Chapter 1

Welcome to the second storyline I have set in Drew’s Super Powereds Universe. This one is based around one of the characters I created in Darkest Days who wasn’t joining up with Force Ops who I found I really liked and wanted to write more about.

Like Chad, the author of Second String Supers and 7 Random Days, I also want to read more bonus chapters.  Also like Chad, I can't afford to simply throw money at Drew to insure that there IS a bonus chapter every Friday. If the thought of two bonus chapters wasn’t tempting enough, how do THREE bonus chapters every Friday (or thereabout) sound? 

Every time the donation meter makes it to 100% and Drew posts a bonus Super Powereds or Corpies chapter, and Chad posts a bonus 7 Random Days chapter sometime that same weekend, I will post a bonus The Masks We Wear chapter within the next few days (unlike Drew I am not a full time writer and work might keep me from it for a few days).  Just like Drew did when he started the bonus chapters, and Chad did with 7 Random Days, the first one is free!

The other thing to know about this story is it is going to have much shorter chapters than in Darkest Days. This is not going to have nearly as expansive a cast or storyline so expect chapters in the range of two or three thousand words, not ten to fifteen thousand words.

It is set at Lander University at the same time as the third year of Drew’s novels. So Vince, Mary, Roy, Nick, and Alice are all juniors. You probably won’t bump into them but you never know for sure.


The Masks We Wear

Chapter 1: Can you keep a secret?

Looking around the lecture hall, Sam noticed a few things he didn’t expect.

The most noticeable to him wouldn’t even have made anyone else pause. Everyone seemed so normal. For the most part there was nothing to say that there was enough concentrated power in this room to level a city. This could be a classroom in any college around the country but it wasn’t. This was the first class of the new freshmen class of Lander University’s HCP. The “Heroes of the Future” he had seen one promotion read.

Sam leaned over, turning to face the man sitting next to him and paused. He had sat down with his roommate, Ray Rios, a short black haired kid built like a wrestler. Now a tall skinny blond guy was sitting there with a look of impatience on his face.

“Ray man, it’s going to take me a while to get used to that one,” he shook his head as he spoke.

“Sam… I mean Matt,” he said correcting himself, “you won’t have to deal with it much up above. I mean if I kept changing who I was up there, someone would tweak to the fact that I’m a super. After that I would be out of here on an SI infraction before you could even ask if that pale skinned redheaded woman was really me,” he winked and chuckled at the concept. Ray was certainly amusing and having a shape shifter as a roommate wouldn’t be dull.

A door at the back of the stage opened admitting a tall man with square-framed glasses, black hair, and a conservative gray suit. Sam looked at him with the experienced eye of a fighter sizing up an opponent. The suit couldn’t hide the fact that he was clearly in great shape, nor that he walked with the confident stride of someone in control and ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. The combination screamed that he was a super and almost certainly a hero too. While it was expected down here, it was something he knew he himself would need to be careful to avoid doing topside.

The man in the suit looked around the room, adjusted his glasses, and began what was clearly a speech he had made many times before. Even the glances and gestures made as he spoke seemed timed and rote.

“It is my pleasure as Dean of the Hero Certification Program to be the first to congratulate you on making the cut and being enrolled in our very elite little academy.” He took a sip of water from a glass that had clearly been left out for affectation and then continued, “My full name is Blaine Jeffries; however, I want you all to just call me Dean Blaine. It is my hope that each and every one of you grow stronger in the years ahead, and that the best of you graduate from here with full certifications and go on to become acclaimed Heroes. I want to watch all of you find the lessons you need to succeed!”

Sam was used to reading the mood of a crowd. He had been in front of enough of them. With the dean’s optimistic words everyone seemed to shift a bit, sit up straighter, smile a bit more. It was subtle but anyone used to watching for such cues could read it like it was written in large print.

“Now, I know all of you are a little nervous,” Dean Blaine continued in an understanding voice. “After all, most of you are from schools, if not towns, where you were the only Super present. Having peers around you who can understand and relate to what you’re going through is a new experience, and I’m here to tell you that it will be a wonderful one. You’re going to have friendships, support, and respect all built on the mutual understanding that only fellow Supers can share.”

Again the mood of the students shifted a bit as they considered this. Many of them fidgeted and looked around at the others in the room as if seeing them as potential friends for the first time. After a pause to let that new concept sink in, the dean continued. “You’re going to need that support network, too. As all of you should know, becoming a Hero is a grueling task. You’ll be taking combat classes, training your tactical skills, learning to think around corners, and - possibly most importantly of all - you’ll be learning about the ethics behind having and using abilities. And, of course, you’ll be doing all of that while maintaining your secret identity up top.”

Once more the mood changed. Either Dean Jefferies was a master at manipulating a crowd or he had a great speech writer who was. This speech was clearly designed to keep the crowd off balance rather than focused on any one topic or even any one emotion. Pride then friendship then fear, one right after another in rapid succession. Next he would need to blunt that fear so as to keep them on edge without letting the fear get the best of them.

Whispers broke out throughout the auditorium. Little knots of classmates who were starting to become friends or competitors began to discuss the pros and cons of secret identities and the difficulty with keeping them among themselves. As Sam expected, the dean didn’t look annoyed at this sudden interruption of his canned speech. In fact, if anything, he looked like he was expecting it.

“Now, now, none of that,” said Dean Blaine without breaking his smile. “I know many of you have lived out in the open about your abilities for years, but this is how we do things at Lander. Learning to protect a secret identity helps you hone a lot of the skills a Hero will need. Ingenuity, thinking on your feet, and planning are all major elements of keeping your secret safe. Those of you who fail at keeping your secret... well, let’s just say that fail was the operative word there.”

No one laughed at Dean Blaine’s joke, Sam looked closely at him and realized this particular joke was meant just for him. Before anyone could latch onto the very real potential of failing out of the HCP, the dean continued on diffusing the concern, at least in part.

“Of course, there are always extenuating circumstances, but let’s just say you should do your best to keep the fact that you’re a Super close to the vest. If you need to show off, work out, or just get the powers pumping, then you are always welcome down here, where you can be the Super we all know you are,” Dean Blaine reassured them.

As Sam watched Dean Jefferies continue his speech he noticed a slight shift, the kind of thing he noticed in announcers when something went off script. The dean was getting ready to do something different.

“Since we are on the topic of secret identities and SI infractions, I feel that I need to address the so called elephant in the room.”

Oh crap’, thought Sam and Ray shifted in his seat next to him.

“Many or even most of you know that the last Ultimate Level Combat League Champion, Samson Smash, recently retired undefeated and announced he had been accepted into the HCP program. The tragic events of Meredith Falls had made him reconsider his chosen path in life and he decided the world needed more heroes and at least one less cage fighter.”

The whispers started up again this time even more furiously as people guessed what Dean Jeffries was about to say next.

“Well, I can confirm that is exactly what he did and that he is part of your class here at Lander.”

Now the whispers changed to a dull roar as people started talking to each other faster and ignoring the volume levels.

“Samson Smash is here?”

“I don’t see him…”

“He must be in disguise…”

“Maybe they excused him from orientation…”

“So much for being number one rank…”

“He’s overrated, Muscle Malone was robbed in that last match…”

“Rick ‘Right’ Cross could beat him easily but they never fought…”

“I think I can still take him…”

All of them spoke over one another until a loud bang from behind the podium interrupted them. Dean Blain had slammed a textbook down onto the flat surface and the noise broke everyone out of their conversations, shocking them into stunned silence.

“You may of course speculate on what this will mean to you in terms of ranking… on your own time,” the dean continued as if they weren’t already speculating. “However I am addressing what this will mean for SI requirements. Sam,” he said looking right at him, “would you please stand and introduce yourself to your classmates?”

Sam stood up, a bit embarrassed. He was used to performing in front of large crowds but these more intimate settings, less than one hundred people, always made him nervous.

“Hello everyone,” he started simply, “I’m Sam Fink, as Dean Jefferies said I used to fight in the ULCL as Samson Smash and I was the champion there. People know I joined the HCP but not which school. Still, there will be reporters trying to uncover me, and fans, and who knows who else. I’ve had my face altered so I don’t look the same anymore,” he added unconsciously touching his face and unfamiliar features, “and I’m altering my voice and other details to try and hide as best I can. Above ground I’m Matt Norton, not Sam Fink, I live in the dorms just like the rest of you.” He turned to the seat next to him, “This is my roommate Ray Rios, he knew all this already, and he’s going to help me keep it all as quiet as possible.” With that Sam sat down and the whispers around the room resumed.

“It’s alright man,” Ray whispered to him, “they’ll get used to it. You came across humble and a little scared, it was good.”

“I’m a lot scared,” Sam whispered back, “any one of them could expose me if they think I’m too good and that’s it, I’m a known super, they don’t need to catch me doing something with my power, they just need to expose who I am.”

“I think the HCP screens out most major assholes man. If it were that easy to get rid of those above you the whole thing wouldn’t work.”

Dean Blaine interrupted the reverie again, “So, as you can see, the SI requirements are going to potentially be tested in unique and different ways this year and potentially over all four years your class will be with us.”

“This is not the first time a super with notoriety has joined the program, though it may be the most public persona who has ever been accepted. We have policies and contingencies in place to help deal with it. However each and every one of you must carefully guard yourselves as well. A casual slip using the wrong name up above might bring suspicion not only on Sam but on you as well.”

“I assure you that any infraction regarding Sam will be carefully scrutinized. It is your responsibility as students in the HCP to not only protect your identity but that of your fellows. This is no different than if you were both heroes and you let their identity slip.”

He suddenly turned and faced a student at random, a pretty brunette girl leaning back in her chair. “Ms. Powell,” he said with a bit of force in his voice, “would you like to be responsible for another hero’s family being killed because of a slip of the tongue?”

She sat up straight on being addressed and blushed slightly. “N… N… No,” she stammered, “of course not Dean Blaine.”

“That’s how serious the SI requirements are. They protect heroes, heroes’ families, loved ones, and even casual acquaintances. For our first ethics assignment of the year we will be reviewing the case of Roustabout and Abstract and the outcome for each of those heroes. It will demonstrate the very real consequences an SI infraction could cause.”

He gave that some additional time to sink in. Everyone seemed quite subdued and introspective. “With that out of the way, why don’t we move on to the rest of the day’s activities?”

Sam noted that the Dean sank back into the comfort of rote repetition. He was back on familiar ground where his speech and patter were highly rehearsed. “Since above ground classes don’t start until tomorrow, we’ll be using today to do our combat ranking. For those of you who don’t know, we do rankings among the classes at the beginning of this and end of every other year. This is so we can get a sense of where you’re starting from based on the previous test, and how much you’ve grown by the end. We won’t just be taking into account who wins each fight; we’ll be looking at how they use their abilities, bodies, and brains to make the most of every situation. Today’s will be a single elimination tournament, so the more you win, the more you fight, the better a chance you have to showcase what you can do.”

“I’d like all of you to meet the professors who will be overseeing the first battle of your college careers, the freshmen combat coaches: Professor Fletcher and Professor Pendleton!” Dean Blaine announced, gesturing to the side of the stage where a pair of people, both wearing sweats, walked in and joined the dean in the center at the podium.

Professor Fletcher turned out to be an old man, an old man in great shape but still an old man. He was tall and broad with grey thinning hair and bright blue eyes. He addressed them first.

“I am going to make this short. I am in charge of close combat training and as such will be the man you learn to hate over the next year. I can and will teach you and those of you who do well enough will leave here with the skills you need to be a hero.” He stopped and then gestured to the other man who entered with him.

He was slender and even taller nearly topping six and a half feet. He was younger than Fletcher, with black hair and a goatee with a touch of grey in it. “My name is Professor Pendleton and I will be teaching the alternative combat course this year. For those of you who don’t know what that means, I will be the primary teacher for those of you whose abilities are not directly suited for combat, but I will also be teaching all of you to think about and use your powers and skills in ways you have never thought possible. Some of you might even learn to hate me more than you hate Coach Fletcher.”

The mood swung yet again and now everyone was confused. Sam had been through things like this before with his prior trainers. It’s not the typical student teacher relationship. It’s much closer to drill instructors in the armed forces. They weren’t here to be their friends, they didn’t care about ratings or what you might say on any of the online rate my professor sites. All they cared about was that in the end they did everything they could so that their charges would not die. From Sam’s point of view that included pretty much anything that didn’t kill them now instead.

“Very good,” said Dean Blaine. “Before we head down to the combat cells for rating, does anyone have any questions so far?” No hands came up, everyone seemed a bit numb, which was, Sam was sure, exactly what they wanted.  Dean Blaine continued. “Excellent! I want the girls to go to Professor Pendleton and the boys to go to Professor Fletcher so they can pair you up for your ranking matches.”

Sam took a deep breath before standing and heading to Professor Fletcher. He was very conscious of all the stares from the other boys in the class. Each one of them was looking at him as the one to beat. After all he was the best fighter among all the supers who fought in cages for a living. He knew better, he never had to face people in the arena who didn’t have flashy, showy powers, or who could just stop people in their tracks. He never faced energy projectors, just other physical supers. Strongmen galore and other exotic physical supers but that was it.

He turned to his roommate, “Ray,” he said with a sigh. “I’ve got a lot of shit coming my way. I’ll try not to let you get splashed by it.”

Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Not quite the cage

Sam waited in a small vestibule for the door to open and admit him to the combat cell for the first ranking match. He didn’t have long to wait before three separate locks disengaged and the steel door swung outward into the cell.

Sam entered cautiously. Gazing around the room he was struck with one difference immediately. ‘It’s bigger’, he thought, automatically comparing the concrete room he stepped into to the cage he was so used to. The differences were profound. The cage was smaller, fifty feet across and thirty feet high, dome shaped, and made of bars spaced far enough apart to see between with a clear unbreakable polymer in-between and for the high power matches it was supported by a force field as well… just in case. The cage was certainly meant to contain the supers within and protect the audience, but it was made for an audience. Hell, in most venues the bars were gimmicked to turn clear so as not to obstruct the view. It was also made for combatants who were primarily based around purely physical powers, strength, agility, speed. They didn’t have blasters in there or tekes or anyone who didn’t give a good show. ULCL fighting was mixed martial arts on steroids, take trained fighters and add super powers, strength, durability, speed and let them fight it out.

This room clearly had a different purpose. Contain anything. It was a cube seventy feet to the side, the walls were reinforced concrete and other than two doors on either side and a viewing window set high above, it was featureless. Max realized again that he might be fighting someone with powers he couldn’t just rush in and overwhelm. He was also fighting people who might not have any level of durability. Everyone in ULCL had some form of durability, enough to last in the cage. Without it, there wasn’t much point. An occasional upset match that ended in a knock out in seconds was OK, but day in and day out, for maximum profit, they needed fights that lasted and entertained. Fights that went back and forth, changed who had the advantage, and had some thrills to them were the best. His last fight with Max Malone was already the highest selling pay-per-view and DVD in the history of the ULCL. ‘Well’, he thought as he chuckled to himself softly, ‘the residuals will help me pay for college’.

Across the room a similar door had opened simultaneously and admitted another black uniformed student. He didn’t look familiar to him but there were almost seventy of them all waiting to fight one another and get ranked for the year. ‘At least I don’t have to beat up my roommate’, he thought as he looked over his opponent. ‘Then again, with Ray, I suppose I can’t really be sure of that’.

A few seconds spent inspecting his foe told him it wasn’t his roommate in disguise. He was large and radiated the cool confidence that said strength based to Sam. He had seen and fought enough of them over the last year that he had a feel for it.

Instantly he felt more at ease. This was a fight he was used to and unless there was something out of the ordinary, a fight he knew he could win.

A man’s voice came from nowhere, “introduce yourselves,” it said. Sam started to think of the voice as the announcer, or maybe the referee. He shook his head realizing he still had to break out of thinking this was going to be like the cage.

“I’m Sam Fink,” he said nodding and raising a hand in salute to his opponent who stood more than fifty feet away across the room. This wasn’t a match they didn’t come to the center and shake hands. Distance could be an advantage or disadvantage in some of these fights and no one was going to start next to their opponents. He was going to have to close with them and take whatever they could dish out while doing it.

“I know who you are,” his opponent said, also raising his hand to wave in salute. “Hell everyone knows who you are. And when I beat you, everyone will know who I am.”

So that’s how we are starting’, thought Sam, ‘there’s going to be a lot of that’.

“My name is Leo… Leo Mack, everyone calls me Mack, as in hits like a Mack Truck.”

Stupid’, thought Sam, he was already pretty sure he was dealing with a strength based super here but his opponent just gave it away, no strategy, no element of surprise. ‘I doubt he’s thoughtful enough to try and trick me about his power here’.

“Well,” Sam replied as he activated his power, enveloping himself in a shimmering energy form that mimicked his own body… if his body was nine feet tall and built like Mr. Universe. “I wish you good luck.”

Actually seeing the size of Sam’s energy form his opponent paused for a second, “Yeah, uh thanks… you too,” he answered, dropping the bravado.

“Begin,” came the voice again over the sound system.

Sam began a slow methodical approach toward his opponent but before he got halfway toward the center of the room “Mack” came barreling toward him full speed.

Idiot’, he thought, ‘or just never really trained and always counted on his powers’.

As Mack was making his grab for Sam, he quickly sidestepped and dropped to one knee, throwing his arm out at what was now just below neck level on Mack. It was a classic clothesline in the ULCL, never go for the neck where you could snap it, always go just below and let the chest take the blow.

No one in the ULCL would have fallen for that, they wouldn’t be allowed to step into the cage if they weren’t trained that well. Mack didn’t even have time to realize what was going on when the breath was knocked from him and he was thrown onto his back finding it difficult to get air into his lungs.

This is where Sam made his first mistake of the day. He stepped back and let his enemy recover. This let Mack get his breath back, his feet under him, and allowed him to start pummeling Sam’s energy form. He didn’t do it well, he had very little skill depending mostly on brute strength, but he had a decent amount of that.

He needed to start thinking of him as an enemy not just an opponent. In the cage you didn’t relentlessly smash your opponent. That’s part of why some people thought ULCL was fake; it wasn’t fake, it was putting on a good show. You didn’t just pummel your opponent into submission, you played with each other, had some give and take, and then you pummeled them into submission. He had to start thinking like a hero in training, anyone he was fighting was an enemy not simply an opponent and they needed to be put down.

Sam looked down at his enemy, he had to remember enemy, through the sheath of energy that surrounded him. There was the slight distortion the glow caused that was always there and there was more. It was a trick he never told his coaches about, an advantage he kept in the cage that let him deal with people who were sandbagging or had hidden talents. He could see the energy moving throughout Mack’s body. He could sense the flow of whatever it was that enhanced his muscles. And, since he was so used to it from fighting other supers in the cage, he could measure it.

Mack was strong, he had nothing on Muscle Malone but he was strong. In Sam’s estimate, he could probably lift about a ton, maybe a ton and a half, right now. His skin and musculature were dense and absorptive he could take even more damage than he could dish out. That was good because Sam figured he needed to make up for his mistake and show the coaches… professors… whichever they were, what he was capable of. It was too bad there was no cage wall to bounce him off, the reinforced concrete just wouldn’t have the same effect if he didn’t shatter it and Mack wasn’t quite that tough. ‘Maybe it shouldn’t be about strength’, he thought, ‘beating a strongman at his own game is all well and good. Beating a strongman using my mind is better’.

Instead of simply exchanging blows with Mack until one of them passed out from the damage, and Sam was sure that would be Mack not him, Sam stepped into the next blow and grabbed Mack around the head with his oversized hands. As all of his prior opponents did when he first pulled this trick on them, Mack panicked.  Having your face covered complete like Sam was palming a basketball and then having it engulfed in that massive hand, was too much for many people to take. Mack tried to take a deep breath and Sam extended the energy of the hand just a trifle and it gagged him over the open mouth which in turn induced more panic. Mack flailed and flailed until he finally passed out from lack of oxygen, happening all the faster for his struggles.

“Winner, Sam Fink” said the voice over the sound system and a white uniformed student entered through Mack’s door and bent over to make sure he was OK. After a few seconds Mack began to stir, the man in the white uniform kept him calm and helped him to his feet.

“Good fight,” Sam said walking over and offering him his hand. He had already dropped the energy form once he was declared winner. He was smart enough not to think about dropping it before that announcement.

Mack just looked at it with a sneer on his face. “Yeah, nice trick choking me like that. Very heroic,” he said dripping sarcasm. “Next time I’ll be ready and you won’t be able to pull that crap on me.”

He turned and stalked off through the door leaving Sam holding his hand out to no one.

“Don’t worry about it,” said the man in white. “It’s a common enough reaction to losing, especially in the first bout, especially among the physically enhanced.”

“Yeah, I’m used to poor sportsmanship. I… well I just didn’t expect to find it here among would be heroes.”

The man in white threw back his head and laughed so loud it echoed off the concrete walls. “Oh, that’s great. I love freshman naiveté.”

“Thanks a lot,” Sam answered a bit sullen despite the win.

“Don’t worry about it. Everyone comes here with preconceived notions. None of them hold true in the end. Everyone here are just people. Eighteen year olds for the most part and, just like all eighteen year olds, they are finding their way. Most of them are looking to explore alcohol and sex as much as they are looking to be heroes. At least none of them are stupid enough to want to experiment with drugs. The few who are that dumb are gone before the first day ends. Healers can sense things like that.”

“Yeah, I guess I never thought about that. I’m nineteen and spent the last year… working… plus I’ve already done a fair amount of experimenting before getting here. I’m ready to focus on being a hero. I guess I thought everyone else here was too.”

“Oh they are, don’t get me wrong. On the whole, the HCP students are a bit more mature than the average college student, but they are more driven also, and they don’t like to lose.” He smiled briefly and chuckled to himself. “I remember one fight my year where the loser who was the toughest strength super in the whole year ranted and raved about losing to a ‘god damned wannabe playmate of the year’. She’s been number one ranked all four years and is a sure shot to graduate first in the class this year. The strongman was cut after junior year, he couldn’t keep up. They had become good friends before that.”

Sam laughed despite himself. He held out his hand to the upperclassman, “I’m Sam Fink.”

The white uniformed man stared at him when he introduced himself. “Damn, they really did a number on your face. I couldn’t recognize you even knowing who you are.” He shook his hand, “I’m Jim Sharp. I’m a senior and one of the healers. I’m also a fan.”

“Well, find me sometime outside of ranking and I’ll be happy to chat about ULCL but right now I probably have to get out of here and find my next bout.”

“You have a little time, but yeah you don’t want to be late.”

“Thanks for chatting.”

“Listen, Sam, can I give you some advice?”

“Sure Jim,” Sam replied with just a bit of hesitation.

“You already know this isn’t the same kind of fighting you’re used to. And I’m sure you’ve thought about what you are going to be going through a great deal.”

“I have.”

“As you face the challenges of the next year and beyond, just remember your ultimate goal. We are all here to be heroes and only the best of us will make it though. But there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last four years. The best of us isn’t the strongest, the toughest, or even the most powerful. The best of us have a hero’s heart, you need the power but that only takes you so far.”


“What I’m trying to say but mangling terribly is this. I watched your last title fight with Max Malone.”

“Muscle,” Sam corrected automatically, he hadn’t called him Max since that night. Sam felt a bit guilty about what happened to him afterwards. Maybe if he had been a bit more respectful about his name Muscle wouldn’t have lost it with that fan.

“Ok, Muscle,” Jim said quickly trying not to let himself be interrupted. “My point is I listened to your speech, and I watched what you did, taking the risk to drop your armor so you could get back in and win the fight. That was the stuff of heroes. That is the stuff that gets you through four years of this. It inspired me. I might not have made it through last year’s cuts without that inspiration. So I wanted to thank you and I wanted to tell you to keep it up.”

Sam didn’t know what to say. He just stared at Jim. It was like someone came up to him and said you’re my hero having nothing to do with being a champion of the ULCL but for who he was on the inside. It was something he hoped he would have to get used to.

“That attitude and that willingness to take the risk when you need to,” Jim continued, “that’s what being a hero is about. Don’t let the trivial crap make you forget that. And don’t let shit like what just happened eat you up inside. Taking grudges outside the cage… well that gets people kicked out permanently.”

Sam nodded, and then he turned and walked toward his door, leaving Jim in the middle of the room. Just before he walked back through his door he turned back to face the healer. “I won’t forget it Jim. I promise. I’m walking out of this school with a white cape on my back in four years. When I do, I want you there at the ceremony wearing yours cause I can tell, you have it in you too.”

He stepped out through the door and sought his next match. One down four to go to get that number one spot. ‘The number one in Jim’s year held it all four years...’ he thought, ‘well I hope she likes being in company with me because that’s what I’m going to do too’.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Can’t smash everything

Returning to the observation room, Sam looked at the displays that were set up listing finished and current matches. The first round hadn’t quite ended, there were still two active men’s combats and one active women’s combat. Whoever Al Stanley and Ralph Webber were, their match had already gone thirty minutes. Clay Newton and Marc Simons had gone twenty three minutes. He was glad to notice that despite a power not directly applicable to combat, Ray won his match, in record time it seemed, it clocked in at thirteen seconds.

“God damn! How did he do that?” Sam muttered aloud.

He looked around the room trying to find his roommate but didn’t see him. He hoped that he wasn’t in the infirmary. He must have looked confused because a pretty redhead came over and asked, “Is something wrong? You’re looking around the room like you got separated from your mom in a crowded mall.” She giggled at her own joke. Sam didn’t find it all that funny.

“No, I’m fine. I’m just trying to find my roommate. He won his match according to the monitor but I don’t see him anywhere. I was just about to head over to the infirmary to see if he was there.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it, someone is probably just staking their claim.”

“Excuse me?”

“You don’t know about it?”

“About what?”

“I guess it is more of a thing the girls pass on and the boys snicker about behind their backs. Well, it’s sort of a tradition, some of the girls from the class always look for particularly promising boys from the first round and stake a claim on them.”

When Sam still looked like a poleaxed cow, she shook her head at him and continued. “They watch the monitors and look for impressive wins and grab them before anyone else can. Did your friend win quickly?”

“Yeah,” answered Sam, still confused, “thirteen seconds.”

“Oh I’m sure someone grabbed him then,” she said with a smile. “He’s off in one of the side rooms playing the super equivalent of seven minutes in heaven.”

“He’s what?” Sam asked, his voice rising, causing many heads to turn and stare at him wondering what was going on.

“Don’t be so shocked.” She looked at him predatorily, “you’re Samson Smash right? Not as cute as you were before but still a looker. And definitely promising…” She flashed a wicked grin at him, “How about it, would you like to join me for seven minutes in heaven, super style?”

Sam blushed furiously. “I… that is… ummm.”

“Come on Sam you’ll love it, my power is to induce ecstasy in anyone I touch. You’ll never forget it.”

“I… umm… well that is… see the thing is…”

Suddenly she literally doubled over laughing, her voice deepening as she did so. By the time she was rolling around on the floor, she was no longer a she, she was quite obviously Ray Rios.

If anything Sam blushed even redder. A few laughs came from those immediately around them, who were close enough to have heard and seen everything. One man and woman standing off on the other side of the room turned to them and started laughing loudly as well.

“Ray, I’m going to kill you,” Sam said as he reached for his roommate who he wasn’t sure was actually his friend.

“Relax Sam,” Ray said grabbing Sam’s hand and using it to help himself up. “This was good for you, trust me.”

“In what way was embarrassing the shit out of me, ‘good for me’?”

“Well, after the dean’s speech and your comments earlier, and especially after a nice decisive victory, you were coming across a bit larger than life. People might have loved you or hated you for it but they didn’t see you as one of them. Now you’re just some poor schlub blushing furiously after being embarrassed in front of the entire class. It took you down a notch and made you more human.”

“Great, so I went from schlub to idiot in the space of one practical joke.”

“That’s one way to look at it. Another is you get a free chance to bond with all the others I’m going to pull stuff on over the next few weeks.”

Sam knew he wasn’t going to win this one and he was a veteran of many practical joke wars. In the ULCL they happened all the time. He already had a few ideas for revenge on his roommate. Changing the subject he asked, “So how did you win your fight in thirteen seconds? Are there some physical powers you’ve been hiding from me?”

Ray chuckled. “I’m all about hiding everything from everyone, it’s the very nature of my power.” He came in close to whisper. “No I’m not hiding anything, or not really, but there are a few aspects of my particular type of shape shifting that help in a fight.”

“Ray,” Sam started frustration showing through just a bit, “do I have to use my power in a very public and humiliating demonstration with you now?”

“Alright… alright, just keep it quiet, I want to use this little trick for the rest of the rankings and people finding out about it makes it useless.”

“I swear, I won’t tell anyone.”

“It would be pretty useless against you anyhow, you wouldn’t be stupid enough to fall for it.”


“Alright, I go in already morphed.”


“Into Dean Blaine.”

“What??” Sam exclaimed causing people to once again turn their heads. He pulled Ray up from where he was sitting on the floor and herded him to a relatively empty corner of the room. “What the hell do you mean you go in as Dean Blaine?”

“Just that, I entered before the fight, I told my opponent that his challenger had lost his nerve at the last moment and quit the program and went to shake his hand. When the buzzer sounded I cold cocked him.”

“That worked?”

“That worked. That’s what my power is all about, fooling people. It won’t work on everyone, it depends on surprise and the opponent not being able to take a punch any better than anyone else.”

“Ray man, you are insane. This is going to be one hell of a year living with you.”

The two of them found some seats and grabbed a drink chatting about this and that while waiting for their turn to go again. Just as Sam was about to ask if the redhead Ray was playing was someone real or not, a buzzer sounded indicating the start of the next round was about to commence. Both of the remaining men’s matches had finished with Ralph and Clay each taking victories. The list of the second round of men’s matches filled the screen. He had to report to combat cell 3C and face someone named Dan Sutton. He and the others began to file out when he noticed none of the women were moving. He glanced up at their monitor and was shocked to see that Jaqueline Ramos and Kim Nash’s match had gone for over one hour so far. Shaking his head and wondering what sort of powers they had, he went off to his next match.

Again Sam found himself in a small vestibule but this time the locks disengaged almost as soon as he entered. Even so he took a few moments in the chamber to think about what he might be facing.

He started listing off some of the simpler powers, there were a lot of knocks out there, healers, invisible men and women, stretchies, too many to list. They wouldn’t be much of an issue for him though he was going to need to figure ways to take them out safely and efficiently. The last thing he wanted to do is kill someone by overestimating their ability to take damage.

Energy projectors he should be OK with, most forms of energy couldn’t get through his own energy form. A really strong one… well he’d thought about ways to try and manipulate his form to help deal with that but he hadn’t had much chance to practice it. Advanced minds and other mental powers, he could deal with straight forward ones but a really strong telepath or telekinetic… someone who could scramble his senses… he just wasn’t sure. He hoped he wouldn’t have to face one.

He shook himself out of his reverie and realized he better head in before it registers a forfeit or something. Losing in a fair fight he wouldn’t like but he could deal with. Losing because he didn’t show up… no way. He walked through and into the chamber chiding himself internally for what he took as tardiness.

The room itself was identical to the first combat room he had been in. Idly he wondered how many of these chambers there were and if during years with students who had particularly destructive powers if they ever ran out.

Having entered from the other side, his opponent for the match was already inside. He was leaning up against the wall next to his door, as if trying to keep as much distance as possible between himself and his opponent.

He was a tall skinny man with spiky blond hair and a soul patch. He had the arms of his black shirt rolled up or torn off exposing sleeve tattoos on both arms done as an abstract design in blacks and greys. Nearly seventy feet away Sam couldn’t really make out any details.

Sam couldn’t have explained it but looking at his new opponent he knew he wasn’t a strongman. He didn’t carry himself like someone with super strength or enhanced durability would, he would have to be particularly careful when engaging him not to injure him.

Remembering Ray’s trick that allowed him a rapid win Sam activated his power early. He didn’t want to be caught off guard when the announcer rang the bell. His body rose off the ground floating in the center of the nine foot tall energy form. He looked over at his opponent… his enemy… again to see if he could get a glimpse into what his powers might be and was surprised to see that his arms were writhing in motion under his new visual enhancement. He didn’t so much see power flowing to them as a decrease in energy along his arms, as if even the light that would normally reflect off them was being absorbed.

If this guy was an energy absorber Sam would need to be very careful, without the energy form he was just a normal nineteen year old. Admittedly he was a nineteen year old in fantastic shape trained in physical combat but so were many of his opponents here he had no doubt.

He knew he was going to have to get used to fighting a large variety of opponents. But an absorber was probably his Achilles heel.

Sam was so distracted by the possibility of fighting an absorber that he almost missed the announcer’s voice from nowhere saying, “Introduce yourselves.”

His enemy spoke first, “I’m Dan Sutton,” he said with a smile on his face as he glanced up and down at the energy form.

“Sam Fink.”

“You know I’ve watched you on TV once or twice but damn if that thing isn’t impressive in person.”

“Your tattoos’ are… impressive too.”

“Noticed those did you? Well that’s OK. I’m sure you know you aren’t going face strongmen at every turn in here. They tend to do well in the beginning of the HCP because they are used to fighting, sometimes used to fighting other supers. But my brother says they cap out early.”

“Your brother’s in the HCP?”

“Nah, he’s in his internship, he graduated from West last year.”

Just great’, thought Sam, ‘a legacy student, with a brother no doubt coaching him on how to get through trials and score well. Nothing to do about it, just need to fight as well as I can’.

“Well,” continued Sam out loud, “good luck.”

“Good luck to you too.”

“Begin,” came the announcer’s voice again over the sound system.

Sam, unsure of what his enemy might do, began his typical slow methodical approach. His enemy didn’t move toward him, instead raising those writhing arms and pointing them at him. From each arm the writhing blackness seemed to coalesce at his hands forming a large black sphere which launched through the air at Sam.

Sam dove to the side in a tuck and roll made all the more impressive by his current nine foot size. The two spheres went whizzing by him, making a sucking sound as they passed. They hit the floor right next to where he had been standing revealing that his enemy’s aim at this distance wasn’t perfect.

The orbs stuck where they hit and they began to flatten, the spherical shape slightly deforming as it oozed onto the floor where it struck.

No sooner did he roll to his feet when two more spheres flew towards him. Noticeably smaller but moving faster, he dodged left but got caught by one of them in the thigh. It stuck and started to swell slightly. It reminded Sam of the plastic bubbles he got as a kid, sticky goop that you put on the end of a straw and blew into the straw to inflate them. It even had that same sort of smell, chemical, plastic, with a hint of lighter fluid. He grabbed it instinctively to pull it off but it stuck to his hand. Then with a small amount of panic, he realized he couldn’t pull his hand loose from his thigh.

He was off balance when the next two spheres came rocketing in, these somewhat smaller again and faster moving. Unprepared to dodge, both hit, one on his chest and one on his hip, and both started to inflate immediately.

Sam knew he was in a precarious situation. Without dropping the energy form completely, which would leave him vulnerable, he wasn’t sure how to get rid of the sphere holding his hand down to his thigh. The smell made him wonder if it was flammable but he had no way to set it afire and test the hypothesis.

As he thought about how to get loose, more spheres continued to hurtle at him from his enemy. It seemed the more time Dan had to shoot, the larger and slower the spheres were. The smaller spheres didn’t cover as much but they came in ridiculously fast.

He had to get to Dan before he was immobilized so, ignoring the growing spheres currently stuck to him, he started a lumbering run toward his enemy. The hand stuck to his thigh was really making this difficult. He wasn’t in position to run, he was bent forward with his hand on his thigh, his stride now more like a lurch then a run because of it.

Dan switched tactics again when he saw Sam barreling down on him and started firing the faster but smaller spheres again. Sam was too off balance to dodge well so he simply kept moving forward, absorbing the hits as they came. But these weren’t blows, these weren’t energy blasts, these were solid, or semi-solid, balls of goo. Not all of them hit but each one that did began to inflate and grow. When they came into contact with each other they merged and began to grow even faster. Sam was quickly becoming a mass of black tarry goo.

Sam kept focusing on two things getting close to his enemy and keeping his arm free, he had to keep the arm free so he could do something when he got to him.

The distance closed and Sam became increasingly covered. Dan had only managed to get his foot stuck once and with the momentum he had going it wasn’t enough to hold him to the ground but it did slow him and make the lurch even more unsteady. That foot seemed like it was coated in glue and had to be pulled loose with each step. He got to fifteen feet away and was getting ready to leap for Dan when his enemy changed tactics. Instead of aiming at Sam, he started firing small spheres one after the other at the floor as rapidly as he could, coating it in an expanding pool of the tar-like substance.

This time Sam’s momentum worked against him, he couldn’t stop before hitting the sticky patch and when he did there was enough there that he stuck and stuck hard. His forward motion carried him over and he went down face first and stuck to the floor. His arm was still free and he struggled to keep it free and not push off the ground with it as he normally would to get up.

Dan, the true enemy that he was, didn’t give him any time to deal with it. He moved in to the edge of the pool where he had the best shot and rapidly fired sphere after sphere at Sam. His arm was stuck down his back, which had been clear till this point was covered, everything but his head was coated in a thick layer of expanding tar.

His head was still free and he could easily see Dan standing at the edge, two spheres in hand his arms roiling in black energy waiting to hit him again.

“Surrender now Sam, you can’t move,” Dan said seeming disheartened that it had been so easy. “Even if you could, I can just hit you again. I won’t cover your head because it could be considered lethal force but you can sit here for hours if you want before you face up to the fact that I beat you. They’ll wait and our classmates will be annoyed but that’s up to you.”

Sam redoubled his struggles, “I’m not out of this yet,” he said with defiance in his voice.

“Yes, you are,” replied Dan, “you just won’t admit it. You can’t smash everything Sam. This isn’t some cage match, and I’m not another strongman for you to beat down.”

No you aren’t another strongman to beat down’, Sam agreed in his head, ‘but you forget I’m not just another strong man either. Let’s see what I know now that I can use’, Sam asked himself, still thinking about this fight strategically while giving every impression of losing the struggle.

He can’t throw more than two of those spheres at a time. He needs to aim them. The bigger they are the slower they are and the longer they take to shoot. What else? There must be something here I can use… he turned the thought over again and again in his head. ‘He doesn’t want to use lethal force, so he won’t suffocate me. That wouldn’t be a problem if he could just let me pass out and then free me’. With a sudden realization it came to him. ‘He can’t get rid of the goo, he can only create it. If he could, he would have a whole slew of other attacks and strategies’.

Sam slowed his struggles, making it seem to his enemy that he must be getting ready to give up. “Dan?” he said barely above a whisper as his struggles were dying down.

“Dan?” he repeated softly, ever so softly.

“What?” Dan asked coming closer to be able to hear what Sam was trying to say, now standing right at the edge of the pool.

“I’m not just another strongman either.”

With that, he began to expand the energy form. Usually when he dropped the form he shrank it, absorbing it back into himself. That let him drop slowly to the ground while keeping up the appearance that the form was something that grew out of him rather than simply formed around him. But he didn’t have to do it that way. When he fought Muscle Malone he used new tricks where he reshaped the form. He also dropped it and raised it faster than ever before. Now he used another of those tricks; he expanded the form rapidly till it burst. Normally this was just a dramatic way to drop it, it seemed to explode around him and he dropped to the ground instead of being lowered gently.

Now it was an offensive move as all the goo that had built up on the outside of the form stretched, tore, and then flew outward as the form no longer was there to hold it together. The entire arena was coated with the stuff including Dan, who luckily enough didn’t get any covering his face.

As Sam fell he quickly sheathed himself in the energy form again, this time a much smaller denser version, so he didn’t actually land in whatever goo was on the floor.

He walked over to Dan, each step being like walking on flypaper. He looked at him from a height of only seven feet in this version of the energy form. “See here is a huge difference between our power sets Dan. When I have you immobilized, I can knock you out without employing lethal force.”

With that he flicked him across the temple with his finger and Dan immediately lost consciousness. When he did, all the goo in the room simply vanished.

“Hmm, I wonder if he realizes it all goes away when he loses consciousness. Another fact to put in his file,” Sam said aloud to no one in particular.

‘Winner, Sam Fink,” came the announcement overhead. He turned to exit the room as a healer in grey entered from Dan’s door.

“That’s two,” said Sam aloud. Inside he wondered how many more fights like that he could pull off and how many of his tricks he was going to have to expose this early in the year. ‘If it was in me to do it I might throw a fight and be able to sandbag going forward’, he thought, ‘but that’s just not me’.