A Change of Pace – Chapter 10

Mason made it to the combat cell door with about ten seconds to spare. He wasn’t breathing heavy from exertion, a strongman didn’t tire that easily, but he was definitely stressed. Once he stepped into that room it was the real beginning of his Hero career. If he made it through the HCP he could operate in a team or independently, but in either case he would be the muscle. That was his role in the Hero world, to take the hits his counterparts couldn’t and keep on moving. He was going to take his first hits from his peers today.

The door groaned as metal protested his forceful opening. He winced internally, hoping the damage was minimal, and the door actually closed for the fight. He eased it shut, and heard it lock behind him.

<Game time,> he looked across the room to a boy who was the polar opposite of him.

Mason’s opponent was small, 5’4’’ tops, unassuming, with pasty white skin that contrasted sharply with his. His unkempt mop of brown hair looked like he’d just rolled out of bed, and almost hid intelligent hazel eyes behind large glasses. One look at the two of them and a spectator would dub this a modern day David versus Goliath.

“Hello,” Mason’s opponent greeted cheerfully. “I’m Nathan, glad you made it. I thought for a second I was going get a bye this round.”

Mason smiled back, Coach McMillian’s rule number one screaming in his head. <Always expect the unexpected. Don’t take what you see at face value, and always assume whatever you are facing can kill you.>

           “I got pulled aside by the alternative instructor,” Mason explained, the other boy’s shiver echoing his own.

“That women worked some crazy voodoo shit on all of us,” Nathan shook his head to dislodge the uncomfortable memory. “It was awesome how you stood up to her though. I thought you had her for a second.”

“She still jacked me up good,” this time Mason was the only one involuntarily shivering.

“This should be a good match then,” Nathan’s smile was unsettling, since he knew what Mason was capable of.

“This first round match is between Mason Jackson and Nathan Flynn,” announced a voice that neither student knew. “The match will begin in thirty seconds, and will only conclude with an acknowledgement of surrender or incapacitation. The use of lethal force is not authorized. Any use of such force will result in your expulsion from the HCP and possible criminal charges. Good luck.”

A clock on the far wall began to count down as both boys lined up opposite each other. Mason took his traditional boxer’s stance and began to dance lightly from foot to foot. Nathan just stood still, calmly breathing and concentrating on Mason.

“I love a good strongman fight,” were the only words out of Nathan’s mouth before the clock hit zero, and he launched himself across the room.

The ground cracked from the force of Nathan’s acceleration, and both boys held looks of surprise. Mason was surprised the scrawny looking kid could put that much force behind a charge, and from the looks of it, so was Nathan. Mason only had a split second to make a decision, so he stuck out his arm to clothesline the smaller Super.

A resounding SMACK echoed throughout the cell as the two made contact. Mason’s form was perfect, catching his opponent in the throat, and Nathan summersaulted through the air before crashing into the wall. A chunk of concrete came crashing down with him. Mason felt like that chunk of concrete. The clothesline reverberated through his bones. He could feel the impact in his teeth.

<No way he’s getting up from that,> Mason shook out his arm only to be disappointed.

“Damn you’re strong,” Nathan stated, massaging his throat, but otherwise looking combat capable.

“I could say the same about you,” Mason circled his opponent cautiously now, watching his footwork.

Nathan laughed and then charged again. This time Mason was ready. He didn’t have much training outside boxing, but he knew how to sprawl and take a hit. Mason executed the move flawlessly, avoided getting the wind knocked out of him, and tossed the smaller boy into the opposite wall. A much larger chunk of concrete accompanied Nathan on his ten foot fall to the ground.

Nathan got to his feet after easily moving the literal ton of concrete off himself. He looked up to appreciate the exposure of the titanium reinforced beams embedded in the concrete before charging again.

This went on for ten minutes before Mason could believe the obvious. One, Nathan was just as strong as he was, so apparently being big and bulky was just a strongman stereotype. Two, Nathan didn’t have a lot of fighting experience. Mason needed to get him to change tactics, so he could use his fist fighting superiority. Three, Mason really needed to learn some ju-jitsu to reinforce his ground game. The fight would have been over in minutes if he had even a little knowledge of the discipline.

Nathan just smiled the whole time, clearly enjoying himself. Only when he started throwing punches did things change. Instead of charging, Nathan quickly advanced swinging awkwardly at Mason. The larger strongman deftly danced around Nathan’s shorter arms, and landed two jabs followed by an uppercut. Mason hesitated for a critical second as the uppercut lifted Nathan off the ground.

<Is this what I looked like yesterday?> unfortunately during Mason’s distraction Nathan lashed out with a leg and caught him in the shoulder.

If Mason was properly braced, something he wasn’t practiced in since he hadn’t fought someone with super strength like his, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Since he wasn’t braced, the blow spun him around like a dreidel, and put him on his back. Mason was surprised at the painful sting. He was getting injured more frequently than he was used to.

Mason’s contemplation almost lost him the fight. Nathan recovered more quickly and tried to dive on top of him, and almost succeeded. Mason instinctively brought his feet in, catching Nathan awkwardly, and kicked up. Nathan shot like a missile into the ceiling 30 feet above them, and hit it with a BOOM that shook the entire room.

Mason scrambled to his feet and began to dodge two hundred pound pieces of ceiling that were falling like oversized raindrops. Nathan hit the ground, a tiny snowflake in the downpour, and this time Mason didn’t hesitate. Mason jumped on the dazed Super and began to pound his head repeatedly. The first few blows cracked the concrete, and spider webbed out across the entire room. The next few punches broke through the floor and began to make a head shaped whole in the ground. Nathan struggled through these next few punches, futilely attempting to get a hold on Mason. He might have Mason’s strength but Nathan was much shorter, and the lack of leverage worked to his disadvantage. After half a dozen hard punches, and a decent sized crater, the smaller Super went still.

“STOP!” the unknown voice yelled commandingly, stopping Mason’s fist halfway toward Nathan’s skull. “The victor is Mr. Jackson.”

A grey uniformed healer rushed into the room to look at Nathan, and Mason caught her wide eyed expression as she surveyed the damage.

“Impressive,” she muttered more to herself after quickly rejuvenating Nathan. She made her way over the Mason, and a brief rush of warmth later his shoulder pain was gone. “Hard to imagine you two did all this and were relatively uninjured.”

“If you say so,” Nathan looked around disappointed. “Good match, Mason, we’ll have to do it again sometime.”

Mason shook his extended hand, much harder than he would a normal human. Sickening audible cracks and Nathan’s scream filled the room. Mason dropped the boy’s hand in horror.

“What did you do?” the healer screamed in Mason’s face, rushing back to the now collapsed Nathan.

“I don’t…I didn’t,” Mason stuttered, his mind trying to comprehend what just happened.

“It’s ok,” the commanding voice was back over the PA system. “Mr. Flynn is a power copier, Mr. Jackson.”

“Yeah, I should have lead with that,” Nathan said, his hand already rehabilitated by the healer. “After you knocked me out I lost your strength,” Mason was surprised Nathan was being such a good sport about it.

“Thank you for the addendum, Mr. Flynn. Please report to the infirmary for further evaluation.” Nathan took off at a run, taking one last look at the trashed combat cell before disappearing out the door. “Mr. Jackson, please return to the viewing area to learn your next match’s location.” Mason was running out the door before being stopped again by the voice. “Please try not to destroy all of our combat rooms, Mr. Jackson. We have a limited number, and they are hideously expensive.”

Mason couldn’t help but grin and give thumbs up to the glass before running off to his next challenge.

 

***

Becca practically jumped for joy when the alternative instructor gave her deadline to the freshman class. Five minutes was an eternity to her, and she wouldn’t have trouble getting to her designated room unless it was sixty miles away. Instead, she took the time to speed up her perception and analyze the situation.

<I hope this isn’t cheating,> she thought as reality ground to a halt around her.

One of the more useful attributes of Becca’s ability was how it altered her perception. When she first got her power it allowed her to safely move at high speeds without getting herself injured, but it was so much more than that. Becca couldn’t move much when she heightened her awareness to such high levels, but she could look around, take in, and process information.

Her classmate’s expressions were universally strained as their brains processed the implications of the alternative instructor’s ultimatum. The instructor in question was wearing her usual stern expression, but upon closer inspection one corner of her mouth was turned slightly upward. It was a small tell, but informative. Becca always tried to find the best in people, but this mystery woman was straining that philosophical viewpoint. The micro-expression instilled a little hope that there was an actual human being under that tough exterior.

Next, Becca turned her attention to the giant flat screen suspended above the room. It only took a moment to identify her room number, so she scanned the rest of the information to find her opponent. Unfortunately, no two numbers were the same.

<Hmmm, they’ve probably dealt with someone like me before,> she thought.

Becca knew people’s first impression of her. She was perky and full of energy, the stereotypical high school cheerleader. That she was actually cheer captain didn’t help the stereotype. If not for the blue hair people would have pegged her for a ditsy blond; which, if she was being honest with herself, she kind of was. She enjoyed living in the moment, and didn’t see any harm in that. The down side of that was that people assumed she was dumb. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. She’d admit to having the world’s shortest attention span, but that had nothing to do with her intellect. She counted on people to underestimate her. This way she could use their own stupidity to bring them down.

She focused on her classmates, who’d shifted slightly since the instructor’s announcement. Maybe one day her perception would move so fast time would stop, but as far as she knew, no speedster had accomplished anything like that yet. It probably wasn’t even possible, but a girl could dream.

She didn’t know most of the people in the class, so she focused on those she did. Mason was stoic on the outside, but his eyes were bugging out. Angela was a mass of determination, Becca’s dance friend from last night was gone like she never existed. Kyoshi was about to trip over the foot of the person next to her, and looked both excited and scared. Seth was oddly focused; something Becca didn’t believe possible.

<He spent the whole ride down here checking out my ass,> she defended her preconception against herself.

That only left Anika Kemps, the only not member of #117 she knew. Anika was confident. She’d been confident from the moment Becca saw her. She believed confidence was her default expression as much as stern and disapproving was their alternative instructor’s. She was also staring right at Becca. It made her awfully self-conscious, and she had to force herself to not check her pigtails out of impulse. She didn’t know why Anika found her so interesting, threatening, or whatever else the tattooed woman noticed in the speedster. Whatever it was, Becca dearly hoped she didn’t have to face her today. Fighting Anika just felt deeply wrong.

Shaking her head to clear the confusing emotions, Becca sped up her perception so she could move. Everyone began to move in slow motion around her as she turned and ran out of the crowded viewing room. Her room wasn’t far, so she arrived with four minutes and fifty nine seconds to spare. The problem was she had four minutes and fifty nine seconds to psyche herself out.

<You can do this, Becca,> her mental pep talk was helping a bit. <Grab the bull by the horns and get it done.> her final thought was punctuated by the opposite door opening to admit her opponent.

The boy wasn’t as physically intimidating as Mason, or even Kyoshi, but he was much bigger than her. He was an inch or two over six feet, bulky, but not in a fat way, with hair so black she couldn’t think of a good analogy to describe its blackness. He was heavily muscled like a body builder, and his blue eyes were poised for action.

“Hiya,” Becca gave him a quick wave.

He smiled back. “I must apologize for any harm that comes to you,” his voice was slightly accented; English, Scottish, Irish, somewhere in there. “But this is a trial of combat so we must bow to our animal nature.”

“Okeydokey,” she didn’t know how to respond to someone politely trying to intimidating her. “Good luck.” She tried an intimidating smile, and failed miserably.

“This first round match is between Rebecca Whitfield and Byron Hanover,” the announcement echoed over the PA system. “The match will begin in thirty seconds, and will only end when one of you is unable to continue or submits. The use of lethal force is not authorized. Any use of such force will result in your expulsion from the HCP and an investigation with possible criminal charges. Good luck.”

Becca squared off against her adversary as the clock counted down. She wondered what his power was and desperately hoped she could handle it. She didn’t want to go out in the first round.

The second the clock hit zero Byron transformed, and Becca shrieked like a little girl. It looked like the swamp thing had gotten it on with the monster from the black lagoon. Deep recesses of Becca’s primal brain were screaming at her to run from the advancing creature.

Byron’s shifted form retained his size and mass, but he lost all definition of a human body. It looked more like a giant upright puddle of some tar-like substance, with arms but no legs, forcing it to slide toward her. Becca got her act together just in time to dodge as the creatures arm shot out like a cobra strike to cover the twenty feet separating them. Anyone who wasn’t a speedster would have been ensnared by the black goo.

Becca carefully dodged a few more similar attacks, as she devised a plan. She didn’t see any obvious weak points, so she sped around to his back determined to throw the hardest punch of her life right where the spine would be. It was a good plan that would have incapacitated a human and some Supers, but not the walking pile of muck.

Instead of making contact with something solid Becca’s arm sunk elbow deep into the substance, eliciting another scream from her. She tried to pull her arm out but it was like his whole body was super glue. She stupidly put her other palm on it to get leverage, only to get that stuck too.

<I’m so screwed,> Becca fought back the terror as the creature’s arms reached back towards her to end the fight.

Her only thought was she needed to move, so she did. Since she was stuck, and simply pulling her arm out wasn’t possible, she moved her palm and forearm back and forth as quickly as possible. Her appendages began to blur and the material around it reddened as friction grew. The beast gave a gurgle as the reddened area began to spread, and then Becca’s forearm was violently ejected from the viscous material.

Becca was so relieved at being free she didn’t catch herself from falling on her butt, and it took another moment to notice Byron was back, and down.

“Healer,” the voice over the PA called. “The winner of this round is Rebecca Whitfield.”

Becca was more confused than ever as she approached Byron’s prone form. When she got close enough to see the damage she’d done she emptied her undigested lunch all over the concrete floor.

“Oh my god,” Becca could feel tears gathering in her eyes.

It looked like someone had taken a laser to Byron’s back and cut a deep trench across it. His whole back was red, pussy, blistered, and bloodied. The boy’s breathing was labored as the healer approached to tend to him.

“Not too bad,” the boy’s white uniform designated him as a senior. “Some of these gelatinous shifters think that because they can take a punch from a strongman friction doesn’t apply to them. Good thinking,” he surprised her with a smile. “I’d head back to the viewing room to see your next match.” The voice over the PA commanded that exact thing a moment later.

Becca left the unscathed room in a haze. <I did that to him,> she was surprised at anyone at what had happened. She’d acted on instinct, and taken down a hulking monster. Despite how satisfied she was that she’d made it to the second round, she couldn’t help but feel guilty as well. <I really hope there’s more to being a Hero than fighting.>

 

***

 

<Five minutes…oh my God!>

            <That’s not enough time.>

            <Where’s my name…where’s my name…WHERE’S MY NAME…oh, there it is.”

            Kyoshi executed an emergency shut down as the thoughts of her classmates rampaged out of control. Her own torrential thoughts were enough to deal with at the moment. She was so focused on moving, and gathering her information from the suspended flat screen, that she never saw the outstretched foot.

“Crap!” she caught the stranger’s foot at just the right angle to send her toppling into the refreshment counter. Luckily it was empty, but that didn’t stop the throbbing pain in her elbow from her graceless landing. “Just great,” she massaged the bone while she hurried away towards her combat room.

Her combat room was the first one on the left. She felt that extra stress leave her body as she entered the large concrete room and locked the door behind her. A quick look at her watch showed she had another four and a half minutes to waste before her match would begin. Kyoshi knew she would need to center herself, and be at her best to win. They didn’t let just anyone into an HCP. She felt she could hold her own against some of the students here. Her telekinesis wasn’t particularly strong, but it was enough to distract an opponent so she could use her martial arts training to defeat them. She just needed to find her center.

Kyoshi sat down just inside the door in lotus position, and began to breathe deeply. She’d found yoga to be a great tool in training her mind and body over the years, even if she wasn’t into the granola, vegan lifestyle that many in San Francisco paired it with. She sought her center, found it, and felt her focus sharpen.

Calm blossomed in the depths of her mind, and she let the sensation flood her body. With the calm came confidence, and an assurance of victory. Mason could have walked through that door and she wouldn’t have been deterred. While the calm spread through her body, she reached out with her mind to the surroundings. The one-way glass at the top of the cell concealed several spectators. Dr. Sanderson was there talking with another healer and a few other seniors.

<This match is going to be boring,> she could feel an upperclassman’s disappointment. <A weak advanced mind and a healer, why couldn’t I get the strongman’s fight?”

            <So I am facing the class healer,> Kyoshi digested the information and began to plan.

It probably wasn’t going to be a spectacular fight, but healers weren’t necessarily an easy opponent. While some could only heal others, a number of healers could self-regenerate. As long as they weren’t killed outright they could be impressive foes. Since she doubted the HCP was going to allow murder during these trials, she hoped her opponent wasn’t in that category. If he was, she would need to incapacitate him quickly and brutally before the Super could heal himself.

While the one senior wasn’t looking forward to the fight, Dr. Sanderson and the other healer were. They were pulling for their fellow healer, and a little probing into the good doctor’s mind showed he thought Kyoshi could be beaten. Since he undoubtedly had more knowledge on their abilities, she didn’t take this as a good sign. She didn’t let the disappointment affect her calm, instead using it to fuel her desire to win.

The opening of the other door registered outside her center. She didn’t bother to open her eyes as she used her mind to survey her opponent.

<Great, I get the giantess,> the mental insult punctured her bubble of calm with a flood of sadness. Apparently the name calling wasn’t going to end with high school.

<And I thought college students would be more enlightened,> she mentally sighed, as she gathered whatever information she could from the snide man’s thoughts.

He was confident in his ability, and planned to win this round easily. Kyoshi saw he was well trained, competent, and did have self-healing abilities. Her calm fluctuated as the cost of victory continued to rise. This fight was going to be all out, but at least she knew what he was capable of. He knew nothing about her.

“This first round match is between Kyoshi Schultz and Derrick Masters,” Dr. Sanderson announcement over the PA system. “The match will begin in thirty seconds, and will only end when one of you surrenders or is disabled. The use of lethal force is not authorized. Any use of such force will result in your expulsion from the HCP and an investigation with possible criminal charges. Be safe.”

Kyoshi opened her eyes and got to her feet as the clock began the countdown. Derrick Master was nearly a full foot shorter than her, and really skinny, almost sick looking. She would be able to use her superior reach to her advantage, but she suspected the healer was quicker. She needed to keep the distance open and only clinch in preparation for her judo techniques.

Derrick didn’t smile at her, or greet her in any fashion. His focused silver eyes met her unflinching gold ones. They both slid into stances as the clock ticked down, and attacked when it hit zero.

Derrick jumped out of the way, narrowly avoiding Kyoshi’s kick and danced back into range with a flurry of punches. Kyoshi blocked most of them, but caught the last one on the shoulder. She rolled away from the punch, spinning gracefully, and turned it into a back fist that connected loudly with his jaw. She heard the snap of bone breaking, but didn’t let up as she pressed forward.

<Damn he’s fast,> she threw a couple of her own punches, driving the momentarily stunned healer back. She shuddered at the sight of his jaw fixing itself, and it cost her a body shot as he ducked inside her guard. His punch hit her square in the breast. <Who punches a girl in the boob.> she felt her anger rise as she grabbed for his neck, and threw a knee with practiced precision.

Derrick blocked it with a forearm and went for a grapple. It was smart move. Kyoshi’s failed knee attempt put her out of position, and the grapple would put her on the ground in a position she preferred to reserve for Mason. Fortunately, Kyoshi had more than just feet and fists at her disposal.

The air distorted and shimmered as her telekinetic blast hit the healer in the chest, throwing him back several feet. Kyoshi didn’t know why you could see her telekinesis, and it was a tactical disadvantage since her opponents could see it coming. She’d been happy to manifest any telekinesis at all when it hadn’t arrived with her telepathy. So she preferred to look at this as the glass being half full, and hoped she’d get stronger with her time in the HCP.

The blast ended his attempt to grapple, and maybe cracked a rib that he quickly healed, but it didn’t slow him down. Derrick came back with a vengeance, throwing kicks and punches like a professional. Kyoshi kept her breathing steady and her own technique equally professional. This was turning into a contest of stamina, and she might be beat in that department. The quickest way to lose was to let your breathing get away from you. She needed to use her telekinesis and training in tandem to win. Something she had difficulty with in the past.

He closed the gap again, dodging her jab haymaker combination, trying to grab her around her waist for a throw. She back peddled, and focused her mind on his left foot. The air shimmered around the targeted limb, and held it in place despite his forward movement. She heard the crack in his knee as bone broke and tendons tore. To his credit he only gave a small yelp before his healing kicked in to fix it.

Kyoshi strained with the effort. It felt like someone was trying to pull her brainstem out through her eyes, and she almost lost the precious time her effort bought. Before Derrick could regain his balance Kyoshi put her entire body behind a punch. She wasn’t a stick twig of a woman, so there was some mass behind it. If he’d dodged it she probably would have fallen on her face, and had flashbacks of her early dojo days when she did a lot of that. Luckily, his momentary distraction with his knee was enough.

Derrick’s head was rocked back by the force of the blow. Another sickening crunch announced a broken nose, but Kyoshi didn’t care about that. She followed her momentum through, so her punch became a tackle. Before Derrick could recover she was on top of him raining down punches on his still trying to heal face. He tried to block her, but she was straddling him so his arms were pinned. He tried to buck her off, but her size was an advantage here. After a full ten seconds of repeated face punching he made the mistake of rolling over. Kyoshi let him make the fatal move and then easily slipped her arm under his chin before he could get it down. She rolled to her side so she was now beneath him, and snaked her longer legs around his to complete the full body lock. He struggled valiantly, clawing for her eyes as his air ran out. Derrick might be a powerful healer, but he couldn’t create oxygen. He lasted a lot longer than a normal person would. His healing desperately trying to compensate for the lack of air, but even he couldn’t fight biology forever. His struggles grew feebler until he finally went limp.

“The winner of this round is Kyoshi Schultz,” Dr. Sanderson’s voice held a barely detectable hint of disappointment.

The student healer rushed into the room to check on the combatants. Derrick was already starting to come to, his healing in over drive with the oxygen now flooding his system. She gave Kyoshi a quick exam before an icy sensation spread through her body, removing the aches and exhaustion from the fight. Both of the fighters were now back to full strength, and Derrick was pissed.

“Your telekinesis saved your ass,” she knew he wanted to add another more derogatory expletive after that, but didn’t.

“You should be one to talk,” she met his glare with one of her own. “In case you don’t remember I broke your jaw pretty early in the fight. Without your healing you would have been done after that. Don’t go blaming my abilities when your own kept you in the fight long past what was natural.”

The truth hurt, even for a healer. Derrick mentally accepted the fact of the statement, but emotions were still running high. He turned on his heel and walked away before those feelings got the best of him. Kyoshi looked after him for a moment before doing the same towards her door. Only once she was through it did the excitement hit her.

<Second round here I come!> she maintained her dignity by not jumping into the air in celebration. <I wonder who else made it?>

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