The next day Sam rushed down to look at his rankings; subtlety, focus, and ranged should all be up now, he knew his subtlety and focus ranks were going to be low, but he thought he had a chance in ranged. He’d been able to throw the heaviest ball they had nearly halfway down the range and he thought he’d done pretty well with the rifle he used. He got onto the track and looked up at the boards, they were starting to get a little cluttered. There was 40 students left, each currently with four ranking numbers, but still sorted by combat. So he jumped down to the bottom of the board, with the dropout he’d moved up to 35th in combat, he was only 37th in subtlety, and dead last in focus; guess dying in five minutes didn’t look too good. His ranged rank was a surprise, he was only 21st, which was still in bottom half of the class. He quickly scanned everyone else, trying to find someone who would be below him, but if they were up there they didn’t stand out. It looked like after four trials Sam was currently in last, and would have a hard time changing that.
Sam went to ethics and sat stoically through the whole thing, he wasn’t even sure he heard one thing the dean was saying. Sam was mortified with his performance so far, and thought for a long chunk of class about dropping the program, but there was one problem with that. Even if he did drop and then reapply, his background would not be overlooked and the review of himself and the others was meant to take years, so even if some of the others succeeded and the lawsuit helped people like him get in, it would be half a decade before that happened. He literally only had one chance to make it here; quitting was not an option. He needed to be flawless in the last two ranking trials.
When the dean finally called an end to the class, he sent them down to the same level with the obstacle course from yesterday where they were greeted by the control professor, “Good afternoon class, I’m Professor Ford,” she waited for the class to mumble through their response. “Alright, I’m sure you’re getting used to these speeches already, so let’s jump right into mine. Control is probably the most abstract concept to test and one of the most important areas of study. It consistently has the highest number of sophomore students. Control is about control, most people think that applies only to those with multi-faceted powers, and it is true that powers like elementals get a lot out of my class, whereas strongmen usually don’t see the point.
“The point however, is more than just power training, it’s about situational awareness, tactics, and it’s about finding new uses for your powers. And for strongmen it can be used to control your power on the low end of the scale. Most physical fighters in the midst of a group of enemies would lash out violently equally to all opponents; control will help you see the strength of every enemy and teach your body how much force it takes to bring down each without killing the weaker ones.
“Now, if you were all in my class, I would design unique tests for each of you, because Control is about being precise. That’s just not feasible with 40 students, so instead there are 10 different courses; you’ll each be assigned to run one. They all follow the same basic rules, you must run as quickly as you can from one station to another. Each station will have a test, puzzle, or task that must be completed before you move on, or until the time runs out for that station. There will be traps and mazes and obstacles and robots with weapons, all trying to stop you.
“Course 1 and 2, the sentries will be using live ammunition, everyone sent to those two should have physical durability to survive the rounds, but if for any reason you think you all losing hold on a shifted form or don’t have enough energy to maintain that level of durability, immediately drop to the ground and everything will stop firing on you. Also, Sara Hunter?”
“Yes?” a pretty red haired girl near the back of the group answered.
“We know you hacked the focus exam with your power. Do not hack the rooms or robots beyond information gathering. I don’t want to see any ‘glitches’ on your course. Understand?”
“Yes professor,” she said although she didn’t sound sorry about being busted cheating on the focus section. But of course she was still in the program, so they must have known what she was able to do and didn’t tell her not to.
Sam was eventually sent to room two, along with Jackson and a tall, thin, guy, who introduced himself as Kenny. The room was a standard looking waiting room, with a couple of cheap plastic chairs, a door of both sides of the room and a television imbedded in the wall that currently said, ‘One: Jackson Locke. There are five stations scattered throughout the course, bathed in red light. They can be done in any order and you may use any method to reach them. Once all objective are completed, the exit will open, bathed in blue light. As long as you can safely continue, you may do so, but if you fall unconscious or say ‘I surrender’ the test will end. Once you are ready, step through the door.’ And there was a clock, now down to three minutes and twelve seconds.
Jackson read through the instructions one more time, then went through the door. The screen on the wall changed to, ‘Two: Kenny Cartwright. You will be informed when Jackson Locke has completed the course. Please stand by.” It took nearly 45 minutes before the screen changed to the instructions that Jackson had and the clock started ticking down from five minutes. “Your strength isn’t always on, is it?” Kenny asked Sam.
“Could you punch my in the gut with normal human strength?”
“I get stronger the more damage I take, I need a little boost.”
“Okay,” Sam stood and punched him as hard as he could with his powers off, and Kenny leaned over and coughed a little.
“Woo, that’s the stuff! Okay now three times as hard.” Sam didn’t question it, just amped up his strength and hit him again. The difference was noticeable, he felt tougher, and the hit barely seemed to faze him. “Thank you,” Kenny said then turned and walked through the door.
Sam was left alone with his thoughts. He checked his energy again for the probably the tenth time since entering the room. Even though he’d spend every available second he had in the sun this week, he’d only gotten about half of his full strength back. Yet he needed to be perfect here, so he couldn’t hold back anything. He paced and waited for the screen to change for him. It took longer for Kenny to finish than Jackson had, but finally the screen changed. Sam didn’t bother reading through the instructions, he’d seen they were the same for Jackson and Kenny, so instead he just put his durability up to a level that could deflect bullets and stepped through the door.
There was a room on the other side of the door, similar to the one he just left, except for empty and the back wall had an arched doorway that showed a metal hall that ran straight as an arrow for several hundred feet, and a clock above that door counting down from ten seconds. Looking down the hall he could just make out a red light at the very end. There were also 4 doorways on either side of the hall. So, was the light at the end one of the first stations, or one of the last? He decided since he could see that one, he’d do it first and go from there. As the clocked reached three seconds he added a huge burst to his speed and the instant the buzzer sounded the launched himself onto the course. A few seconds later he was over halfway to the light when he noticed the course was moving; panels in the walls, and ceiling and floor started to slide open, out the corner of his eye he could see movement in the side halls and in front of him a barrier was closing into an aperture. He put more energy into his speed and also added some to his perception so he could get the timing perfect.
The opening was closing fast, which considering how fast he was running and thinking that was impressive. He got within ten feet then dove headfirst towards the hole, he felt it scrape his shoulder, then his shoe, but then he was sliding along the floor on the other side, he continued sliding until he hit the wall under the trial station. He immediately turned off energy to everything except durability, because of the live ammunition and stood up facing the station. It was just a big red button of a shelf sticking out of the wall. He slowly and carefully pressed the button then jumped back. The panel on the wall opened showing 16 buttons, four colors, red, green, blue and yellow, with four shapes in each color, star, square, circle and triangle.
He was trying to figure out the point when a green triangle flashed on the wall. So he reached out and touched the green triangle, and was shocked, he pulled his hand back, then green triangle, red square flashed on the wall. He reached out and slowly touched the green triangle, but was shocked again, then he reached over to the red square, he expected a shock, but instead it burned his hand. With his durability up it didn’t cause physical damage, but it hurt. Then a three pattern appeared, he got the shock and burn, then when he touched the yellow square, a loud boom seemed to appear right next to his ear. He flinched away from the game, almost missing the fourth pattern, adding another green triangle.
He went through several patterns, each getting longer than the last, so eventually he screwed up. He waited for some punishment to come up on him, but nothing overt happened. Then the pattern he’d just missed repeated itself on the wall, only it was faster now. He was able to get through that one, then the next one came up at the sped up rate, so he screwed that one up too. Then it came again faster, he messed it up again, so it came faster. Sam boosted his perception so it’d slow down; this allowed him to get through the next few without trouble. Then suddenly the panel closed and the red light turned off. It took Sam a moment to understand that he’d finished that part, but then he quickly turned and searched for another light. The station he was at was at the end of a T-intersection and looking down the hall in both directions, he saw a light at the end of each one, nearly the distance from this station, as he now was to the entrance. He went right, ramped up his speed and took off down the hall.
Poles began to appear out of the floor and walls, trying to block his path. He was moving so fast that he got almost halfway before any of them were in place, but soon he had to slow down to get over or under or around some of them and the more he slowed down the longer they had a chance to get into place. Soon he was down to human speed and squeezing through smalls gaps near the floor, ceiling or wall. Eventually he pulled himself through the last gap and reached the station. Similar to the first station, just a red button. He took a few calming breathes then hit the button, a panel in front of him opened showing the numbers zero through nine and an enter button, then glass partitions came down from the ceiling at the entrances to the halls and sealed him into a box with the station. Then water began to cascade down onto his head and began to fill the room.
He had trouble seeing the screen in front of him with the water pouring down so hard, but he could just make out that it said ‘5+7=?’, after the last test he only slightly hesitated but hit the 1 then 2 then enter, luckily he didn’t get shocked. The screen changed to another easy problem, so he answered quickly. By the time the water had reached his waist the questions had become more difficult, nothing that couldn’t be done in the head, but that took longer than a few seconds to figure out. Soon the water was up to his neck and he had to duck his head under the water in order to see the screen and press the right buttons. He made his first mistake once the water was above his head and he had started treading water. Once he input the wrong number, a second stream of water fell from the ceiling, effectively double the rate the room was filling.
A foot before the water reached the ceiling, he input his last answer, the panel closed and the walls holding in the water slid up and it rushed out taking Sam with it. It took him out the side hall from the one he came from. He was carried along on his back for about 20 feet before he hit something hard, looking up he saw a robotic man pointing an automatic weapon at his head. Sam didn’t even give it conscious thought before he put energy into strength and speed and slammed his fist into the thing’s knee. Its joint bend backwards and it collapsed, it pulled the trigger on its weapon and bullets ricocheted off the metal walls. A few hit Sam, but he was alright. The robot was scrambling to re-aim the gun, so Sam punched it in its face, and it stopped moving.
He quickly sprang to his feet and looked around for any other threats, there was no other robots within eyesight, so he looked around for another red light, he didn’t see one at either of the ends of the hall he was in, so that left going down one of these side doors, into which Sam thought might be a maze, or going back to the T-intersection where he’d had the first station and taking the hall in the other direction. Ultimately, as he was mapping the course in his head he realized that the ‘maze’ in front of him had to contain a station, there just wasn’t that many other places it could be.
Sam amped up his hearing, closed his eyes and listened to the sounds coming from within. His mind mapped out the general shape of the maze and located four more robots patrolling within. He boosted his speed and strength, kept his hearing up and sprinted down the hall.
In addition to the robot sentries, there had also been laser tripwires that alerted the guards to his position, after he accidently tripped one and dispatched the guard that came looking for him, he’d been able bypass all the other security measures. When all was said and done Sam had finished nearly 15 minutes faster than Jackson and 25 faster than Kenny. He checked his energy on his way back to the locker room; keeping his durability up for the entire trial had accounted for the majority of the drain, but he also hadn’t skimped on the speed, so he’d used about half of his energy. It’s unlikely that the weapon’s trial tomorrow would require keeping his energy up like today’s trial, but he wasn’t going to take any chances; he had a few hours of light left tonight, and he could skip his first class tomorrow morning, it would help.
He took a shower, changed and headed over to the infirmary to get his scrapes and bruises fixed up; no reason to use up any more of his own energy on it. Hope and James were in there when he got there. “Hey guys! How’d you do?”
“Hard to say, but considering the fact that neither of us have abilities that work on robots and mechanical traps, I’m not overly confident,” James said. “You?”
“If Jackson’s and Kenny’s times are any indication than I think I nailed it, but who knows what they were looking for in there.”
“True,” Hope said, “What do you need?”
“Just wanted a bit of healing.”
“Can’t you do it?” Hope asked.
“Rude,” Sam joked, “I don’t want to use even an ounce of power I don’t need to.”
“Fine, it is my job after all,” Hope said holding out her hand like she wanted Sam to give her a handshake.
Sam took hold of her hand and a moment later his whole body tightened up and then relaxed within seconds, like getting a deep tissue massage over every inch of his body, all at the same time. “Thanks, I need to go recharge now. See you at home.”
Hope’s shift in the infirmary had been uneventful, she’d taken care of a few more like Sam; those with minor injuries that waited a bit before getting healed. If there had been serious injuries during the control trial then it happened before she got on duty. Hope didn’t really mind, it gave her time to do her own thing and James wasn’t bad company. Most of her focus however, was on reading books from the HCP library about unlocking hidden powers. There was two schools of thought; the inward focus approach, and the outward danger approach. She was pretty sure that if she had the secondary power the game had shown her, then she wouldn’t find it in calm; she’d been doing yoga and martial arts for years, including the relaxation and mediation parts of it, but had never ‘felt’ her power within her. And if the game was any indication, then it was danger and conflict that would be the catalyst for change, unfortunately the only fights she’d had so far had been against Jackson and Tony’s gorilla form, neither of which had gone long enough for her to get into the ‘zone.’ She was still thinking about it on the way home.
Hope had no sooner entered the front door when Sam nearly bowled her over, “Hope! I need you!”
“I’m flattered,” she smirked, “but…what?”
“Your power, it did something!”
“Alright…” he paused to catch his breath, “after the combat trial, I had drained all my energy. I’ve spent almost twenty hours so far this week in the sun and I only got about half of it back. In the two hours since you healed me, I’ve gotten almost a quarter of my energy back. I’m almost four times more efficient when you enhance me!” Sam said, rushing through his thoughts without pausing for a break.
“That’s great!” she said, but with a hint of sarcasm in it. “Another part of my power that helps someone other than me. Don’t worry, when you need it, I’ll help you. We’re all in this together,” she said, then sullenly walked past him, on the way she reached up and touched his neck, giving him another boost. Then she headed up to her room. Sam thought about going after her, but he didn’t know what to say, so instead he just returned to the backyard to grab the last few rays of the day.