The Sparring Field
“One of the most dangerous men who ever lived was fond of saying, ‘There are only two things that really matter about a guy. What he wants and what he’s willing to do to get it.’ Good morning class and welcome to Personalized Conditioning.”
Isaac didn’t trust their newest instructor, despite his friendly seeming smile. He couldn’t put his finger on what, but there was something off about the man. Rather than meet in the training area or one of the lecture rooms, they’d been instructed to assemble in one of the combat domes. Among the first to arrive, Isaac had considered speaking to the others. That idea ended when he saw the looks on their faces as he approached.
He couldn’t afford to let his reaction to that show. Instead, he focused on the new instructor. The man had arrived, exactly on time, accompanied by four of Hector’s duplicates. That had been a surprising relief. Isaac hadn’t seen the likable young man since Saturday and had been more than a little worried about him. If he hadn’t received an e-mail telling him that everything was under control, he’d have gone to one of their instructors with his concerns.
Between them, the Hectors had carried a large table, evidently quite heavy. The instructor had been carrying an oversized metal briefcase.
“I am Bruce Richards and what I want is to turn you into operatives. What you want, well, that varies. This is a table. It doesn’t really want anything.”
The instructor set his case on the table and opened it, keeping the inside pointed towards himself and away from the class. The four Hectors took up a position just behind him.
“What you’re willing to do. That’s what the last weeks have been about.” He began to pace, still keeping the table between himself and the majority of the class. “Don’t get me wrong, what we’ve been teaching is important for you. But we needed to make sure you have something else, something that can’t be taught in a few months.” He stopped pacing and faced the class again. “Drew Stasis, please come here.”
The boy just appeared in front of the table.
“Now, this is made from an unusually heavy wood and I don’t have any physical powers.” The instructor raised his hand and made a fist, then slammed it into the table. If the blow had any effect, on the table or the man’s fist, Isaac couldn’t see it. “Now you try, Drew.” The boy mimicked the action, though he flickered immediately after his own blow hit. “Okay class, who can tell me what we did wrong?”
“You’re punching a fucking table?” offered Duncan Nightmare.
“Good point Duncan.” replied Instructor Bruce, without any sign of offense. He reached into the case, withdrew a pistol, and calmly shot Duncan. The boy dropped and the instructor continued as if nothing unusual had occurred. “If your target is harder than you, use a tool. That’s what they’re for.”
Isaac watched as the other trainees reacted. Most pulled back, showing a mixture of fear and surprise, but a few crowded in around Duncan. The instructor withdrew another object from the case and handed it to Drew, ignoring his wide eyed look of shock.
“This is a knife. Now, attack the table again.”
Drew did, stabbing more or less the same spot he’d punched before. The knife sank in, no more than a fraction of an inch, and Drew pulled it free. He still looked a little dazed.
“Sir! Why would you-?” Jenny called out, kneeling over her fallen classmate.
“Get off me, dammit.” Duncan pushed her aside as he got to his feet.
The instructor ignored him. “Not bad Drew, but why just once? That table is your enemy, kill it.”
It wasn’t exactly superspeed, just stepping in and out of stasis in time with his attacks so that he was only in real time while his knife was striking the table. Drew flickered, reappearing as the knife hit the table again. Over the next second or so, he flickered so many times that Isaac couldn’t follow it and a noise like a heavy branch in a wood chipper filled the dome. When it was done, there was a gouge more than half way through the table’s surface, almost an inch deep and wide enough to fit a fist.
“Better.” said Instructor Bruce, satisfied.
“What the fuck, you bastard!” called Duncan, “you’re the same fuck from Saturday! Stop fucking ignoring me goddammit!”
Bruce Richards shot him again but, this time, Duncan didn’t go down. He just staggered a little then gave a cry of wordless anger and charged towards the instructor. Before Duncan had covered half the distance between them, the instructor pulled a small silver cylinder from his belt. He gave it a snap with his wrist, causing it to extend out to a foot and half in length, and threw it towards Duncan’s feet.
Duncan gave a startled cry as the rod was caught between his ankles, in mid-step, and he fell forward to land flat on his face. Isaac watched Instructor Richards calmly side step the table and close the distance, arriving at Duncan’s side just as the boy was rolling over. He had a stun baton, just like the one Hector had had at Saturday’s breakfast.
“Now Duncan,” he touched him with the baton, “I know you’re afraid.” There was an audible crackling and Isaac could smell ozone as Duncan started screaming and twitching. “I know most of your classmates are afraid.” His limbs were flailing around, striking out at random. “I know that all of that fear is making you stronger by the second.” The instructor moved slightly, avoiding a blow that cracked the concrete floor of the dome. “What I don’t know is why you would be foolish enough to attack one of your instructors, an operative.” The twitching and flailing subsided as he stopped pressing the baton against Duncan’s body.
“Fucking. Shot. Me.” Still twitching, slightly, Duncan could barely speak.
“That? Just a demonstration for the class, on the benefits of a weapon over their bare hands.” He lowered the baton, lightly touching Duncan, and the screaming resumed. “Class? Please remember this. When facing someone with physical abilities equal to or greater than your own, find a workaround. Electricity, gas, stun grenades, they all have their uses.” He bore down again, with the baton, and Duncan’s screams grew louder.
“While Trainee Duncan’s strength and resiliency are increasing by the moment, fueled by your own reactions, the conductivity of his skin is unchanged. The current is no longer sufficient to do any harm to his tissues, but it does have a negative effect on his nervous system.” The screaming stopped and Duncan’s movements reduced dramatically, though he was still twitching. Instructor Richards stood and put the baton away, retrieving the rod he’d thrown earlier as well.
“Sufficient levels can even cause the heart to stop.”
“No!” Jenny cried out, breaking loose from the crowd of horrified students to rush to his side. She began making rhythmic motions, pushing down on his chest.
“Calm down, Trainee Awesome, the boy’s fine, just unconscious. He’ll wake up in a few minutes with a headache but that’s all.” said Bruce Richards, not a trace of worry in his voice.
“To return to my earlier point… Trainee Drew?”
“Yes sir?” The boy’s voice quavered, almost squeaking.
“What is the benefit of a knife?”
“Sir… it cuts things?”
The instructor gave a tolerant smile. “Yes, but what lets it do that, anyone?”
Isaac spoke up, the first reaction he’d given since the lecture began. “It’s the edge. It concentrates force into a smaller area.”
“Exactly!” The smile was broader but not exactly cheerful. “A few of you, a very few, have a power that is variable enough, broad enough, that you don’t need any sort of tool or weapon. For the rest of you… well, humans invented them for a reason.” He reached into the case once more and began withdrawing a number of different devices.
“Trainee Drew still has the knife. It concentrates force along its edge or the point. This is an extendable baton, it concentrates force to a lesser extent but also extends the leverage of your swing. The result is that it hits harder than your hand. I’ve already demonstrated the variable current stun baton. This is a tear gas canister. I assume you’re all roughly familiar with the effects of the gas. Keep in mind, many Strong types, as well as telekinetics, energy manipulators and the like, breathe just like normal people.” He looked around at the class, most of whom were beginning to settle down. Duncan still lay on the floor, twitching.
“Most people think that the Citadel only takes the best. That’s not entirely true. The candidates we accept are the ones with the potential to be the best. This, right here,” he gestured to indicate the table before him, “is one of the ways we make sure you live up to that. Personal Conditioning is, obviously, a personal class. I’ll be meeting with each of you, helping you design a course of training to make the best use of your own abilities as well as suggesting various skills and devices you should familiarize yourself with.” His smile, this time, was wry.
“On the plus side, you won’t have any more marathons to run. You will, however, have a customized workout routine that you’ll be responsible for maintaining on your own time. Any questions?”
“Yeah.” The speaker was a short girl with red hair in a pixie style cut.
“Ah, the class’s current number two.” He paused to consider. “I believe you prefer to be called Kerry?”
“Please, ask your question.”
“Okay, Instructor Bruce,” she began, warily, “what makes you so sure you can tell us a better way to use our own powers? I mean, we’re all pretty unique and we’ve had them our whole lives…”
“Young lady, do you know what a Richards type is?”
“Isn’t it the same thing as a Stark type, except your gadgets and stuff don’t actually fit in with regular science?”
“Not quite, my dear, though that is a common misunderstanding. It actually goes back to the two types’ respective arch types.” He paused, as if organizing his thoughts.
“Andre Stark was a contemporary of Henry Ford. In nineteen seventeen he redesigned the ethanol based internal combustion engine and designed an assembly line plant to produce them. He didn’t invent either concept, just refined them, built them better than anyone else ever had.” He looked around the group.
“Penicillin was discovered in nineteen twenty eight, more or less by accident. It was considered a neat chemical, but not something with much practical use. Two years later, Jerome Richards published a paper. It gave a detailed description of a process he’d developed, one that would modify a common rhinovirus. Those altered virus particles would, in turn, alter the human genome. The intended result was a human being whose body released measured amounts of penicillin in the presence of infection.” The instructor’s gaze returned to Kerry. “Care to guess what happened?”
“It didn’t work. Richards made stuff never does, not for anyone else.”
“Close. No one else could understand the man’s process well enough to use it themselves. Although there were a dozen of his test subjects who were never sick again, for the rest of their lives. Obviously, the procedure worked. However, Dr. Richards didn’t take the rejection well. He thought, like you and everyone else, that it was his own power that let the procedure work. It wasn’t till the eighties that we had proof to the contrary.” He paused, waiting for her to make the connection.
“You’re…” her face went white, “you’re talking about the Bug Bomb, aren’t you.”
“Yes. Its maker was a normal man, though brilliant. Dr. Seth Brindle managed to adapt Richards’ process so that, instead of penicillin production, the infected individuals changed. They went from normal humans to… something else.” The instructor, and the class, were quiet for a moment.
“Anyway, to answer your question, both Richards and Stark types gain an intuitive understanding in their field of interest. Starks work at, or a little beyond, the cutting edge of modern science. Richards types, like myself, are capable of creating processes or technologies that are far in advance of anything comparable. My own field of interest is personal combat, specifically Empowered combat.”
More than one trainee was wide eyed at that. Jenny was the only one who responded.
“So you’re saying, what, that other Richards types make antigravity boots and laser rifles and stuff but you spend all your time figuring out better ways for people to fight each other? But they’re just as advanced?”
“That’s right Jenny.”
“Now, if the rest of you will please wait outside, I’ll finish with Drew Stasis and call the rest of you in one by one.”
“Okay Drew, I take it you’ve figured out my point with the knife thing? Or do you need a bit more time to consider it?” The boy didn’t seem to think it was funny. “Well then, not to belabor it, but here’s another knife.”
Drew took it without comment, a puzzled look on his face. He tested the edge against his thumb and disappeared when the blade sank half way to the bone. The boy reappeared instantly, three feet to the left, the puzzled look gone and a scar on his thumb.
“That’s the closest we can get to a monomolecular blade. Basically, the edge is only a little thicker than a politician’s conscience. You’ll find a bunch of anatomy charts and some exercise routines in your mailbox. Mostly isometrics and the like, to take advantage of all your free time.”
“Sir, I think I see what you’re going for, but…”
“Well, it’s just, I’m not exactly comfortable with this.”
Bruce cocked his eyebrow, it’d taken him a week to learn how to do that right. “Go on, you won’t get in trouble for speaking your mind here.”
“Sir, right now… Well, right now I either win or I don’t. There isn’t a fight, it just comes down to whether or not I can hurt the other guy. I mean, I knock them out instantly or I can’t hurt them at all.”
“I think you’ll find that there are very few people that you can’t hurt with that knife.”
“Yes sir. That’s the problem. This, this wouldn’t be a fight at all. I can’t knock someone out with it, just cut them. It’d be murder.”
Bruce didn’t answer, at first, giving the boy time to add anything else on his mind.
“Once you’ve got the anatomy stuff down, I’ll start you on some training with a few restraint devices. There’s more than a few that are small enough for you to carry with you into your ‘Still Time’ effect.”
“That’s a little better, but… you still expect the knife to be my primary resource. Otherwise you would’ve started me with those.”
Bruce just nodded.
“I’ll… I’ll have to think about this. I applied to the Citadel because I want to help people, not… not kill them.”
If the boy couldn’t see the link between the two, it was probably better to let him figure it out on his own. Otherwise, he’d never make it as an operative.
The Sparring Field
“Trainee Kelly.” Bruce greeted the young shape shifter.
“Sir.” he replied.
“Figure out what you did wrong, during your last fight?”
Kelly blushed. “Um, yeah. Jim told me, right after I woke up, that I needed a vapor lock or a one way filter. Something to keep the flame from, well… you know.”
“Blowing up your head?”
Bruce smiled. “True, but not what I actually meant. You had a good idea. Incorporating inorganic materials and custom designing a body for combat, it’s a good path for you. I can help you get better at it, but that’s not the only route to go.”
“Sir?” Kelly asked, puzzled, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Combat is a big part of what the Citadel does, but it’s not everything. Intelligence gathering, subterfuge, infiltration, we’ve got a need for all of it.” He gave the young man a serious look, “You’re potential there is, well, it’s frankly incredible.”
“I… sir, I’d really rather not. I know it seems strange for a shapeshifter, but I don’t really like the idea of lying about who I am. It’s… it just…” Kelly trailed off.
“Okay.” Bruce thought about it for a moment, hoping his power would engage, but got nothing. He was better with power interactions and combat techniques, this personality stuff wasn’t his forte. “Well, as I said, you’ve got more than enough potential in the combat area.”
“Thank you, sir.” He smiled, “Even with the, you know, exploding thing?”
“Yes.” Bruce laughed. “Actually, that’s a point in your favor. Most of our candidates, most of our operatives for that matter, wouldn’t have survived that.”
“On that note, the mishap with your… exploding thing… wasn’t what I meant when I said you went wrong.”
Kelly’s brow furrowed in confusion, “Then what?”
“The dragon form itself. Before you got to that point, you could barely move. Even leaving aside the fire problem, Trainee James probably would’ve won.”
“I just needed more practice, sir. I know I was a little clumsy, but-”
“Practice controlling a body that’s so different from your normal one? How long did it take you to get the hang of your bird form?”
“Almost a year.” Kelly said, quietly.
“And that monkey one?”
“My climbing form? How did you…?” Bruce just looked at him. “It didn’t. Take any time, I mean. I just made some adjustments to my normal body and…”
Bruce smiled. “Exactly. Your shapes, even the ones where you change your brain, don’t come with their own set of instincts. So, the further they are from human, the harder they’re going to be to control.”
“Well, yes sir, but if I don’t make it something a bit more extreme than a regular human, I can’t really stand up to the Strong types and stuff.”
“Well, there’s extreme and then there’s improved.” He reached into the case and retrieved the items he’d set aside for Kelly. “This is a mantis shrimp and this is a cone snail. Take a good look at the joints on the shrimp and pay particular attention to the saddle shaped structure. For the snail, study its venom production.
“Okay…” Kelly had that puzzled look again. Apparently he’d never heard of either creature.
“I’ll send you some documents for some changes I’d like you to practice.”
“Yes sir, I’ll make sure to try them out.”
“Kelly,” Bruce said, his voice serious, “this is important. Don’t try any of them out unless I’m present. Just visualize them, try to figure out any issues they might cause. We can set up a time, later this week, to try them out but I want a Healer present and a safe sparring partner for you.”
Kelly’s eyes were wide with surprise. “That seems a bit excessive, sir, but okay.”
“Kelly. The last time you made a mistake with a new form, you lost your head. Trust me on this, some of this could go a lot worse.”
Kelly swallowed. “I understand sir.”
Isaac closed his bedroom door and wandered towards the kitchen, lured by the unexpected aroma of coffee.
“Hector, is that you?” he called.
“Yeah man, in here. Keep it down though, I think Kelly’s still asleep.” Hector replied, just a little louder than a whisper.
“Woops.” Isaac said, sheepishly, as he accepted a mug of coffee from the young man. “Good to have you back.”
Hector turned back to the stove top, where he’d been preparing a large breakfast, but not so fast that Isaac didn’t catch the grin.
“Relieved that you won’t have to rely on Adama’s for your morning coffee anymore?”
A month ago Isaac would have shattered the mug in his hand. Now, he just set it down and said, as calmly as he could manage, “No. I haven’t been to an Adama’s in… in a while.”
Hector looked over his shoulder, concerned. “Are you-?” Maybe not as calmly as he’d intended. “Sorry, what’d I say?”
Isaac took a deep breath. It wasn’t the kid’s fault. “My wife and I,” Hector set the spatula he’d been using on the kitchen counter and turned to face him, “a mutual friend set us up. We met, for the first time, at an Adama’s.” He smiled at the memory, a little surprised that it didn’t hurt so much.
“After I graduated, I was working heavy hours and she was working on her doctorate and holding down a job.” Isaac took a sip of the coffee. “It didn’t leave us with much in the way of time for each other, even though we were living together.” The drink was sweet but dark, no cream. When had Hector started making it just the way he liked it? “So we got in the habit of meeting at the same Adama’s. Good thing it was across the street from my office or we wouldn’t have been able to manage it.”
Oh God. Had he really just said that?
“Hey. Hey Isaac, calm down man. It’s okay.”
“I was late. I was always Goddamn late!” The room was blurry but, his forehead, his power wasn’t on. “She was waiting for me… when they- when that careless fucking bastard-”
Kelly was coming down the steps, making sure to stomp hard enough that anyone in the living room or kitchen would hear him. He’d walked in on enough people talking about him for one lifetime, now he was always careful to make sure they’d know he was coming. When he got to the foot of the stairs he froze.
Hector was back, the first time Kelly had seen him outside of training since Saturday. More importantly, Isaac was bent over the kitchen table, sobbing, a broken mug and spilled coffee on the floor around him while Hector tried to console him.
Nervous, unsure what to do, Kelly took the easy path. Shifting back to her quieter form between steps, she crept back up the stairs without making a sound.
The Sparring Field
Bruce took a moment to review his notes and the next trainee’s Empowerment evaluation. While he was fiddling with his wrist communicator, his new assistant set up the silhouette targets and brought in the next cases he’d need.
“Should that be assistant or assistants?” Bruce muttered to himself.
The English language wasn’t really suited to accurately describing powers or some of their ramifications. Absently, he suppressed the urge to spend the rest of the day designing a new one.
“Ready sir.” the nearest Hector said.
Bruce just nodded, rather than answering.
A short time later, “Instructor Bruce?”
“Mm?” He glanced up at the girl, tall, scrawny, eyes too large and too wide set for her face.
“Is, uh, is this the part where you tell me my flight is actually based on gravity manipulation? That I’m really one of the strongest Empowered in the class?” she asked, masking her desperate hope with a feeble attempt at humor.
If he hadn’t read her psyche profile, he might have bought it. Probably not.
“Are you actually expecting something like that?” he asked her.
Samantha lowered her head, failing to hide her face only because he was shorter than her. “No sir. I’m just a flier. I know that.”
“Trainee Soar, look at me.” He said sternly, not continuing until she had obeyed him. “Understand this, there is no such thing as a Citadel candidate that is just anything.”
She didn’t answer.
“Earlier, I told your class that all of you had the potential to be among the best. Did you think you were an exception?”
“No sir.” she said, utterly lacking in conviction.
“Close your eyes.”
“Stop talking. I said close them.” he cut her off.
She did it.
“I was the one who approved your application, so I know for a fact that you had full access to your Empowerment evaluation. Don’t speak, just nod your head.”
“Did you read the portions concerning kinesthesia, proprioception and spatial awareness?”
She shook her head, trembling.
He sighed. “Samantha, I don’t do pep talks. That’s Director Shift’s job, so we’ll just have to give you a demonstration. How many targets are in the room?”
She cocked her head.
Since she couldn’t see it, he smirked. “You can talk.”
“The white papers with a black silhouette of a man on them.”
Good, she’d even spotted the one just above the door she’d come in from. “Keep your eyes closed and give me your hand.”
She reached out, her hand pointed directly towards him.
“This is a gun.” he said, handing her a pistol. “Careful, the safety’s off.”
She almost dropped it when he said that.
“When I tell you, I want you to fire a single shot at each target, as fast as you can. Keep your eyes closed”
“Go.” he said.
She spun around and the dome was filled with the echoes of gunfire. Her shots were a little slow, probably due to her uncertainty, but she was even more accurate than he’d expected.
“Good, now you can look.”
“I only hit two.” she said, disappointed.
The targets were marked with paint. He wasn’t stupid enough to hand a gun loaded with regular bullets to a girl with her eyes closed.
“Have you ever fired a gun before?” he asked.
“Just- No sir, just video games.”
“Ah, that explains why you did so well. Most people, the ones who haven’t used a pistol designed by a Stark type, overcompensate for the recoil.”
“I, uh, I don’t know what that means.” she said. Honest confusion was better than nervous trembling, at least.
He smiled, as gently as he could. “Don’t worry about it. The point isn’t how well you can shoot, not when it’s the first time you’ve ever handled a firearm.” He shook his head. “You’ll find a few things in your inbox tonight. An exercise routine to increase your flexibility and reflex time as well as a schedule of classes for basic pistol and rifle marksmanship. Once you’ve got a decent level of proficiency, we’ll put you in a more customized regime.”
The nervous tension in her shoulders faded, just a little.
“Trust me, once we’re done, no one will doubt that you deserve to be counted among the best.
Samantha Soar smiled.
Isaac sat down to eat his lunch, alone. Ignoring the mild tingling in his forehead, he took a bite. It was surprisingly good, for cafeteria food. He almost dropped the fork as he tried for the next one. Keeping his forcefield up so often was turning out to be even more of a pain than he expected. It interfered with handling small objects, pens, paper, doorknobs… and forks. He was just grateful that he was able to pass food through it, otherwise Instructor Bruce might have made him skip meals for the week.
There was a clatter of a tray on the table as someone sat across from him. Isaac looked up, careful to maintain the cold façade he’d worn in public since Saturday.
“Might wanna be careful with that.” Kerry said, unimpressed.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Isaac replied.
She shrugged, and took a forkful of salad, before continuing. “The whole arrogant superiority act. It’s pretty natural on Duncan but I don’t buy it on you.”
Ignoring the casual ease with which the girl was able to use a fork, Isaac looked around at the otherwise empty table. “Seems like everyone else does.”
“Well sure, but they’re not like us.” she answered, with a slightly superior tone.
The six foot tall black man in his mid-thirties examined the pixie-like redheaded teenager before speaking, “Like us?”
She didn’t seem to get it. “Strong. You, me, Duncan, Drew and a few of the others. The ones the Citadel really needs.”
“Girl, I don’t know what makes you so sure I’m putting on an act, but-”
“Kelly told me,” she interrupted, “about the way you apologized, the whole misunderstanding. Said you were really nice to her, once you realized, just asked too many questions.”
He let out a little sigh. “Is that it?”
“No, but it was enough to get me thinking. You came out of your first match looking pissed and covered in blood. Your one with Don, you acted like you were offended that he’d dared to challenge you then beat him like a step-child.” She gave a quick grin, then continued speaking.
“I figure your first match, you overestimated your opponent. You hit him too hard or something and he, well, splooshed. After that you were pissed at yourself for making a mistake or pissed at the instructors for letting it happen. Then you threw your second match to make sure it wouldn’t happen again and spent some time thinking about it.” She took another bit of her salad.
“When Don challenged you, you decided to put the fear of God into everyone. You probably thought if you were scary enough, people wouldn’t challenge you and you wouldn’t need to worry about hurting someone by accident. That about right?”
No. “I didn’t throw my second match,” he said, careful to keep his tone casual despite the sneer on his face, “I was up against Jenny.” And, she was only half right about his motivation.
She winced. “Ah, yeah, never mind on that part. And the rest?”
Now it was his turn to shrug. “Close enough. So why are you bringing all this up?”
“I just wanted to warn you.”
He cocked his head.
“There’s a fine line between being ‘don’t mess with him’ scary and ‘oh god put him down’ scary. Right now, you’re getting pretty close to the second. It’s only how tight you are with Hector and Kelly that’s kept anyone from going after you. Same way that Duncan’s abuse by the instructors has kept him safe.”
“Is that all?”
“No. You’re not doing yourself any favors by avoiding challenge matches.” she said, not bothering to hide her frustration. “We’re all here to practice. Some of the others, maybe they need to learn how to fight. You and me? We’re supposed to be learning how to fight without taking out everyone in the area.”
“Fine, I’ll keep it in mind. Anything else to add?”
She shook her head, mouth full again.
Isaac looked down, at the meal he’d barely touched, before going on. “Isn’t it supposed to be ‘like a redheaded stepchild?'”
Keridwyn Dragon swallowed before answering. “Not when I’m around, no.” She grinned and began concentrating on her lunch in earnest.
Isaac would keep what she said in mind, but only because he’d already known it. He was here to practice the skills he’d need later in his career. There were five trainees that could currently challenge him, but which one did he want to get to do it?
The Sparring Field
“Any major revelations for me?” Anna Insight asked.
Bruce smirked. “Just a few tweaks. Like Hector, you’re already on more or less the right track, I think.”
She just raised an eyebrow.
“I take it, from your match with Greg, that you’re an MMA Unpowered fan?” he asked.
“No sir. I just thought watching a few of the championship matches would be easier than actually taking the years of martial arts classes.”
“Perfectly integrated muscle memory, triggered by visual observation,” the instructor sighed, “I would’ve killed for that power.”
She looked like she wanted to say something to that but bit her lip instead of speaking out.
“Like I said, you’re on the right track.” He hit a few buttons on his communicator. “I just sent you a series of videos, martial arts demonstrations, knife work, championship shooting competitions and the like.”
She cocked her head to the side, “Isn’t that the same way I’ve been learning up till now?”
“Sure. The difference is, these are high speed and high fidelity so you should be able to get through them in a week or two, without information loss. Also, I made sure that they all featured at least one individual with your approximate weight and body shape. Most of those MMA fighters are a lot bigger than you are. You’ve demonstrated a few flaws in Coach Juggernaut’s Combat classes that stem from that.”
“I see.” she acknowledged, with no obvious trace of irony.
“Once you’re done with those, we’ll get you the necessary certifications, start you on a tailored exercise regime and I’ll have a course on micro-expressions that I think will do you some good. You have a natural talent in that area, but there’s still room for improvement. Any questions?”
“Just one.” she said, visibly steeling herself. “Are you Bruce L-”
He laughed, cutting off the rest of the familiar question.
“There’s always one. No.”
“But…your name, and you look just like…”
He smiled. “You know how some Empowered end up with physical changes?”
“You mean like George?” she asked, referring to the dragon boy.
“Yeah. Well, let’s just say I spent a little too much time watching a certain type of movie, back before my Empowerment.”
“You mean…your face and your power…just because…”
“Yep.” he said, before they both starting laughing.
Coach Achala called a halt to the exercise.
Hector stepped back from Drew, giving a wary nod. A few of the other trainees stood around, nursing their wounds or catching their breath, but the majority did the same thing as him, dressed as quickly and efficiently as they could. Drew just flickered, reappearing next to where his clothes had been, dressed and healed from the fight. Combat training wasn’t so bad, now that both participants were allowed to fight back, but the coach insisted that everyone fight naked instead of just the victim.
“Well done class. Please gather round, we have a few things to go over before you’re free for the weekend.”
Hector hung back to watch and moved forward to join the trainees moving towards Achala. Isaac and Duncan stood at the outskirts of the group, the nearest people shying away from them. Don Dust was the opposite. He hung back on purpose, moving away nervously any time someone came near, protectively cradling a little black orb the size of a baseball.
“I’m quite pleased with the progress you’ve all shown. Instructor Bruce has told me that you each have a specific training program to develop your individual abilities, so this will be our last day of Basic Combat.”
The crowd was hushed, though Hector could see a few suppressed smiles here and there. He was pretty sure that no one wanted to cheer in case Achala changed his mind
“There will be some changes incorporated into your ranking matches, though the challenge format will stay the same. Your Healers will explain them tomorrow, as necessary.”
Hector looked towards Duncan. This was the part where he could usually be expected to step in with some sort of asinine comment.
“Next Monday, we shall begin Intermediate Combat. Rather than your individual fighting ability, we’ll be focusing on your ability to work as a group.”
“Um, Coach Achala?” Jenny’s hand shot up.
He nodded towards her.
“Is there anything we should be doing to get ready? Practicing with our team mates over the weekend or something?”
Trust Jenny to ask what everyone was thinking. Wait, what? Hector looked up from the crossword puzzle he’d been working with his mother. Hector shook his heads, returning his focus to the matter at hand.
“No Jenny. Your groups, as well as the exercises you’ll be running through, will change on a regular basis. I’ve simply found that my students prefer to hear that they won’t be continuing the solo exercises as soon as possible.”
After that short announcement, the trainees began filtering out. Both Hectors there watched with amusement as a pair of Strong types, Rich and Steph he thought, began chasing Don. They were trying to get the orb away from him but didn’t seem to be willing to just cripple him and take it. Or, at least, they hadn’t tried to yet. Donald Dust was able to keep them away by using clouds of his Dust to fend them off.
“Back off, freak!”
Hector turned, horrified, as he heard Jenny’s voice.
She slapped Jason.
“Oh fuck.” both Hectors said. They broke into a run, desperate to intervene before the dangerous young man responded.
“I…I apologize. I should have remembered.” Jason said.
The words sounded safe enough, but Hector went cold. They hadn’t had his usual distant courtesy; their tone was completely monotone.
Hector didn’t pay attention to what she said back, just wedged himself between the two. He split off more hims, generating a half dozen extra bodies. They encircled Jason and began urging him away from the crowd. He left one of himself behind, who quickly multiplied, to keep the others from following.
“What happened Jason?” he asked, once he had his friend out of the room. “I thought you said you two were getting along?”
“Yes…” Jason hesitated, “I should have remembered.”
His voice was still monotone, but his face…
“She warned me not speak to her around the others.”
Was that grief? Oh God, had Jason actually fallen for her that quick?
“She had a good time with you but didn’t want her friends to know? I thought she was better than that. There must’ve been some sort of misunderstanding or-”
In a flash, Jason went from miserable to cold rage.
“Be quiet, Hector. Jenny is not at fault. If you say another word against her I promise that you will regret it.” His face was contorted with rage but his voice, it was still so flat…
“I’m sorry, Jason. I… I didn’t mean to…”
“Leave it. I will speak to Jenny at a later time.”
“Are you sure-” Jason gave him a look, Hector remembered what he’d seen when he’d taken off his glasses. “Sorry. Whatever you say.”