Angela watched as one by one her dorm mates failed to advance to the third round. The second round bye was a blessing in disguise. At first she’d been eager to get back into the ring. Her first match with Seth was…disappointing. Angela knew she’d made an enemy in him, and it might come back to haunt her later, but she didn’t care at the moment. She was tired of the man’s antics. He needed a taste of his own medicine, and she’d delivered that and then some.
She used her time in the viewing room as productively as possible. She didn’t bother interaction with the group of first round losers, and only was in their vicinity long enough to grab an orange soda from the refreshment bar. She tried to watch as many fights as possible, without splitting her attention too many ways and missing key details. She watched the powerful telekinetic bowl over Kyoshi without any effort. The thin barrier she’d conjured for protection doing nothing to protect her from the onslaught.
<He will be a challenge,> she thought, as she strategized a fight with him.
She was confident her shifted form would be able to take a hit like that, so the question was how many? She also didn’t have information on the boy’s control over his ability. Could he do broad and narrow blasts? Could he use the ability defensively, like Kyoshi had attempted to? One thing was for sure, Angela wouldn’t be able to use her flight if she faced him. The shifter vividly remembered her falls when she’d first been training that portion of her ability. It was not something she wanted to re-experience, especially if she was going to be swatted from the sky in the process.
Becca’s defeat was a little more interesting. Angela would have screamed like a girl at the swarm of bugs, but for a different reason. Angela’s voice in her shifted form was estimated at a low level sonic attack. She’d be able to use her scream to knock the bugs out of the air, or at least disorient them enough to close with her opponent. Beyond her control of the creepy critters, the Super who took out Becca didn’t show any other special abilities.
That only left Mason, and his fight was the longest of the round. She switched her attention back and forth between his fight and others. She watched a lightening throwing girl face off against a boy who had the ability to increase or decrease his size. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t lightning proof. Angela also hypothesized his strength and durability increased with his size, but the girl hit him with too many bolts before he could get big enough.
<He’s slow,> Angela catalogued the weakness before evaluating the girl.
Angela’s guess was she was an absorber who’d stored the energy before the match, since there wasn’t much to pull from down here. She would be an easy target in combat as well. Angela’s shifted form was resilient, and easily able to take the lightning strikes. She could also use her energy weapon to absorb or deflect the bolts, and her wings could do the latter as well. After that it would be a simple matter of dealing with the girl, who didn’t appear to have any physical enhancements.
Angela turned her attention back to Mason’s fight as the strongman was mobbed by a group of clones. <Ugh, I hate duplicators.>
The tough thing about fighting those who could copy themselves was finding the original. The devil was in the details, since copies were rarely perfect duplications of the host. Angela’s shifted form sported infrared vision, which allowed her to see the body heat of the original. It was the most common mistake duplicators made, but it wasn’t universal.
<Scan for body heat. If that fails start cutting down opponents until you get the real thing,> Angela’s energy weapon was the obvious weapon of choice. She intended to hide the fact that her wings could cut through steel for as long as possible.
The boy who’d manhandled Kyoshi entered the viewing room looking sullen. Angela watched him cautiously, analyzing his mood for anything she could exploit. <He isn’t a fan of fighting women,> she concluded.
“Congratulations, Jason” Angela said, pulling the boy’s name for the giant flat screen bracket.
“Thank you,” the boy replied with a halfhearted smile.
<If I get him next round I need to play up my femininity. A damsel in distress routine might throw him off balance just enough to close with him.> her mind calculated her way to victory as she smiled at the boy.
Jason tilted his head with a confused expression on his face. His smile became a frown before he simply shrugged, turning away from him.
<He might be an advanced mind,> Angela threw up a mental barrier of white noise as a precaution.
She’d been taught by other advanced minds how to shut down her surface level thoughts. It wouldn’t stop a telepath who really wanted to delve into her mind, but it would work for the inexperienced Heroes in training.
She turned her attention back to one of the numerous monitors in the room. This time she focused on the woman who’d arrived with her roommates. She didn’t know her name but she was stronger and moved quicker than a human. A comparison with Mason showed she wasn’t in his league, not by a long shot. She was visibly frustrated by her opponent. The teleporter jumped around the room, getting a few well-placed hits against the woman before retreating out of her range.
Angela studied the fight for a few minutes until she was reasonably sure she knew where the teleporter would appear next. The key to fighting teleporters was pattern recognition. Humans are creatures of habit, and whether we realize it or not we always fell into one. Angela was about to turn away from the screen, after successfully predicting the last three places the boy would appear, when the woman decided to take a more direct approach in dealing with her tormenter.
It took a minute for her to gather enough debris and gather it around her for whatever her plan was. Angela thought hard on the possibilities and nothing she imagined was plausible for dealing with the problem. When the debris exploded away from the woman, Angela was just as surprised the boy who was cut down. To make matters worse for him, the woman hit him with a bone crushing charge before the instructors stopped the fight.
<Strength, speed, some sort of kinetic ability?> Angela questioned her own analysis at the unusual combination. <She’s dangerous and a little bit unstable, > that much was certain from the crippling charge that could have easily killed the fragile boy. <I need to use caution, there are too many unknowns.> Angela catalogued the information, hoping she wouldn’t have to face…<Anika,> Angela retrieved her name from the bracket.
Angela turned her attention back to the viewing room, which growing more crowded as more matches ended. Victors crowded the bar to gloat about their accomplishments, while the second round losers formed a third group. They didn’t want to completely associate with their classmates who’d failed so early, but they didn’t want to converse with the group who’d defeated them. Angela noted the absence of both Becca and Kyoshi. After the beating they’d taken, in Becca’s case her almost comical collision with the wall, it was logical that they’d be in the infirmary recuperating. Angela would have preferred to have someone to talk to until the next round began, but she didn’t want to join one of the three cliques that had formed. And neither group seemed inclined to include her in their conversation. Jason was also keeping his distance, but Angela didn’t feel like grouping herself with someone she’d possibly recently offended. So she sat alone waiting for the next round to begin.
Angela’s vantage point gave her a great view of their alternative instructor entrance and angry pacing. Her own attention darting among the screens, much as Angela’s had, but she also paid close attention to the door. The instructor’s expression, never particularly pleasant, was set in a deep scowl. Everyone stayed clear of her, especially when she drove her foot angrily into the ground, shaking the whole room slightly.
Since her defeat, and to satisfy her curiosity, Angela had been searching for the Hero personas of her instructors, and the Dean. The alternative instructor was a bit of a mystery. She’d proven to have an incredible ability, but it was tough to pinpoint what it was. There was a wide array of Heroes who could use mental powers to overwhelm people or take control of nervous systems. The number of Supers with red eyes was slimmer, but Angela hadn’t been able to see if they were colored contacts. Supers didn’t usually subscribe to Super based fashion trends, but it could be a counter espionage tradecraft. What better way to throw somebody off than to make them think you have a very identifiable characteristic. Either way, Angela had a couple possibilities in mind.
She was reasonably sure she’d identified their combat instructor as Shotgun. There were very few speedsters who could go from standing still to breaking the sound barrier instantaneously. He also matched the general description she’d retrieved from several new articles of prominent newspaper. It was also possible he was Bullet or Roundabout, but she’d put her money on Shotgun.
The Dean was an even bigger unknown than the alternative instructor. She found a few Heroes who matched his physical description, but she doubted any of them were him. You didn’t become a HCP Dean by communicating with dogs or throwing throw bubbles that could trap only low level super criminals. Angela guessed he was either a behind the scenes advanced mind or a shifter who looked nothing like his human self.
While Angela was recalling the possibilities of the Dean’s Hero identity, the man himself walked into the viewing room. He was all smiles as he talked with some of the students, but Angela noticed the tightening of his face when he looked at the alternative instructor. Whatever he was here for he wasn’t looking forward to the conversation.
“Follow me,” her instruction was in her usually blunt, straightforward manner.
The two teachers disappeared down a side hallway, leaving Angela alone in the now crowded viewing room. She turned her attention back to Mason’s ongoing fight. The tide was turning on the duplicator. You could see the sweat pouring down his face as his creations were pulverized by Mason. That alone was enough to give him up.
<Only original shows signs of physical strain,> she now knew what to look for if her thermal vision didn’t show the original.
Mason noticed this too. He charged his opponent, barreling through the duplicates. The boy was barely able to throw himself out of the way before he was run over by the unhappy strongman. He tried to throw more duplicates in Mason’s way as he pivoted and charged again. The densely packed copies slowed him down enough for the original to scramble away. It only lasted for a minute, as Mason got closer and closer. Finally, Mason was able to get an open palmed slap close enough to the duplicator. He only made contact with the top half of his fingers, but that was enough to send the duplicator twirling like a ballerina. The weaker boy fell to the floor unconscious, and his creations puffed out of existence. Leaving the strongman thoroughly covered in a white chalk like powder.
“Good luck, everyone,” the Dean was already at the door, looking very tired.
The alternative instructor looked even more pissed off than usual, and the loud chatter of Angela’s class didn’t seem to be helping.
“Stop lollygagging,” she snapped. “Third round’s coming up, so be ready.”
<Finally,> Angela was sick of sitting around.
She located her name and room number on the flat screen, and quickly exited the viewing room. It was a long walk down the metallic lines hallway to her designated room; she even had to go down a few flights of stairs to reach her destination. Angela didn’t hesitate at the door; she stepped into the room confident and ready to win.
The room was not the same at the one she’d faced Seth in. First off, there were no viewing windows like beforehand. The room was also twice as wide, long, and high as before. Lastly, the room wasn’t made of reinforced concrete. Angela didn’t know what the material was, but it looked sturdy, very sturdy. It looked like unreflective metal but felt closer to a softer concrete. It was a weird sensation that was throwing her preconceived notions of material substances for a loop.
<They wouldn’t put me in this room without good reason,> she pondered as she stretched out a little, her eyes never wavering from the opposite door.
<They’ve got me in a reinforced cage for a reason,> she didn’t have to wait long for the reason.
The opposite door opened to reveal her massive opponent. A surprised, chalk covered, Mason entered the reinforced room and closed the door behind him.
<This should be good,> Angela was finally happy to fight a competent warrior.
“This is going to be epic!” Craig could have passed for a teenage girl as he squealed with excitement.
The two instructors were in a special control room, specifically designed to monitor the fights in the reinforced combat rooms a few stories below the main HCP section. They only used these rooms when the potential for massive damage was high. Mason and Angela going at it met that standard.
Craig and Daisy weren’t alone in the room. Willis and Dr. Sanderson were there as well, each just as intrigued at the interesting matchup.
“I’m taking bets,” Craig called out. “Right now I’m giving good odds on anyone who takes Mason.”
“I’ll put my money on the big guy,” Daisy defiantly threw a twenty at the speedster, who effortlessly caught it. “
“Good luck with that,” it was clear who Craig was putting his own money on.
“Isn’t Mason the stronger of the two,” Sanderson asked, keeping a respectable distance away from Daisy.
<I’m not contagious,> Daisy couldn’t stop from glowering at the man. <And I don’t bite…well… not always,> she corrected herself.
“Mason is the stronger of the two,” Willis replied, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “Angela is still tough, and she has a variety of other talents. I‘m siding with Craig on this one.” Daisy shot the Subtlety professor a feign hurt expression.
“I will also put my money on Miss Martin,” Sanderson tossed another twenty into the growing pot on the table.
Whether he was doing this to purposefully align against Daisy or not didn’t matter, she was already pissed about the conversation with John. Since punching the doctor in the face probably wouldn’t look good in her evaluation report, she took a seat at the farthest terminal and settled into watch the match.
“What’s got you all worked up,” Craig walked over and took a seat next to her.
“You heard about Kemps?” she averted her gaze when Angela transformed and began to warm up with her energy weapon.
“I’m not sure who her third round match is…”
“No, about her past,” Daisy clarified.
“No. I don’t think there was anything in the file about that,” Craig scratched his head. Trying to recall specific details.
“John might read you in if you ask. But that’s why I’m pissed,” Craig nodded, understanding she didn’t want to talk.
He gave her one last look before hopping over to the PA system station for the room. “Last call on all bets.” No one put any more money into the miniature cash pile; they were government employees after all. “Suit yourself,” he scooped up the pile and switched on the microphone.
<At least I’ll make a decent buck if Mason wins,> Daisy thought as Craig began the countdown.
“ARE YOU READY TO RUMBLE!” Coach McMillian’s voice boomed over the PA system.
Angela suppressed a sigh as Mason let a small chuckle escape. Angela hadn’t met a teacher quite like their combat instructor. When she’d been trained by her parents it was all business all the time. Even the other Heroes and experts they brought in to supplement her education were consummate professionals. She’d never even seen most of them smile.
Coach McMillian was constantly throwing everyone off balance with his humor and wit. One minute the older speedster would be making a joke, only to follow it up with a verbal or physical lashing. He was equal parts comic and drill sergeant, and in an odd way it was refreshing. Variety had its benefits, especially when the end goal remained the same.
“This epic third round match is between Mason Jackson and Angela Martin. The match will start in thirty seconds, and will only end when one of you is so bloodied and broken you can’t continue, because seriously, I doubt either of you is going to give up.” Matching grins of approval met the Coach’s statement. “Keep in mind, the use of lethal force is still not authorized. I would advise Miss Martin to keep her weapon of choice less pointy. Any use of such force will result in me and my lovely alternative instructor beating you within an inch of your life. Then we’ll expel you from the HCP and make sure you wind up in jail, so don’t do that. Make this interesting.” The system cut off abruptly and the clock began to count down.
Angela wasted no time in changing into her shifted form. The sensation of the transformation never lost the exhilaration it brought with it. No matter how much research Angela did, she couldn’t identify where her power came from. All she knew was that it was always there at the back of her mind waiting to be unleashed. All she needed to do was bring down that psychological wall, and pull to have that transformative energy pour into her very essence.
At first it had taken minutes for Angela to transform, but repetition and instruction got it down to a few seconds. The blinding light of the process, which she believed to be a safety mechanism to protect her momentary vulnerability, hid the process. First she felt herself grow. It was not a painless process. She felt muscle tear and bones pop as the transfiguration process lengthened and strengthened her body. Next came the wings. It felt like someone was ripping open holes in her back with a plasma torch, but the pain was momentary. Lastly, a final burst of her the power sprouted from wherever it originated from, to create her weapon. Weapon was the best word to describe it, but it was a crude and inaccurate term. It was an extension of her mind, a malleable piece of herself. It was also a key difference between her mother and her.
When the light faded after a few seconds, Angela was replaced by a being of pure power and prestige. When she was like this, Angela didn’t feel weak or unworthy. She was justice; a construct to bring righteousness to those who violated the law and the decency of those she would die to protect. This was Angela’s true self, not the pathetic and frail form of her humanity.
Even at six and a half feet she still had to look up at Mason. The surprise on the man’s face was evident. Angela had seen herself in the mirror before. She wasn’t the cow everyone told her she was. She was breathtakingly beautiful. She was perfect, only vaguely resembling her former self. She looked like a warrior, armor clad and ready for battle. Angela grinned with satisfaction as fear replaced surprise on the strongman’s face. It probably had something to do with the eight foot spear in her hand.
Angela was also satisfied to see the fear quickly replaced by determination. Mason was a worthy opponent, unlike the other revolting male in her townhome.
“Good luck, Mason,” she gave him a nod of respect as the clock reached the five second mark. “I hope we can remain civil after I defeat you.”
“Of course, Angela,” his own smile displayed confidence. “But as my grandma always said, don’t count your money before it’s in the bank.”
The timer ran out and Mason launched himself forward, catching Angela off guard. <Stupid!> Angela cursed her careless mistake.
She relied too much on the intimidation factor she’d used on Seth, and she should have known Mason was smarter than that neanderthal. He knew she wasn’t going to run him through with that spear. Coach McMillian had alluded to as much in his introduction, which left her scrambling to reorient.
With a thought the spear became a shield that she was able to get between her and Mason. It took the brunt of the impact, a resounding gong echoing throughout the room, but it drove her back a dozen feet before she was able to counter. Angela dropped down to the ground and attempted to kick Mason’s legs out from under him. He jumped, abandoning the attempted tackle, but Angela was faster. Angela used her momentum from the leg sweep to continue her turn, reshaping her shield to a hammer mid-rotation. She then straightened her legs and adjusted the angel of her blow. In Mason’s eyes she went from on the ground to swinging a hammer at his head at near speedster speeds. He was able to get his arm at a ninety degree angle to protect his head and neck, and take the brunt of the blow.
<I’m faster,> Angela confirmed her suspicions as another gong rang throughout the room.
Mason was smashed off his feet and into the reinforced wall. In one of the other rooms the impact would have taken large chunks of concrete with it. In this room it resulted in spider web cracks spreading a few feet from the point of impact. Unfortunately for Angela, the impact did more damage to the wall than Mason.
<But he’s stronger,> Angela was much less happy to confirm this suspicion, as the strongman shook out his arm like someone had given him a Charlie horse.
She didn’t leave him time to recover, launching her own charge. She caught the strongman still reeling, and smashed him back into the wall. She used her superior speed to land blows against his body, dissolving her hammer to use both fists.
Mason grunted from the impacts and failed to clinch with her, allowing her to get a few more shots in before he was able to leverage his strength and gain control. He wrapped her up with his massive arms, and squeezed. It was Angela’s turn to grunt as he clamped down on her with an unbreakable grasp. Luckily for her, Mason’s style was built on a boxing foundation, and didn’t suit the current situation. And in combat anything goes.
Before he could squeeze the air out of her lungs, Angela brought her knee up into Mason’s groin. His face contorted in pain, and his grip instinctually broke as he reached for his injured privates. To add insult to injury Angela brought her forehead smashing down into nose. The move rang her bell a little more than it should have due to his durability, but the audible crunch of his nose breaking was unavoidable.
Blood flowed from Mason’s broken noise as Angela backed up, summoning her hammer in the process. Before the big guy could comprehend what was happening she smashed it directly in the temple. For the second time in as many minutes Mason was flying across the room again. He didn’t quite make it to the wall this time, landing in a heap a few feet shy.
Angela didn’t pursue because she was sure he was unconscious. She was a little worried she might have killed him, after all a blow to the temple could kill humans. Luckily Mason was tougher than that, and the minute she saw him stir, she jumped back into action. She was nearly on top of the strongman when he blindly donkey kicked behind him. Angela wasn’t close enough to avoid completely, but a flick of her wings changed course enough so she didn’t take the blow directly in the chest.
Stars blossomed in her eyes as sharp pain stabbed through her side. It hadn’t been much more than a glancing blow, but the powerful kick had dented her armor and at least bruised a rib. She was able to avoid the far wall as she went into a controlled spin, and landed ungracefully a safe distance from the rising strongman.
She opened herself to her unknown energy source and directed it through the conduits of her body to her side. The pain went from sharp to dull in seconds, leaving her fully mobile. It was a double edged sword, using this closely guarded secret aspect of her power. She hadn’t put it down in her HCP application, and her own parents didn’t know. It wasn’t healing per say. Whatever her energy source did it muted the pain, like some type of ethereal drug. She was still injured, and if she pushed herself beyond her limit she would further injure herself. She knew she needed to be careful when using this, because she could literally tear her insides to pieces without knowing. Pain had a useful purpose after all.
<I just need to make it through this fight,> Angela told herself, as she launched herself at Mason again. When she shifted back to her human form, all injuries would be wiped away like they never happened.
This time Mason was ready for her. He sidestepped the charge, and grabbed one of her wings. The appendages were tougher than reinforced steel, but Mason was stronger. Angela screamed as the ripping sensation tore muscles and ligaments in the extra limb. Taking advantage of her disability, Mason reared back and punched her in the shoulder. Angela felt her shoulder crack and dislocate, conjuring another scream of agony.
Angela, pivoted causing more damage to the already injured wing, cocked back her opposite shoulder up as far as she could and drove the edge of her uninjured wing into the side of his head. It didn’t pack the force of her earlier blows, but it stunned him enough that he let go. Angela would have continued the spin, to bring the other wing to bear on her opponent, but had to improvise around the injury. With a thought she transformed the hammer into a spiked maul. She made sure the spikes were rounded before she added the momentum from her spin to the force of the blow. She brought the weapon up as hard as she could in a double-handed swing starting near her left ankle and ending under Mason’s chin above her right shoulder.
If there had been glass nearby it would have shattered from the force of the impact. Mason was lifted off his feet and thrown across the room, easily making forceful contact with the far wall. Blood from his broken nose stained the floor along the aerial path he’d taken. This time Angela didn’t let up. She ran towards Mason’s battered form and raised the maul high above her head. She brought the weapons down hard against his chest, causing the floor beneath them to crack, and blood to spew from his mouth. She didn’t let up there. The maul dissolved and she relentlessly pounded her fist into Mason. The strongman desperately tried to block the blows, but she was faster, and his injuries made him weak and slow.
She wasn’t sure how long the ground and pound continued. But by the time Mason’s body went limp his face was deformed. Both eyes were swollen so much you couldn’t only guess where his eyes really were. His face was varying degrees of the same, with loose teeth lying scattered around them, and blood flowing freely from his nose and mouth. Angela’s own knuckles were split and bleeding. Both of her hands were broken, with hairline fractures running all the way up to her shoulder. If not for her ability to reduce the pain, she would have been unable to beat Mason into submission.
“Halt!” Coach McMillian’s voice was strangely elated for the amount of violence he’d just witnessed. “The winner of this round is Angela Martin. Please stay where you are and wait for the healers to put you back together.”
Mason was already regaining consciousness, struggling to take full breaths and moaning as the pain returned full force. Angela felt begrudging respect for her opponent’s toughness. She would have to spar with him regularly to stay sharp.
Instead of waiting for the healer to reach her, Angela shifted back to her human form. The naked and vulnerable feelings accompanied the loss of her true self. She shivered slightly as she felt the cold in the room, and the unease at being so close to the massive man she’d defeated.
<He could reach out and crush me like a bug,> Angela thought, taking a step away from Mason out of self-preservation.
Angela waved the healer’s off, and pointed at the man who really needed their attention. She left the reinforced combat room and headed back towards the viewing area. Round four would be starting soon, and she needed to be ready.