Sam made sure to get to the complex early again because he needed to know how he’d done in control. He walked into the gym and avoided looking up at the board for as long as possible, but finally he couldn’t put it off any longer. He quickly found his name, scanned over to the control board and let out a sigh of relief; second. He’d really focused during that trial and it’d paid off. He had no idea how much he was squeaking by in life with his looks, charm, and power, but now that he’d been tested, he knew how much he was lacking; now was the time to become better. Even if he got 1st in today’s weapon trial, it still wouldn’t be enough to put him in the top half, but it was a good start.
After another shortened ethics class everyone once again found themselves on the combat cell level, sitting on the spectator’s bleacher waiting for the weapon’s instructor. They had been waiting for a bit, about the time that the final person finally breaks down from waiting quietly and politely, to joining the closest group conversation. So, very few people imminently took notice when a young black woman with a yellow streak running down the middle of her long black hair appeared in front of the bleachers. She didn’t say anything, but silence soon rippled through the crowd.
“Good afternoon class. I’m Kelly Gray, the weapons professor. Please call me Kelly; professor or miss just make me feel old. This is the weapon’s trial,” she said. “Weapons, in this case refers to melee weapons, not ranged weapons like firearms. Weapons, like ranged, unfortunately is not the right fit for everyone; some powers make it difficult or even impossible to use a weapon in conjunction with a power. For instance, Ross’ shifted form doesn’t have hands to hold a weapon, or Wilma, who can’t teleport any objects with her. That’s not to say that I don’t think everyone can benefit from my training, just that there are huge gaps between what the top and bottom halves of the class can do. But of course that pretty much sums up all the disciplines so far.
“The way this trial works is you’ll go into a combat cell and fight a robot, then two robots, then three. If you beat three, you’ll then move onto robots with simulated powers. Some robots will be using long range weapons, some melee, some unarmed, but they will all use non-lethal types.
“We use a unique type of poison in this class, for instance, if your opponent is using a blade, first off it will be dulled, but also it will be coated with this poison, if you were to take a ‘cut’ on the arm, the poison would simulate the pain, the loss of mobility and weaken you on par with blood loss. If you have a power that lets you resist a cut, then you’ll almost certainly be able to resist the poison with the same level, same for self-healing, it’s a very accurate method of training.
“Now, for those of you who think it’s unfair to be tested against robots when your power only works on ‘humans,’ first off, too bad, being a hero means fighting non-human things all the time; natural disasters, robots, summoned creatures, etc., but in this case you’re in luck, you can choose to forgo the robots and fight one of my sophomore students, but be warned, a year in the HCP is a big advantage in skill and power, but it is an option.
“You will be judged on how you use the weapon, which means you actually have to use it. Say for instance you have a fire power; if you were to hold a sword in your left then simply spray your enemy with fire from the right hand the whole time, you’d get a score of zero. If however, you use your fire as a distraction and follow up with the sword, that’s better. Like the combat rankings, it doesn’t matter completely if you lose right away, I’m looking for technique and creativity in addition to success.
“Quick announcement before we begin the trial, tomorrow at noon, in the gym there is a banquet lunch where the weapon’s rank will go on the board and the overall ranks will be announced. Then the Dean will give some speeches and tell you how the rest of the year will go. It is technically not ‘mandatory,’ but I say technically and put mandatory in air quotes because it would be profoundly stupid to miss; firstly because it will let you size up the top ten students, second, there is lots of useful information, and third, because the dean uses his power to bring in food from all over the world, it’s incredible, but it’s your funeral.
“Alright now to the test. If you have your own weapon, or know what you’d like to use, come over here,” she said pointing to her right, “everyone else who doesn’t know, I’ve given a quick look over your files and come up with weapons I think will work for each of you. If you don’t like my idea, you’re welcome to change, I promise I won’t hold it against you.”
Michael had chosen to fight with a sophomore, he was tired of trying to impress people with his basic form, he was discovering just how limited his power was outside of a Super brawl. Kelly had given him a long sword and he hoped his shifted form had a hand that could even hold it. A short Indian girl came into the combat cell from the other side carrying a metal staff. “Do you have increased durability?” she asked Michael abruptly.
“I don’t know, let me check,” he said and shifted. He grew both in height and width and bulked up with muscle, he also had a spiked shell and shell armor on the head, arms and legs. “Yes, I definitely have increased durability,” his voice was deep and loud. He reached over and grabbed the sword, it was small in his massive hand.
“Are you ready?” the girl asked, sounding board.
“Sure,” as soon as he spoke, the girl launched herself at him, she had a bit of distance to cover, but each step propelled her forward, the ground under her feet cracking slightly with each step. She swung the staff sideways at Michael’s side, so he put his forearm up, she hit him with incredible force; it didn’t hurt, but the shell armor on his forearm cracked, one or two more hit there and it’d be hitting his skin. He tried to swing with his sword, but she moved back fast; her small frame and massive strength let her move fast, whereas his form was heavy and a bit slow. She jumped back and then up and swung over her head at his and this time he blocked with the sword. It was clear the sword wasn’t made of regular metal because that much force would have shattered it, but even so, it wasn’t designed for this kind of fighting.
She was still in the air, so he punched with his other fist; she sort of contorted her body and took the hit on her side. Given how small she was, the hit sent her flying across the cell, hitting and cracking the wall, but she rolled out of it and got back on her feet before Michael could even try to capitalize on it. She charged him again, this time holding the staff with both hands on one end like a really long sword. Michael also took off running towards her, but the shell made speed awkward. Even so, they met in the middle, both swung their weapons with all the strength they currently had and the result was loud and destructive. Her staff bend almost 45 degrees near the center and his sword broke in half. If the weapon’s trial was supposed to end when both combatants no longer had working weapons then nobody made any move to stop the fight, the girl swung the staff into his side, it was still strong and Michael could feel the hit. He swung his half sword around to try and stab her with it, but she had already retreated again.
It continued in that vain for a while, her most powerful strikes could damage his shell, but the broken staff made getting a true strike difficult, and he could get a hit or two in with his fist, but nothing with the broken sword, he wasn’t confident he was making a good impression.
After two hours Michael had hundreds of cracks in his armor and had been hit in unprotected area several times, but he felt he could go for hours more at this point. The girl’s staff was now broken into three pieces and each of those pieces were bent beyond use, but she’d never taken a hit a bad as the first one, so she was completely unharmed and not looking tired at all.
Hope had taken a bo staff as her weapon, similar to what she’d used in the focus simulation and entered the combat cell to find a robot with a similar weapon waiting. It looked like a mannequin, same height and frame, same pale pink skin and naked like a ken doll. Its face was shaped like a human, but with no humanity or emotion. When it saw Hope it bowed like a martial arts student, which Hope took to mean it was ready, so she returned the gesture and they both took ready stances. They both stalked forward with the same controlled steps, then slowly circled each other. Hope was the first to move, she tried the simplest series of strikes she knew, left, right, straight, then overhead. The robot blocked them with the simple counters, so she went a little more advanced, adding flourishes and feints. The robot was alright, but unless he was playing opossum, Hope was going to win. She went in fast, throwing out fast and complex combos, and was rewarded with three solids hits over its body, but it cost her getting hit in the thigh.
The staff didn’t need the poison, because the hit was very real and so was the pain, luckily it hadn’t managed to hit a joint. And also luckily the robot was responding realistically to the hits, favoring the left arm now. So Hope took advantage, attacking its right side and getting solid hits on its hand, wrist and shoulder, before finishing with a blow to the right side of the head. It went down, then the intercom announced Hope as the winner and it popped right back up and went out the door. Then two came back in, for all she knew one of them could have been the one she just beat. One of them was carrying a handgun and the other a knife. The one with the gun held it sideways like gang members did in the movies and she wondered if that means they were supposed to be under-trained gang bangers?
She wasn’t sure what the indicator was for the match to start, but then the one with the gun ‘spoke,’ saying, ‘bitch, give me your money!’ Hope threw her staff like a spear at the gunman and then charged in before she even knew if it hit him, either way it was only a distraction. She ran at him and then did a flying kick; she’d never try that against a trained opponent, because they’d just throw her down, but she assumed they were well under-trained. She scored a solid strike and he/it went down hard, but was still holding the gun, so she grabbed the arm in a lock and broke it at the elbow, then took the gun and threw it in the corner. She quickly got up and faced the second robot who had been approaching slowly. Her staff was now closer to him than to herself, so she didn’t attempt to retrieve it.
His attacks were terribly telegraphed and wholly ineffective. She was able to disarm him quickly, then used the knife to cut him across the gut, it fell over like it was in terrible pain and Hope was declared the winner again.
Tony’s power was not well suited to weapons, only one form was even capable of holding the average melee weapon, and so he’d turned into a gorilla and wielded a heavy metal club, but a misstep in the first exchange had him taking a ‘cut’ along the side, and although he’d finished off the first bot; the injury took its toll and he’d fallen in the second round.
Allison had chosen to fight a human, although now that she was across from them she wasn’t feeling very confident. Allison had no training in any form of weapons or fighting and this week had proven just how behind everyone else she was, or perhaps it was more accurate to say they were ahead of her because that’s what practice got them.
The fight started with no advanced warning, the tall blonde boy across from her simply teleported away and the next thing she felt was a slash across her back, she panicked and put out fear emotions. The boy teleported away, then back again, where she felt a stab in her side. She’d never had to fight a teleporter; usually she’d just feel the other’s emotions and target that, but every time he jumped away she lost the connection. She took three more ‘stabs’ and the short sword in her hand wasn’t doing any good. The pain from the poison cuts was maddening but her fear emotions must have been doing some good, because he slowed down after the fourth stab and she was able to almost totally bombard him with fear. He teleported away and she could no longer sense him within her range.
He was found twenty minutes later hiding in the locker room and Allison was brought in to even him back out. She’d won her match, but she hadn’t swung her sword once, so she didn’t really know what that meant for her.
They arrived as a group about a half an hour early the next day, changed and then headed off to the gym. It wasn’t a stark change to the look of the place, but in the center of the track was ten round tables, with nice center pieces and tablecloths, and fine silverware, and there was also a temporary stage set up under the freshmen ranking board. They weren’t the first ones there, so most of the group broke off to talk with some of the others and the rest found an empty table and proceeded with pre-meal small talk.
All students had arrived well before noon, nobody had yet to be late since the first orientation meeting. But with only a minute left until noon, none of the professors had arrived yet. Then, at exactly 12 o’clock a portal opened on stage and seven people walked out. The professors all sat at the table set-up on stage and the dean walked up to the podium. “Welcome freshman and congratulations on finishing with the trials. I know they can get daunting, which is one of the reasons I started this lunch. We’ve got a lot to go through, but first we’ll reveal the rankings and then have lunch so you can discuss them with your friends,” the dean said then turned and faced the board. First the weapon’s section filled in, but before anyone really had a chance to see what their rank for that was the whole board went blank and then the top spot filled in with Drew Lackey’s name, then the number 41, and then the ranks filled back in for each trial, which added up to forty-one, then the rest of the board filled in quickly.
“And there you have it. Let’s give everyone a round of applause,” everyone clapped. “Okay, let’s move onto lunch. I have set it up with my favorite restaurants from around the world to make some special dishes for us. A little place in the north of Italy that makes the best pasta sauces, sushi from Japan, French, Indian, and a handful of others you’ve probably never heard of, but I’ve no doubt you’d enjoy. The logistics of getting meals ready in ten different time zones at the same time is a bit daunting, but I think you’ll agree it’s worth it. There are menus on the table; I’ll start coming around in five minutes, starting with the number one ranked student, and there is a limited number of dishes for many of the offering, so make sure you have some back-ups, especially if you’re near the bottom of the rankings.”
Despite what the dean had said it seemed as if everyone had gotten more or less what they wanted and there had been absolutely no complaints from anyone and it seemed the main theme of lunch conversations was, ‘oh my god, this is so good,’ and ‘you have got to try this.’ After enough time had pass for almost everyone to finish eating, the dean once again went up to the podium.
“Alright, now I’d like to tell you about how the rest of the year will go. From now on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, instead of an ethics class, you will now have a class in each major; on Monday you’ll have a close combat class, then Wednesday will be subtlety, then focus, and then the week after that you’ll do the next three, then repeat.
“During sophomore year, you’ll be required to choose three classes to focus on, then two in junior year, and finally having one focus for senior year. What each professor will teach you in these condensed lessons are what you’ll be expected to do if you major in them. If you feel you are not getting anything out of their lessons, or you don’t feel the major works for you, or you’re just struggling with the basics, it’s better to know now before the stakes get too high.
“As for rankings. I’m sure many of you are itching to try to improve your rank. You do this by increasing your rank in each focus, thereby raising your overall rank. Each ranking challenge is unique for each class and there is a lot of details for each that I’ll let the professors tell you about once you have their classes, but for now I’ll try to give you the broad strokes. For subtlety, every day on the bulletin board near the lifts, a new question will be up there, these are similar to what you encountered in the subtlety packets, same scoring method as well, negative two points for a wrong answer, however, several questions end up being multiple parts, with each part worth one. The question will go up at 10 am, and will be gone by 2 pm, and be required to be turned in the next day by 2 pm. There will be a box in the ethics lecture hall to put your answer.
“Combat, will be simple challenge matches. Fights will only happen on the weekends and each person may only make two challenges a week and take two challenges a week. Over rank 10 may be challenged from 5 spots away, below 10 may only be challenged three spots away, and the top 3 may be only be two spots. So for example, 10th may only be challenged by 11, 12, and 13. Rank 3 can only be challenged by 4 and 5. Focus will be similar to the trial, every other Wednesday, at 5 pm, there will be an hour VR session, with each time being a new game. You’ll also gain points in the focus class from the practical exercises and progress made in ‘learning focus.’
Ranged and weapons will still be solely at the digression of the professors, more than a physical score you can see and improve upon. Each person will be allotted one hour a month to demonstrate if they’ve improved. And then finally with control, each month there will be a new obstacle course, with new challenges that you may run as often as you’d like, but you won’t be aware of how you’re scored.
“You may also be asking yourself why rank is so important. It is because since we can only take 30 student for next year, if you are below 30th rank at the end of this year you will not advance with the rest of your class. Word of warning though, just because you are above that mark, it does not guarantee you a spot.”
Coach Tillman always liked that threat of dropping everyone below 30th, so he leaned over to the Coach Young and whispered, “When was the last time we even ended freshman year with more than 30 students, 15 years ago?”
“Thirteen years ago. It does motivate them though,” Coach Young whispered back.
“That it does, but then again, so do I.”
“Thank you students, you are free to leave now, or you may stick around and we will be serving an assortment of desserts from around the world.” Nobody left early.
That night, the house had decided to go out and celebrate or commiserate ranks, but James called a house meeting first. “What’s this about James?” Sam asked sitting at the dining table with the others.
“I want to gather intelligence on the rest of the class,” James said, pulling out a spiral notebook. “I wrote down all the names and ranks, but I want to know their powers. I assume all of you are going to want to know what you’re up against when you make your first challenges on Monday.”
“Are you not going to make a challenge?” Hope asked James.
“No, I can only challenge Victoria, who I doubt I can get through her force field and Michael, who’s too big of a wild card,” he said eying Michael, who returned a near imperceptible nod. “Eventually, if I hang onto my spot, I’ll try, but for now I’m more worried about those behind me. So we go through as a group and we share every power we’ve seen. Each of us fought at least two people in the combat rankings, and three of us made it to finals, that alone will give up the majority of the class. Then, there is healing classes, our time on the range, and just basic communication. If for some reason we go through all that and we’re still missing something then we can make it a point to find out.”
“Sounds smart,” Michael said.
“Yeah, I’m in,” Tony echoed.
“Alright, let’s just go through the over-all rankings. I sure we’re all familiar with what Drew can do, he sort of stands out, but this girl in second, Sara Hunter, anyone know what she does?”
“Professor Ford called her out before the control exam,” Allison said. “Mentioned she hacked the VR units ‘with her power,’ that would have be something like a tech genius or a techopath.”
“That makes sense, but she didn’t use any weapons or gadgets, so I’d lean more towards techopath. Alright we’ll put techopath with a question mark.” Then James told them about Sandy and her multiple personalities. Then they came to fifth, and nobody could say anything conclusively about Ray Bailey.
“He was perfect in his accuracy on the range,” Hope finally said, “like unnaturally perfect. Maybe something with hand-eye coordination, or a never miss type power?”
“Nobody’s seen anything physical from him yet?” James asked to negative shakes of the head, “Alright, we’ll put a question mark on that one.” They were able to go almost all the way through the list, with only few question marks, like why did the weapon’s professor say Wilma Turner couldn’t teleport anything with her and what Steve Morando’s power was, but James was pretty happy with his list.
It was rush week at the fraternities, so they found a nearby house and pretended to listen to pitch about pledging. But even if any of them had the time, energy or interest in joining a frat, it was prohibited by the HCP. Likely because of the large amount of alcohol, combined with powers and the need for secrecy made for a volatile cocktail. Even so, it was a good night, with free booze, bad music and a chance to feel normal for a few hours. Tony had invited El, but she declined, she never drank because of the risk of messing up and talking, and she also preferred to avoid large crowds, but she invited Tony back to her dorm, so he immediately left the party.