Vanessa stood outside Adama’s Coffee on the first floor of the Tennamen building. Sure, it was a huge chain and there were more convenient locations, but this was the one where she’d first met her husband. They made it a point to have lunch here at least once a week.
She had to drive through lunch hour traffic from the other side of the downtown area but he was the one running late. Why could he never make it on time? The man worked in the building across the street. It shouldn’t be that hard.
There was a thunderclap. She looked up at the sky, squinting against the sun’s light that reflected off the glass and steel of the area’s high-rise buildings. She couldn’t see any clouds, no sign of rain. Weird. There it was again, louder.
People were leaving Adama’s and a small crowd was starting to form. Someone was pointing. What did they-?
There were two men in the sky. One of them was a stranger, just a humanoid figure covered in blue fire. She thought she recognized the other, the one wearing a bright green and yellow costume, complete with cape and mask. Gravitar, maybe? He was supposed to be pretty powerful, but he was new. Vanessa didn’t know anything more than the name.
She smiled. Her husband disagreed, but she’d loved superheroes since she was a little girl. That was when Gravitar punched the blue man, hard enough that she could feel the shockwave and hear that sound that wasn’t really thunder. He fell to the street and landed on a taxi, crushing it.
Oh God, there’d been people in the cab.
She started to move forward, determined to help, but there was something holding her back. It was her husband, late when it didn’t matter but he was always there when it did. He had a grip on her wrist and he was shouting.
“We have to get inside! It’s not safe!”
The burning man’s hands were visible, sticking up from the cab’s roof. A stream of blue fire shot out, missing his opponent but striking one of the nearby buildings. The fire seemed to stick to its windows and Vanessa could see the glass melting. The building’s entire side seemed to be sinking in, like a sandcastle too close to the water. She stopped fighting her husband’s pull. More people were coming out to watch and some of the crowd was trying to get back in. They couldn’t make any progress.
Vanessa heard the sound of thunder again, people screaming and the tortured shriek of metal pushed past its limit. She was falling, the world spinning around her. Her husband’s grip was gone. Had she tripped or-? She hit a window, broke through.
There were other people all around her. Broken glass and blood and broken bodies. What was wrong? She couldn’t think right. She heard thunder, followed by a flash of blue light. Was that right? Lightning was supposed to come first.
There was her husband, crawling towards her with blood on his face. He looked so scared. She smiled to let him know it was okay. She loved him so much.
Isaac examined his new residence, a large two story house. The lack of a driveway or paved streets stood out. Everything about the “neighborhood” was like that. Normal on the surface, a little off once he looked closer. The houses were well maintained and widely spaced. Light shone through the windows. However, the roads were packed dirt walkways and there were no power lines or telephone poles. Instead of a distant city center, there was a single, massive stone spire. He’d just spent the last twenty minutes walking from the tower, so he knew the dirt road was surprisingly free of dust. Definitely a little off.
The only thing he wanted now was to settle in and relax at what would be his home for the next few months. He tried his key and, not surprisingly, it worked.
“Hi, I’m Hector. You Isaac?” asked one of the two Hispanic kids playing video games on the couch. They were eerily similar, even wearing the same thing.
He passed by a stairway, into the shared space that served as the building’s living area. There was a bedroom to the door’s right, furnished but empty of personal belongings. Just past the living room was a kitchen and a room with the door closed. Probably another bedroom.
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
The kids both smiled. Hector’s brother spoke up.
“You’re the last one to get here. Jason and Kelly already grabbed the upstairs rooms on your side, so the bottom room by the door’s yours. Kelly brought a bunch of stuff so probably won’t be done unpacking for a while. Jason might be sleeping or reading. He got here a couple days ago but he doesn’t seem like a real social guy, you know?”
Isaac nodded his understanding, a bit taken aback by the detailed answer.
“Got anything other than the one bag?”
Isaac hefted the item in question. Once, he would’ve thought of it as heavy. Now, it held everything he owned and he barely noticed the weight.
“No, just this.” He wanted to ask the kid’s name but there was something bugging him here. “Hang on. Jason, Kelly, you two and me. These buildings are rated for six and you said I was the last one in.”
The twins, both looking away from their game now, nodded in synch.
“Do we have an empty room or something?”
A knowing grin sat on both faces as they answered in perfect unison.
“Oh, no. I paid extra to get three for myself. I tend to take up a bit more space than most people.”
As he realized what the twins meant, what Hector meant, it finally hit Isaac. This was a training program for people with superpowers. If it seemed like things were only a little off, it was because he wasn’t paying enough attention to see the real differences.
The next morning, Isaac woke up a good half hour earlier than he’d planned but didn’t mind. The smell of fresh coffee and the sound of bacon frying was a better greeting than his alarm.
Several sets of his training uniforms had been issued before his arrival. It was a lightweight but durable pair of pants and a long sleeved shirt, black with the Citadel’s logo in white over the left breast. Not forgetting to turn off the unneeded alarm, he dressed for the day, then left his new room.
Isaac entered the kitchen and was unsurprised to find Hector, busy at the stove. Another of his new roommates was seated at the table. The boy somehow managed to make his uniform look like something from a prep school. He was smaller than Isaac, probably about average height, with a slim build and gelled blond hair. Isaac thought he looked like a swimmer but he wouldn’t have sworn to it. The only thing that detracted from his well-groomed, neat appearance was a pair of dark, wraparound sunglasses.
“Morning guys. I’m Isaac. Nice to meet you…?” he trailed off, unsure which of the two possibilities this was.
“Jason. A pleasure to meet you as well, Isaac.” The kid’s smile was polite enough, but seemed a bit distant. Hector had been right, definitely not the social type. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“Sure. “ Isaac looked to Hector. “Okay if I grab some coffee? I’m happy to chip in as soon as I figure out where we can get groceries around here.”
“Not a problem, man. I already ate, so this stuff is for you guys.”
“Hey now, you don’t need to do that.”
“I agree.” Jason added. “However, Hector has prepared breakfast every morning since I arrived.”
“Just makes sense to me, guys. I already go through so much food that feeding three more mouths doesn’t really matter. Not to mention, at least one of me is pretty much always awake. I don’t want you thinking you lost the roommate lotto, so I figure I should do something to make it up to you.” Hector slid a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon in front of Jason and another to an empty place at the table, presumably for Isaac.
“Sorry, Jason. Didn’t mean to get distracted.”
The boy just shrugged. “I simply wondered why you chose to join the Citadel.”
Isaac sat down to his surprise breakfast. “I assume you really mean, why did I join at my age?” The coffee was instant and the eggs had a bunch of stuff mixed in with them. A forkful convinced him that Hector could easily find work at a restaurant if the Citadel thing didn’t pan out.
“That is correct. I was given to understand that the average age of trainees was twenty one. You appear to be in your mid-thirties. Someone your age would normally be expected to already be well along their path in life.”
Isaac took a bite of bacon while he decided how much to say.
“I used to be an accountant. The company I worked for went under and my powers popped up. Seemed like the thing to do.”
The following silence wasn’t exactly uncomfortable, but Isaac was still happy to hear heavy footsteps from their final roommate.
“Hi everyone. I’m Kelly.”
If anything, he was younger than Jason, but Isaac couldn’t think of him as a kid. Probably because of his size. Kelly was almost as tall as Isaac and a little wider. He had blond hair, blue eyes and his smile was every bit as big as the rest of him. Rather than a uniform, he wore sweats and a loose tee shirt.
“Jason. We met last night.”
“I’m Isaac. Nice to meet you.”
“Sorry, wasn’t trying to listen in, but did you say those eggs are for everyone?”
“Eat up.” Hector grinned as he handed over the last of the food and began cleaning the dishes.
“I still have to change before class. It’s just the welcome speech today, right?” Kelly was wolfing his food down so fast Isaac worried he’d choke.
“That is what the schedule shows. However, I doubt that will require the full, eight hour period. We should expect some form of training as well.” Jason answered.
“See you then. Thanks for the food!” With that, Kelly’s plate was bare and he was on his way back up the stairs.
Isaac looked around the large auditorium style room, unable to see Kelly. The other three had left immediately upon finishing breakfast and he hadn’t seen the cheerful young man since. The room lights dimmed and an older woman took the podium with the help of a cane. Isaac gave a shrug and settled down. Kelly was legally an adult; he could look after himself.
“Welcome to the Citadel.” Isaac was startled to recognize the speaker. “I said that to most of you during your interviews. Now I’m saying it to you as a group.” She wasn’t much older than him. There was grey in her hair but that wasn’t new. It was her clothes and the mannerisms that had changed. Now she wore the same uniform as him, with the colors reversed, and she clearly needed the cane to walk. He found the latter difference disturbing. “My name is Melody Shift and I am the Citadel’s Director of Training.
“As Citadel operatives, you will be the primary protectors of this country. Most of you already know this, or think you do. What you don’t understand is what you will actually be doing. Contrary to popular perception, you will spend relatively little time fighting empowered criminals or invasions from the Battlegrounds. You are not the army. You are cops.
“People get into drunken bar fights. They beat their spouses. They rob convenience stores. They rape and they steal and they kill for a thousand reasons and for none at all. Some of those people have powers. Ordinary law enforcement cannot deal with them, not safely. Ninety nine out of a hundred days, as stationary operatives or as part of an intervention team, that will be your job.
“On the other days, you’ll deal with the next Tyrant or King in Winter. Monster will be the one robbing a convenience store or maybe you’ll have to fight that invasion after all. People will remember the first ninety nine. Those are the ones they see and those are the ones that affect their lives. You cannot afford to fail them on those ninety nine days. On that last day, if you fail them, they will not remember. Their lives will be over. You cannot afford to fail then, either.
“That is who you must become. The ones who protect. Those who cannot afford to fail.” Cane or no, there was no frailty in her now. “You aren’t those people yet, but you will be. We will teach you and shape you. We will not allow you to fall short.”
When she was finished, the room was silent. Isaac felt the burning in his forehead that meant his power was active, saw the barely visible glow that meant it was near its peak. As he tried to calm down, and wiped moisture from his eyes, he missed the introduction of two others. A man and a woman, each wearing a white shirt and black pants, had joined the Director on stage. The man was speaking softly.
“-the first phase of your training. This includes Physical Conditioning and Basic Combat.” The speaker was clean shaven, with light grey hair, dark eyes and skin a little lighter than Isaac’s. “Please meet me outside the auditorium. I will be pleased to show you the training area.”
“Wait.” The woman interrupted before they could begin leaving. “Coach Achala is usually a little too focused on your combat training. Everyone meet back here tomorrow at eight for Ethics. You should all find an assignment waiting in your boxes tonight. Finish it and have it turned in at least 2 hours before then.”
She was a little shorter than Achala, with long brown hair and glasses. They set off her lightly tanned skin very well. She reminded Isaac of a sporty librarian.
“I apologize for my haste.” He bowed slightly. There was grace to the movement, a tranquility that Isaac found appealing. The woman just smiled.
“Not at all. We’ve worked together before so I know what to expect. There’s nothing wrong with taking your job seriously. Just try to remember that we have to do ours too.”
“I stand corrected.”
The group of trainees had spent the better part of two hours following Coach Achala around the Citadel complex. The above ground portion, the Tower, was a soaring needle of stone and metal that put most skyscrapers to shame, contained classrooms, administrative spaces and housing for permanent on-site personnel. The ground floor was a massive, open space, filled with a series of large, glowing squares. He called them “Gates.” Coach explained that they were each linked to another Citadel facility and made long distance, instantaneous transport possible.
“How come they aren’t used more?”
Apparently, Isaac’s mind wasn’t the only one that boggled at the possibilities. The grinning questioner was a youngish white girl with short brown hair, freckles and glasses. She practically vibrated with energy as she waited for an answer.
Rather than speaking, Achala merely looked around the open room, noting the masses of Citadel personnel entering and exiting the various gates, then gave an inviting smile.
“I meant for civilians. I had to sit on a bus for hours to get here from San Diego and I had to fly there on a plane. Why not just hop in a Gate back home?”
“I apologize, I have not learned all of your faces yet. Can I ask your name?”
“Jenny.” She beamed. The entire group was now focused on her.
“Your full name please.” Her grin got even wider.
“May I ask why you chose it? You need not explain your powers.”
“It’s cause I’m awesome!”
The coach blinked. “Of course you are.” He smiled again. “To answer your question, it isn’t practical. The gates are made by a single, powered individual. He can only maintain a certain number and they are limited in size as well.”
“Oh.” She seemed disappointed but that restless energy was still there. The broad, cheerful grin was too.
“We use them to make travel for Citadel members more convenient, but that is not their true purpose. They enable rapid response during a crisis.”
Below the Gate Room was a series of equipment storage areas. They were informed that they would have full access to these, after they demonstrated proficiency. Lower still, they came to the exercise areas. Isaac couldn’t call them gyms, they were just too big. Row after row of equipment, some of which he didn’t recognize, left him stunned. He’d thought his college had an impressive facility but any one of the rooms they passed would’ve put it to shame.
There were two rooms reserved for his group. In one was a large track, roughly the size of a football field, surrounding a series of martial arts or aerobic mats. The other, at least as large, held a collection of equipment. Most of it was familiar to Isaac. The rest was obviously meant to accommodate people with more than human abilities. Overclocked treadmills for speedsters, magnetic repulsion to simulate bench pressing multi-ton weights, things like that. It was pretty impressive.
Their final stop, after the outdoor firing ranges, was the Sparring Field.
“These are combat rooms.”
The group was outside, gathered around Coach Achala.
“Each is a dome, a hundred feet across. The walls and floor are a granite composite, at least a foot thick. There are two doorways, on opposite sides. All events within are recorded and can be played back at a later time. They are maintained and operated by Annabelle Molder, the Citadel’s groundskeeper.”
He indicated a blurry, humanoid form on a wooden tower in the center of the field. It was surrounded by dozens, maybe hundreds, of the combat rooms. Jenny started waving, enthusiastically, and the rest of the group followed suit. Isaac wasn’t sure, but he thought the distant figure waved back.
“While you are on the Sparring Field, please treat her word as equal to Director Shift’s. Elsewhere, treat it as equal to mine or Instructor Catherine’s.” A hand shot up from the crowd. “Yes?”
“How come you call everyone else by their first name but you use the Director’s last one?” Isaac couldn’t see the speaker but the voice sounded male.
“Among Citadel personnel, using the first name with a title is considered basic courtesy. Using the last name instead is a sign of deep respect.”
“What about civilians?” Another voice he didn’t recognize.
“Address them with respect and use the form they find appropriate.”
“No, I mean, what do we make them call us?”
The coach’s face grew stern, the first sign of displeasure he’d shown. “We do not make them call us anything. We are their guardians and protectors. We are their servants, not the other way around. Do not forget that.” He seemed to relax as he spoke. “When in a professional setting, we ask them to use our last names. In a personal one, it is up to you.”
When he was done, the coach turned and spoke, quietly, into his communicator. “I will show you a short recording of a training match from a previous group. Afterwards, you will have some of your own. Please allow this example to guide your own efforts. Your matches today will help establish your combat rankings. In part, they will determine your eventual assignments.”
The Sparring Field
With those words, the dome behind Coach Achala almost seemed to disappear and the group spread out to watch. The doors opened and two girl in training uniforms entered through each side. There was no sound. The picture, however it was being displayed, was utterly lifelike. The only thing that indicated it was a recording, rather than just watching through a clear wall, was the title floating in between the two girls.
MS vs SS
The girl on the left, presumably MS, seemed to greet the other. They spoke briefly, then set themselves in fighting stances. At some unheard signal, both girls rushed forward. The second, S.S., was moving with inhuman speed. Her feet tore deep holes in the stone floor and shredded her shoes. When she reached M.S. she threw a wild punch.
The first girl blinked out of sight, reappearing behind her opponent. She sent a short, vicious kick to the back of SS’s knee which dropped her to the ground. Isaac watched, appalled, as she kicked at the downed girl repeatedly. The blows were focused on the chest or head and nothing was held back.
The beating continued until the apparent victim managed to get ahold of a kicking leg, just above the ankle. She squeezed and Isaac would have sworn that he could hear MS scream as bone broke. She fell, vanishing and reappearing on the far side of the dome before she hit the ground.
SS was on her feet almost immediately, again rushing towards her opponent with that blurring speed. MS raised her head, looking directly at the oncoming girl, then disappeared again. This time she reappeared about a foot to the side of the spot she’d been. SS’s rush turned into a tumble, narrowly missing the still prone teleporter, as she lost control of her movement and slammed into the dome itself.
SS’s impact had left a sizable dent in the wall and chunks of stone surrounded her fallen body but Isaac couldn’t see anything obviously wrong with her. It shocked him for a second. She’d been moving fast enough that he could barely track it and hit a granite wall hard enough to break out multiple pieces the size of his fist, but there wasn’t a mark on her. Intellectually, he knew he could’ve done something similar. In fact, he was pretty sure he could’ve hit harder. It was still incredible to watch someone else do those kind of things. What came next shocked him for a different reason.
The fallen strongwoman’s arms and legs were concealed by her black uniform, but they didn’t look right. They lay oddly, had the wrong dimensions. Four of what he’d assumed were fragments of the wall were actually bloody pieces of meat. The other girl struggled to get up on her working leg, then moved slowly closer. She stopped just outside of arm’s reach and said something, waited a moment, then seemed to repeat it. The fallen girl, SS, just looked up at her. White faced with pain, she eventually spat out a single syllable and the picture faded back to a plain stone wall.
No one had moved or spoken during the entire viewing. Shortly afterwards, a babbling cacophony erupted. “What the hell was that?” “She could have killed her!” “She was crippled!” “How’d she do that?” Isaac couldn’t tell who said what or which she some of them meant. All of the noise stopped just as Jenny, speaking slowly but with obvious sincerity, made her own statement.
“That. Was. Awesome.”
The coach nodded. “Yes. I show this to all my students. It is the best demonstration for new fighters that I have seen. Neither trainee had any combat experience. Both trainees held nothing back. They pushed themselves to the limit. The one who lost didn’t yield because of the pain. The muscles in her arms and legs were removed. She could no longer walk or fight.” A voice from the crowd interrupted him.
“She crippled her! How the hell can you call that training?”
Achala took a moment to find the voice in the crowd. The speaker was a male who looked to be in his early twenties, on the small side. He had the strait black hair, bronze complex and facial features that Isaac associated with the Pacific Islands. “Your name please?”
“Duncan Nightmare.” The boy replied defensively.
“Duncan. Both learned valuable lessons. One, never to under estimate an opponent because she lacks obvious offensive powers. The other, that the ability to teleport small objects can be extremely dangerous when used to teleport only part of an object.” He looked around, assessing each of his students. “She used that same lesson to take and hold the top combat ranking in her class.
“Please remember this. Your training matches are meant to prepare you for real combat. Your opponents are unlikely to balk at using lethal force. We keep healers on hand so you can train with that in mind. One will be assigned to each room we use today, and each of your matches in the future. You must speak to your healer before you begin.
“They will explain what will constitute acceptable damage for that fight and anything exceeding this will be reviewed by staff. Accidents will set back your training. Deliberate infliction of lethal harm will see you expelled and imprisoned.” The coach’s tone turned sorrowful. “I have lost students to both categories. I would not wish to do so again. Please be careful.”
After that, he introduced the trainees to the staff healers who would be present for the day, explained the format of the matches and assigned the first four pairs of fighters. Isaac wasn’t one of them but Jason was.
Isaac wondered how long it would be before he had to fight Hector. The two had been paired for the first round but, with more than sixty trainees and only four healers, they were forced to wait until one of the initial pairs had finished. As it turned out, that wait was only a little more than a minute.
One of the healers, a white man in an all gray uniform and protective mask, called them over by name. He introduced himself as Andrew Healer and asked if they had any defensive abilities or weaknesses he needed to know about. Hector answered as Isaac hesitated.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll stay out here during the fight so Isaac won’t have to hold back. I should be fine, no matter what.” As he spoke, he stepped to the side while standing perfectly still. Just like that, two Hectors stood, facing the healer. Isaac had known the boy was a duplicator, but this was the first time he’d seen him split off a new body.
“Um. Pretty high end strength and durability, as long as my shield’s up. If something gets through it, I’m just a normal human.” Isaac finally added.
“A force field of some type?” the healer asked him. “Will that stay up if you’re knocked out?”
“No, I have to concentrate to maintain it. It doesn’t take much effort but it goes away if I’m asleep and the testers said the same thing should happen if I pass out during a fight or something.”
Andrew considered this for a moment. “Okay, doesn’t sound like we should have anything complicated here. Trainee Isaac, you win if you kill or render helpless all copies of Trainee Hector in the room. Given his abilities, there are no constraints on your use of force. You will forfeit the match if, at any time after the doors close, you voluntarily leave the dome, break through the walls entirely or speak the phrase ‘I yield.’ You may also tap the ground or your opponent if you wish to yield but are unable to speak.
“Trainee Hector, you win if you render helpless Trainee Isaac. For the purpose of this match, your definition of lethal force includes destruction of his head or torso and full amputation of one of his limbs. Significant damage, short of physically removing a major organ, is permitted. You forfeit the match if, after the doors close, a copy of yourself leaves the dome, the copy which remains outside interferes in any way or any copy speaks the phrase ‘I yield.’
“I will monitor the match from here, on a smaller version of the wall screen you saw earlier. Trainee Hector, during regular training matches it won’t be an issue, but during the placement exercise your external copy may not watch this or any of the other matches in progress. Can I trust you to hold to that?”
“Both of you, pick a door and go inside. They’ll close automatically. The match starts when you hear a tone. If it rings again, stop immediately.”
As he passed through the door, Isaac tried to decide what he thought about Andrew’s air of practiced efficiency. He’d obviously given that speech, or one like it, a hundred times or more. He took a few steps into the room and stopped. It was comforting. The man responsible for their safety clearly had experience.
He relaxed his shoulders and knees, spread his feet and raised his hands into a familiar boxer’s stance. It was also disturbing. A professional healer had spent so much time watching Empowered beat the hell out of each other that it was now routine. Isaac met Hector’s eyes from across the dome. He concentrated on his power, felt it burning just behind his forehead, and the world took on a silvery glow around him. There was a loud, high pitched tone.
Hector was standing still, loose and relaxed, with a cocky grin. Then he was running forward at the same time. There were two of him. He split to the side then did it again. Four now, then eight, then too many to count charging at Isaac. Hector swarmed over him, punching and kicking, trying to tackle him at the knees and just piling on. There were too many bodies for Isaac to count.
He hit a few at first, aiming for limbs or the stomach. Even though he was holding back, he could feel his fists sink in with far too little resistance. Isaac was breaking bone or worse with every punch and he could barely feel Hector’s attempts to hurt him. There was red mixed in with the silver of Isaac’s world now. He worried at first. Was something wrong with his power?
Its glow often varied in intensity, brighter when he truly exerted himself, brightest of all when he was in the grip of strong emotion. He’d never seen the world turn red though. “Oh God. Shit.” He wiped at his face. It wasn’t his field that was red. His hands were. His face was.
Everywhere he looked he was covered in blood. “Hector! Stop!” Isaac was half buried now but he could see a half dozen Hectors dancing around him, splitting off new clones who charged forward with a manic grin and eager screams. “Please, Hector! Don’t make me-“
“C’mon man, this is what we’re here for! Test it. See how far you can push!” Every single Hector cried out at once. “You’re a killer now. Try and have fun with it.”
“No. No. No! No! NO! NONONONO!!” Isaac screamed and screamed and started flailing around himself. Every time he moved his arms he felt that little bit of resistance, like he was wading in warm water. He wasn’t a killer. He was here to learn. He had to protect them, like he’d tried to before. Failure wasn’t an option. He’d failed her and he couldn’t bear the thought of-
For the second time in Isaac’s life, the world turned white. He lost himself, for a little while.
Isaac came back with a startled gasp. He was kneeling on the ground. No, he was kneeling on Hector’s broken body, covered in blood and… other things. Looking around, he saw more like it. None of them were moving. “It’s over?” The doors were open. He stood up slowly. Nothing hurt but his throat.
He’d been screaming. He remembered that much. As he picked his way over the corpses, some in piles, some laying alone, Isaac tried not to picture any other faces on them. Just let them stay Hector and he’d get through this. He was at the door, stepping through and shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand.
“Hey man, you okay?” Hector.
“What. The fuck. Was that?” His forehead was burning now. If that little bastard so much as curled his lips…
“Sorry. I’m sorry Isaac. I didn’t… I didn’t mean to freak you out like that.” He didn’t reply. Just waited, barely aware of Andrew Healer standing nearby. “I just figured… I couldn’t hurt you normally, right? Maybe if I could mess with your head a little… you said you had to concentrate to be strong, you know? I didn’t think it’d hit you that hard.”
There was worry in Hector’s face. Isaac didn’t respond, just stared. There was fear in Hector’s face, too. Isaac turned away, ignoring Hector’s continuing attempts to apologize, and went to wait for his next match.
Isaac realized it was a bad idea for a large man, covered in blood, to walk up to a group of nervous teens and brood. That they were a group of teens that were about to fight an Empowered opponent in what amounted to a near death match didn’t make it better. In retrospect, Isaac should have realized this before all the startled gasps and shying away started.
There were at least ten feet between him and every other trainee. Except Jason. His roommate hadn’t exactly stepped up to defend him from their silent, or at least muttered, accusations. Jason had just greeted him politely then continued to quietly wait for his second match. Eventually, Isaac couldn’t stand the awkward situation anymore and decided to distract himself.
“How’d you finish so quickly?” he asked. Jason looked up, not startled but, apparently, not expecting the question, either. “You were done in less than a minute. Did you get lucky and draw an easy match?”
“Anna Insight. She yielded immediately after the doors closed.” Jason still had that same polite, distant tone to his voice
“Huh, weird.” Neither seemed able to add much to that. Isaac abandoned any attempt to talk with the boy and tried to clean himself up a bit instead.
There were small towels and water nearby. Isaac hadn’t seen it happen, but either Coach had stashed the materials here earlier or someone had brought them out during his match with Hector. He tried not to think about the fiasco, just focused on getting clean. Wet a towel. Wipe his face. Rinse the towel. Wring it out. Do it again. Time passed…
He heard his name called and dropped the red colored rag.
Isaac returned to the combat domes in use to meet another of the healers and his next opponent. He noticed that the dome he and Hector had used earlier didn’t seem to be part of the rotation any more. When he got near enough, Isaac recognized the girl standing next to the grey clothed healer. It was Jenny. As soon as he approached, she turned to him. She was still smiling but now it was gentle rather than exuberant.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine. None of its mine.” He answered.
“That’s not what I meant. Are you okay?”
He was startled. Just talking to him, she’d completely changed. Earlier, questioning the Coach, she’d been shaking with energy and barely suppressed excitement. Now she was… different. She hadn’t known his name until it was called but there was so much warmth in her voice.
“No. I’m… Hector didn’t stand a chance. I’ve never really fought all out since I’ve had my powers and I didn’t expect… I didn’t mean to do that kind of damage.” She just nodded, eyes intent on him. The healer stood nearby, in gray clothes and face mask, apparently content to let the two finish before she tried to start the match. “I know I didn’t really hurt him. The bodies weren’t really people, just clones or however his power works, but it still felt real.”
“What do you mean, not real?” she interrupted for the first time.
“Hector’s a duplicator. He sent in a copy of himself to fight and that copy made more.”
“So you were basically fighting a bunch of normal people?”
“Yeah. They weren’t strong enough to hurt me, but my first punch… I put my fist through him. I swear I didn’t mean-“
“I know.” She interrupted again, voice free of judgment.
“He just kept coming. He was goading me and I… well, I lost control.”
“You said you couldn’t really hurt him?”
“Yeah. I think, basically, he wasn’t in the room with me.”
“Good thing it was him then.” She said, looking up at him.
“I… yeah. I guess so.” For the first time since it happened, Isaac felt himself relax. He looked at her smile, still warm, gentle, and he felt the tension just flow out of his shoulders. How the hell? She was just a kid. She hadn’t even said anything he didn’t know already.
“It’s cause I’m awesome.” Her smile returned to the enormous, bright thing it should have been while he just gaped at her. He laughed.
“Yeah. I guess you are.”
Isaac’s new mood stayed with him through the beginning of Jocelyn Healer’s well practiced speech, up until Jenny answered the healer’s first question.
“Nope! Physically, I’m a normal girl.” Part of him heard the rest of the Healer’s speech. Part of him was aware as he walked to the dome and through the door.
The rest of him was consumed with the knowledge that if this fight went the same as his last, Jenny wouldn’t be waiting for him outside the dome like Hector had been. It only got worse when he heard the starting signal. Jenny ran straight at him, just like Hector. He readied himself, determined not to let that happen again. When she was close enough, he reached out, grabbing at her arms.
Jenny’s smile was nothing like Hector’s had been. Isaac saw it as she jumped over him, slipping between his arms with effortless grace. She pushed off his shoulders, to get extra height, and knocked him forward. It didn’t hurt, of course. But, combined with his own forward momentum, it was enough to send him crashing to the stone floor beneath him.
He pushed himself back up and turned to face her in a crouch. She bounced in place, from one foot to the other, cheerful and eager. Her smile was bigger than ever. He felt a pain in his lip and reached up to touch it. There was a little blood on his finger, fresh.
She was on him again, lunging forward to punch him in the nose. It wasn’t a very good punch. He’d been an amateur boxer in college and pretty much everyone he’d ever fought hit harder than her. Still, it hurt. He fell to the ground, surprised by the pain. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He shouldn’t even be able to feel her blows, much less have a bloody lip. She skipped to his side.
“How-?” And then she kneed him in the side of his head.
Isaac walked back to his shared home, unsure what to think. The obvious explanation was that Jenny Awesome was a Null, someone who could shut down or negate powers. That didn’t feel quite right though. Regardless, she’d been correct. It was a good thing he’d fought Hector first.
He’d hesitated too much against Jenny, but if he’d fought someone else beforehand he might have really hurt them. Even another Strong type might have been badly hurt if he’d lost control. Exact numbers weren’t really available, but he knew he was well into the upper percentages of Empowered strength. Isaac still wasn’t sure how he felt about Hector, though. How could the kid have gone from being so nice at breakfast to… that?
Jason had beaten him home. Either he’d lost his second match as quickly as he won his first, or the boy had just needed less recovery time after losing. Regardless, he was on their porch with a man wearing the uniform of a high end delivery company, signing something on a clipboard. They turned to face him when they noticed Isaac’s approach.
“Hello Isaac. Would you mind helping me with this?” Jason indicated the larger of two packages, much larger. “This one is too heavy for me to carry, and Mr. Henries is not allowed to bring it into my room for liability reasons.”
“Sure, no problem.” Isaac eyed the plain, brown box. It was the size of a refrigerator.
“Thank you.” He finished filling out the form and thanked the deliveryman, Mr. Henries. Then, Jason picked up the smaller of the two boxes and held the door for Isaac.
Hefting the box took little more than an act of will for Isaac, maneuvering it through the door and up the stairs without damaging anything was the difficult part. By the time he had it in Jason’s room, the other box was open. It had a large number of small plastic tubes, a like number of rubber stoppers and some containers of what looked like blue oatmeal. Isaac’s box actually was a refrigerator.
Isaac should have wondered what Jason wanted with a separate, full size refrigerator and blue oatmeal. Any other day, he would have asked. Instead, he responded absently when Jason thanked him for his help and went back downstairs to his own room. He took a long, hot shower, then got into bed. He was asleep before hearing either of the other two return.