that. That meant keeping his power in the three to five times range and running from fights that would be too much of a problem. Really he should run from every fight until the final hour, but he’d cross each bridge when it comes. He stretched and waited.
Tony had a big problem here, some of his animal forms really couldn’t carry more than a few spheres at a time. Everyone had been given a bag to carry their spheres in and it gave him some options for carrying, but it was still going to be difficult to collect, fight, and carry as a variety of animals.
Allison hoped that that rule about not giving away spheres was a little flexible for her as she planned to ask people to hand them over. Her power wouldn’t work on the monsters and she didn’t have the skill or speed to collect a massive amount of silver ones. But, if she upped the love and trust emotions in a wide area around her, or was able to sneak up on someone for a more focused attack, then they’d give her anything she wanted. She wasn’t completely sure if the dean would portal them back to the infirmary to even out there emotions, or if she’d be able to use them to fight for her after that.
Jennifer just stared at the monitor. It changed from its initial message and turned to a countdown that started at three minutes. She got ready, tested her power a couple times, cleared her mind and then stood in front of the door and waited for the test to begin.