The next day they had a short ethics class while the last of the students met with Professor Young about their subtlety work, once the last student was finished they were directed to the lifts once again. They took them down to the level below the combat cells, the doors opened onto a hall that looked almost identical to the one on the first floor, but instead of the bulletin board there was a large sign with ‘range rules’ on it. James tried to quickly read it, the first few were all pretty standard, but then they starting to get into certain types of powers and weapons and certain rooms each could be used in, without context it didn’t make much sense. A short black woman with long dark hair in a pony-tail, came from the side hallway, it was one of the professors from orientation, she was by far the youngest professor in the HCP, or she had a power that let her look that way. “Good morning freshman. I am the ranged combat instructor, Professor Anderson.
“Now I’ll explain how your ranged trial will happen. There will be three parts to the trial, first two take place on the range, the third is an obstacle course. If you have a ranged power; that’s any power that you can get 25 feet beyond your outstretched hand, even if you’re still touching it, like a vine or chain, then that will be your first weapon and you’ll be judged on power, range or accuracy. If you have strength greater than three times human normal, or telekinesis, you’ll be required to throw a high density ball down range, if you have both a ranged power and enhanced strength you can pick which one you’d like to be tested with. If you don’t have a ranged power or strength, then you’ll get to choose any ranged weapon from the armory to be tested with, and there are many to choose from, hand guns, revolvers, rifles, shotguns, bows of every design, spears, and slings and more. I judge each weapon by a different criteria, of which you will not be aware, so choose wisely, not just what you think might ‘be cool’ to try.
“The second part of the trial, I will assign a weapon to you, or if you have a range power I may ask you to use it a different way, switching from power to accuracy or vice versa. And finally the third part, you will take the weapons from the first and second part into an obstacle course, this will involve you moving through several scenarios that will have you shooting at targets that can only be taken out at range, sorry teleporters and speedsters. Ranged combat is pretty much the only major that not everyone can use. Sure, we could train everyone with a rifle, but a strongman’s role on the team is not to hang back and provide cover fire, a teleporter is always more effective porting in with a blade and working silently, some powers lend themselves well to being more efficient with a weapon than without, other powers make it harder to use a weapon than a normal person.
“I am only capable of observing one person at a time, so each individual test will be short, but it will take a while to get through everyone. Some of my senior students will be overseeing the obstacle course and I’ll observe the first two rounds. The order for the test will be your combat ranking, that way those with low combat scores will have some extra time to practice before their turn.
“Alright, I know I’m throwing a lot at you and some of you will have questions about whether or not your powers could even be classified as ranged, the other trials so far have all been pretty straightforward, but like I said not everyone is meant to fight at range, we’ve had to be a little clever in working up a fair trial. Now follow me.”
The class followed her to a nearby door, where she scanned her hand print, then entered a code and a massive metal door moved sideways into the wall. They all filed into the armory, it was massive, and like the hallway outside the door the room went along and curved, so you couldn’t even see the end of the room. The walls were covered with every type of weapon you could think of. All of James’ knowledge of guns came from video games, so he could tell, at least generally what each weapon was, but he would have no idea the difference between something like an M4 or M16 or AR15, so he really had to stick with the type of weapon that would complement his power. “Alright class, can I have your attention again,” Professor Anderson said. “First, everyone with a ranged power please line up along the wall, if you’re not sure if your power qualifies, stay back for now.” About 15 students went in the first group over to the wall, including Jennifer. “Okay now enhanced strength also along the wall, but in a separate group.” Another five people joined that group, Sam, Tony and Michael, were three of them. “Alright, real quick anyone from the ranged group also have enhanced strength?” Two people raised their hands, Drew and a short unassuming mousy girl with short brown hair, who James didn’t know on sight. “Alright, I know what you can do Pinnacle, but what do you do, Miss?”
“Tara Reese. I can shift into a large tree creature that’s very strong and I am also a plant elemental in that form and can make branches and vine well past 25 feet.”
“Excellent, thank you. Now anyone not in a group on the fence about whether they qualify?”
Three people raised their hands, James, Ty and Alex, “Alright first Tyler Wagner, I know you don’t have a ranged power, so what’s the issue?”
“I want to know if I can use my power armor for the trial.”
“Yes, but you may only use one weapon for the first part of the trial and I may make you get out of the armor for the second part,” Anderson said.
“Now, James Reed, what’s your concern?”
“I can send out my drainer past 25 feet, but it has little to no physical form at that distance, I can’t use it on targets.”
“I see, it is pretty one dimensional, so there is not much point is testing with it. Alright, no power for you in the trial, but if you see an opportunity in the obstacle course to try something with it, I want to see it.”
“And finally, Alex Sullivan?”
“I can summon creatures with ranged attacks, should I use them?”
“Yes, I want to see your most accurate creature.”
That left about half the class, “alright, everyone else, I want you to go grab a weapon, then line up on the wall. I don’t need to get too in depth with gun safety, since most of you have had powers more dangerous than any weapon in here for more than a decade, but two rules. One ‘Don’t Be Stupid!’ and two, no weapon will be loaded before you are on the firing line, if you fail to follow either of those rules, you will be booted from the HCP. If you are too uncomfortable, or literally don’t know the first thing about weapons line up over there and we’ll eventually find something for you,” only Allison and another girl moved over to where she was pointing. It was more than likely that more people than that were clueless, but they wouldn’t admit it. James himself had never fired a real gun before, but he had used a bow and arrow at summer camp, so if nothing else he could just grab that.
Professor Anderson, then went to the first group and began to assign their second weapon and they went off to collect it. By the time she got through with the first group, others were coming back with the weapons they had chosen, the professor looked at them, but made no comment about what she thought of them, instead only giving them her choice for their second weapons and sending them off again. The whole process went pretty fast and efficiently, James had gone with a compound bow for himself and the professor had assigned him a Glock 9mm pistol, a standard for police because of its reliability. Soon the class was shuffled across the hall to the range and it was shocking, the ‘room’ was the size of a stadium, there was hundreds of ‘shooting boxes’ of every size and shape, most standard, what you’d see at any shooting range, but some were designed for giants, some seemed to be in the air for flyers, some were specially designed rooms, those resistant to heat or vibrations or electricity, or just super reinforced for those that would normally destroy their environment when using their powers. The ceiling was several hundred feet up, and the outer wall was too far away to accurately gauge, likely 3,000 feet. The ‘range’ had all the normal targets, those with bulls-eyes on plywood, those shaped like people, there was manikins all over the place, some behind cover or in vehicles. There were tanks and cars and brick walls and buildings, watchtowers, even a water tower. There were even robots out there moving around; it was overwhelming.
“Alright, everyone is welcome to practice until it is your turn, most types of ammo can be found along the back wall, if they don’t have what you’re looking for and you have to go back to the armory, where a senior will escort you in, but I don’t think anyone has anything where that will be required. Could I please have the top three combat students over here, please. I always want three students near me so we can keep things moving, so watch for who is up and how close they are to your rank.”
Michael followed the Professor down away from the practicing students. He was a little divided about the ranged trial, many of Michael’s shifted forms had a ranged ability, during combat trials he’d had fire breath, hardening goo and poison quills he could fire off, but while standing on a range against inanimate targets his form would be basic, his enhanced strength in that form wasn’t even that impressive, so the second weapon that the professor had assigned him was an assault rifle that he could really only use in human form, because his shifted fingers couldn’t even fit in the trigger guard. So, as far as he could tell, his power would do him no good in any part of this trial. They finally stopped and the professor asked Drew a few questions.
“Your energy blasts, can you change different aspects of them, their force, their size, their speed?”
“The longer Pinnacle charges them, the stronger they are, but the size and speed don’t really change.”
“Alright, then change and we’ll begin.” Drew shifted in Pinnacle, “First, charge to your most powerful blast and hit that tank down there, I’ll give you three chances to hit it.”
“Very well professor, I will endeavor to do my best. You all may want to take several steps back,” Pinnacle said, then put his fists out in front of him and they began to glow, it took about fifteen seconds before they were almost too bright to look at, then a few seconds later he fired. The air around his hands was forced back with a loud pop, and the beam of energy traveled along the range quickly, surprisingly it missed the tank by a good margin, and continued to travel at least a thousand more feet before it faded away. He tried a second time and this time he fell short, it hit the floor about ten feet before his target, ripping out a large divot in the range floor, sending concreate flying into the tank. He pretty much had it targeted in now, so it wasn’t surprising when he hit the tank with his third shot; what was surprising was how little it affected the heavily armored vehicle, Michael would have suspected his blast were stronger than that, he’d felt them for himself and they’d been the deciding factor in Pinnacle’s match with Jackson.
Professor Anderson then had Pinnacle try for accuracy on targets and then speed on several different targets. Once Pinnacle had finished with the energy blast he had to move onto to strength throws. Michael understood the importance of strongmen having the ability to throw accurately; in a battle, they had to use whatever was close at hand to use as a weapon, mailboxes, signs, concrete, and rubble, even cars if they were on the higher end of the strength spectrum, and being accurate was important to avoid unnecessary risk. Pinnacle’s strength was orders of magnitude greater than Michael’s basic form, so the ball he was to throw was made of some of the densest metal on the planet, about the size of a softball. He was very accurate with those things, and if he didn’t already think of himself as perfect, it probably would have made him smugger. He finished up and the Professor told him to head back out to the lift and head down another level without giving him any indication one way or another about how she thought he performed.
Michael was next up and he shifted into his basic form. The balls that he had to throw were smaller than the ones Pinnacle had thrown, about the size of a golf ball, and much less dense, but still quite heavy, he was a little uncertain he’d be able to throw them very far. Professor Anderson must have been aware of his exact strength because she had him only throwing at the 25 foot target. After a few tests throws he started to get pretty good, and was hitting the targets with pretty good force, four out of five times. Eventually he was told to stop and he grabbed the weapons he’d been assigned, he shifted back to normal and did a quick check of the weapon. It was an M16, the military’s current assault rifle; he’d used many other weapons before, handguns, shotguns and rifles, he’d even been hunting several times, so although he’d never used this particular weapon, his knowledge of firearms was extensive enough for him to figure it out. He cleared the weapon, checked the safety, set it to single fire, grabbed a magazine, loaded it, chambered a round, set his sight, and then waited for instructions for the professor.
“Nicely done, Mr. Gonzales. Put ten rounds in each target, starting with the 25 foot, and moving out until your accuracy falls below half.” Michael set his sight and was able to put all ten in the 25 foot target, 9 in the 50 foot, 10 again in the 75 foot, then he was only able to do 6 in the 100, and four in the 150. “Thank you, you may head down to the obstacle course.”
Jennifer was ranked 15th in combat, so it took about an hour before she got her turn. The weapon the professor had assigned her was a bit odd, since the air around her was often raised an extra hundred degrees or more, she couldn’t use anything with live ammunition in it, and also most weapons not made of high quality metals would be destroyed around her, so she was given a special weapon; it was basically a short tube that she’d blast some energy into one end and it’d force specially designed shells out the other side. The type of rounds you could use in it were numerous, created by a tech genius super, things like tear gas, knockout gas, shock round, containment form, fire suppression shells, and several others, but right now she was just using basic rounds to build up accuracy.
Once she was asked to step up to the line she started with her powers. First she simply had to show the maximum range her power could reach, which was a little over 100 feet, but at that range the fire was wild and relatively weak, so she was asked to stay with targets at 50 feet and less. She was very skilled with accuracy and power control, but ultimately fire tended to have a mind of its own and could get away from her if she lost concentration. The professor ran her through several target and then moved onto the ‘weapon’. Jennifer thought the test was going to be another accuracy challenge, but instead the professor had her put on a harness that would hold all the different versions of the weapon’s ammunition. Then the professor yelled out a target and the type of ammo to use and Jennifer had to try and hit it. Without any practice and having so many different types she messed up twice, but overall was pretty fast and accurate.
Three hours after the trial had begun Allison was just now stepping up to the firing line. The professor and her the only people left on the entire range. “So how you feeling Allison?”
“Understandable, let’s get started.” Allison had been given two different handguns to practice with, both simple and small. “Since both your weapons are only good for about 25 feet, we’ll stick with the closest target. I want you to use all the ammunition in the revolver, then switch to the other one and use the whole magazine, then I want to see you reload both as fast as possible and fire them both again. Any questions?”
“No,” Allison said. She pulled up the handgun into the basic two handed firing stance one of the other students had shown her earlier, aimed at the target and fired. She missed more than she hit, then she moved onto the other weapon, with similar results. She had an extra magazine ready so that one was easy to reload, but the revolver required her to put in each bullet one and a time and she kept fumbling them. Eventually, she set back up and repeated her firing, to nearly identical results.
“Thank you, take your weapons down to the obstacle course now.”
James had a shift in the infirmary after his trial, but since Hope would be so much longer than him, he’d been sitting in the infirmary with Mandy until she showed up. Mandy was very quiet, she’d spent the entire time since she walked in reading a book, and hadn’t said two words to James. Normally, that’d be fine, but it was making him really uncomfortable now, “So, Mandy…what’s with your hair? And why were you in the ranged power group at the trial, I thought you could only heal?”
“Oh…” she paused and fumbled for the words, “maybe Sandy should explain.”
“What…” but before he could add anymore, Mandy’s hair changed from its red that James was used to seeing to the brown that she wore in ethics.
“Hi, James, I’m Sandy,” she said extending her hand to him.
“…Hi,” he said hesitantly.
She laughed, “Yeah, I understand that, but hold on, cause it gets stranger. I’ll start from the beginning…
“When I first got my powers I was eight, and alone in my room, trying to do math homework, but I just wasn’t getting it, then it happened. It’s really hard to explain exactly what it felt like; maybe if I had an hour and some visual aids, but anyways, Mandy showed up. She’s mostly a separate personality, and she was really smart, she flew through the homework and then I was me again. I didn’t even know I was really a super for months after that. But, one day I fell out of a tree and broke my arm, then Mandy showed up and fixed it. That’s when I told someone about what happened. I was tested and they were afraid I was a powered, because even though I thought I had control of when I change, the other personality has to basically also agree and Mandy was really shy, but eventually we figured it out. I was a shifter who got a healing power.”
“But, what about…?”
“Hold on, I’ll get there,” she smiled at her inside joke. “So for years that all I could do, shift into a smart, shy girl with healing powers. It didn’t make me as popular as most supers end up being. So when I was twelve, a bunch of girls in my class were having a slumber party and being very obvious they weren’t going to invite me, and that’s when Candy showed up.
“She is the blonde you saw at the range trial. Even though we all share the same body, exact same face and body, the hair and eyes change with a new personality; although before Candy showed up, Mandy didn’t have the red hair, but anyways, Candy’s hair was blonde and her eyes are so blue; she’s so outgoing and social, she instantly became popular. And based solely on the fact that she had to bring me and Mandy with her everywhere, we became popular too. It was pretty neat for a while, and she became even more popular when we found out Candy had a power too, a sonic scream. But wait, still not done,” she said as she saw James wanted to ask more questions.
“When I was 16, I was/we were pretty good, Candy was a bit slutty, but basically we never broke the rules. I mention that because I think that’s the reason that Andy showed up. I don’t know if you’ve seen her, she’s got black hair and yellow cat eyes, she did some of the subtlety work and was the main fighter in combat trials. She has cat-like powers, enhanced senses, claws and agility. She’s a rebel, not bad or evil, or any Jekyll and Hyde type rebel, just sort of anti-establishment goth/hippy, oh, and she’s a lesbian.
“Wow! Are they all like talking in your head right now?”
“Probably not the way you’re thinking. Like I said it’s complicated; I’m sure a psychologist or neuroscientist could spend their entire careers working with me. But, they don’t talk. I know they’re there, I can feel them and like I can look at a girl and sort of ask myself, I wonder if Andy would find her attractive and suddenly I have an answer, but, like, Mandy is really smart, but I can’t look at a math problem and say ‘I wonder how Mandy would solve this’ and get an answer. I think we are likes echoes of ourselves when we’re in someone else’s head.”
“So do you have a power?”
“If I do, it’s not a flashy one, but I guess I’m in control, I can forcefully turn back into myself from any of the others, whereas they can’t do that to me or each other. Like this one time, Candy was with a guy, kind of drunk and about to have sex without protection, we all agreed that since we share the body, we can’t do things that put our future in jeopardy. So I took control, he was so drunk he didn’t even notice, but he wasn’t happy when I just started to leave, tried to get physical, but I just sicked Andy on him, she knocked him out cold.”
“Ha, you must have an interesting life.”
“More like hectic. You try to schedule social time for four girls around the HCP, college classes and Mandy’s healing work-study. Add to that Candy’s desire to party every weekend and Andy wanting to join social causes and find a girlfriend and I have maybe an hour a day for me. Luckily, Mandy is so smart and actually enjoys classes, and Andy can handle the gym sessions, so I mostly just have to deal with the ethics class.”
“So, you basically have three separate power sets, anyone of which would have been enough to get you into the program. Why didn’t you have a higher rank?” James asked.
“A couple reasons. Like with Candy’s sonic scream, she doesn’t have fine control over it yet, so if she uses on a person without extra durability, she’d basically kill them. I know there are heroes out there with sonic abilities and they learn to module pitch and power perfectly to effect people and objects the way they want, but she hasn’t learned that yet and she doesn’t like to practice. Then there’s Andy, she’s too stubborn; rushes in too fast before she knows what her opponent can do. And then there is Mandy, she’s too meek to join a match in the middle to provide healing. All of them are too far apart on the personality scale to work together in coordinated combat.”
“I can’t even imagine life like that. So you mind if I ask what’s up with the names, isn’t the rhyming thing a little silly?”
“Only when it got to the fourth one. When Mandy showed up I didn’t even know what was going on, we were so much alike, I don’t even think it was a conscious choice by either of us, it was just her name. Then when Candy came along she thought the rhyming thing was cute, and she was like ‘I’m going to be Candy, because I’m so sweet.’ By the time Andy showed up, the rest of us agreed we needed to stick with the theme at this point, we tried to get her to take Brandy, but she fought it, finally settling on Andy, because ‘at least it’s not girly.’”
They talked for another hour, she was actually very easy to get along with and they shared a lot of the same interests, and then Hope arrived and Sandy/Mandy was able to leave.
“Goodnight James, it was nice talking to you,” Sandy said.
“Oh, she’s into you,” Hope said after Sandy left.
“What? How do you know? You just got here.”
“Girl’s intuition, plus Candy is a horrible gossip and has no qualms about giving up the dirt on her…sisters?”
“Interesting,” James said.