Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport were interrupted from washing their breakfast dishes by the sound of the intercom from the kitchen sounding.
“Mary and Roy here. Roy would like to taken down to the underground levels for some special training,” came Mary’s voice through the speakers. “Would Mr. Transport be on hand to assist us?”
Mr. Number and Mr. Transport looked at each and gave a nod. Mr. Transport went to the door and swung it open.
“Good morning, students,” Mr. Transport declared. “So, you wish to put in some training time on the weekend? Well, kudos for the determination.”
“Actually,” Roy said from just outside of the door frame, beyond where Mr. Numbers could see at his vantage point. “I’m the only one going down, and I’d appreciate it if you hung close by. I don’t think my business down there will take too long.”
“You can always take the lift back up if you like,” Mr. Transport tried to deflect.
“Please go with him,” said Mary. “I think it will prove to be necessary.”
“Very well,” Mr. Transport said with a sigh. “Let’s keep it brisk if at all possible, though. I do have things to do today.”
“No problem,” Mary assured him. “Roy will be done in no time at all, won’t you, Roy?”
“Damn straight,” Roy agreed.
“Well then, off we go,” said Mr. Transport. A moment later the door began to swing shut, as Mr. Transport’s body was no longer there to wedge it open. It stopped before locking, pushed opened by the small hand of Mary Smith, who poked her head into the room and locked eyes with Mr. Numbers.
“While they’re gone, what do you say to a game of chess?” Mary asked.
“Hardly seems like much of a game with a telepath,” Mr. Numbers replied gruffly.
“No powers, I promise,” Mary countered with a quick grin.
“...Fine,” Mr. Numbers conceded. The girl was clearly up to something, and if he wanted to know what it was, he needed more data.
* * *
“So, what exercise are you looking to practice?” Mr. Transport asked Roy as they arrived in the underground area.
“Combat,” Roy replied briskly, striding off toward the gym. Mr. Transport had never seen Roy so focused on anything. He was in his combat uniform, had left his silly little hat back above ground, and seemed to be dead set on whatever he was doing. It was more progress than Mr. Transport had dared hope to see from the narcissist in the entirety of the year, let alone in the span of a few days.
Mr. Transport set off at a brisk stride, not quite catching up to Roy but never losing sight of him, either. They emerged in the weight room, where several grey uniforms were getting some exercise and a pair of black uniforms stood at the back near the free weights. It seemed the two other freshmen were stretching near the weights rather than lifting them. Mr. Transport was about to conclude they must be too intimidated by the older students to work out around them when he suddenly realized who those two students were.
“Chad!” Roy bellowed from across the room, drawing the attention of everyone there, included the intended party, Chad Taylor, who was stretching in the rear of the room. “I’ve come to challenge you for your rank of number one,” Roy declared, cocky smirk twitching at the edges of his mouth.
Chad seemed oddly nonplussed, giving Roy a shrug then turning to the other freshman. “Shane,” Chad said to his friend, “would you be so kind as to get a referee and a healer so that we may count this as a sanctioned match?”
The other freshman, Shane one could easily conclude, gave a nod of his head and set off toward the offices. Chad finished his stretches and walked calmly over to Roy.
“You’re in the top five, so I won’t be taking it as easy on you,” Chad said simply.
“Taking it easy? You’re better off worrying how you’ll find the strength to last five minutes against the powerhouse you’re facing,” Roy shot back.
“So be it,” Chad replied. “Let’s select a room.”
* * *
“First move goes to the lady,” Mr. Numbers said as he gazed at the chessboard.
“Let me guess: from my opening move you can deduce my strategy, my personality type, and my favorite food?” Mary asked.
“I thought you promised no powers.”
“I didn’t need my powers to know that about you,” Mary answered, moving a pawn forward. Before her finger had even left the piece Mr. Numbers had run the simulations and knew how he would win this game.
Mr. Numbers made his move, then Mary, and so on for several turns. Eventually Mr. Numbers made a striking observation.
“You have no idea how to play chess, do you?” Mr. Numbers asked.
“I don’t know much about strategy,” Mary admitted. “I do know how the pieces move, though.”
“Are you sure? Because your moves say otherwise. The only ones you’re using to their full potential are the pawns and the king,” Mr. Numbers pointed out.
“Sometimes a piece must make some bad moves in order to make good ones,” Mary said.
“I presume you have an explanation to go with that statement. By all means proceed.”
“All right,” Mary said, picking up a piece. “Take this rook for example. It’s quite the powerhouse when you think about it: unstoppable, yet limited in its movements. All it can do is charge blindly forward or to the side.”
“Correct,” Mr. Numbers said.
“But what if this rook were defective somehow? What if it could only move forward, if it didn’t have the ability to go side to side? That weakness would limit its movements tremendously, leaving the rest of my army vulnerable and exposed.”
“That is true, but only in a purely academic sense. A rook is used by the player wielding it, so it cannot be defective. Your rook can move side to side, and is not broken, so start using it correctly,” Mr. Numbers retorted.
“Let’s say that it was,” Mary continued. “Just for the sake of argument. Now, as the person controlling this army, should my first priority be charging blindly forward despite my weakness, or would it be fixing my rook?”
Mr. Numbers said nothing for a moment, then moved his knight and took another of Mary’s pawns.
“You know an oddly large amount about human psychology for a girl who has lived in the woods,” Mr. Numbers observed.
“Maybe,” Mary acquiesced. “But have you ever wondered what I did out there in the silence?”
“Actually yes, but that’s not what I meant,” Mary said. “I spent those years growing up, and sorting through all the thoughts and things I’d been exposed to. I read psychology books and watched television, all to put the various and often horrible things I had grown up hearing leak from people’s minds into perspective. Think of it as intensive training in dealing with humanity.”
“An interesting pastime,” Mr. Numbers said. “Also, checkmate.”
“Good game,” Mary said with a smile. “We should play again next weekend. Maybe I’ll learn a little about strategy from battling you.”
“I don’t think you’ll improve that much playing only one game a week,” Mr. Numbers told her.
“Probably not, but at least by next week my rook should be in working order.”
* * *
“This is a match for ranking,” said the crackling pre-recorded voice of Dean Blaine through the speaker box. “As such, the only ways to win are to incapacitate your opponent or force him to give up. Should serious injury occur, the match will be stopped while the injury is reviewed and it is determined if the student can continue. Everyone do your best!”
The last line felt a touch out of place as Roy and Chad stared at each other from across their combat cell. The referee was watching from his post through the thickened window, along with Mr. Transport, a girl in grey who was presumably a healer, and Shane. For Roy, though, none of those people mattered. The only one of consequence was looking unconcerned and removing the jacket from his uniform, revealing a tank top scarcely hiding the chiseled physique underneath it. Chad let his arms dangle at his sides, then gave the referee the nod that he was ready. Roy followed suit, and a husky male voice bellowed through the speaker.
Roy took off charging. There was no need to draw this out: he was going to crush this blond pansy and take that number one rank as soon as possible. In a way he felt a touch of gratitude to Mary. If she hadn’t given him the idea, he might have forgotten all about the rankings in lieu of the fine tail that was wandering the campus. This was good, though. He’d win the fight, show everyone he was the best, and let Coach George know he could shove that smug concern right up his ass.
Roy didn’t even slow down as he neared Chad, rearing back and clocking him with a right hook that would knock a train off course.
At least, that was what he’d planned to do.
Roy’s fist whistled powerfully through the air, connecting with nothing and jerking Roy slightly off balance. Before he could recover, an open palm crashed into his jaw, sending him stumbling back and leaving stars in his eyes.
“Fuck,” Roy swore. That had hurt. It had been a long time since anything had hurt, which meant that Chad wasn’t all apathy and confidence. That kid had to be swinging with some significant power to make Roy feel his blows.
“This is pointless,” Chad said, seemingly unmoved from the position he’d been in when Roy charged him. That was impossible, though; Roy knew he’d been dead on with his punch. Unless Chad had an ability that let them pass through him. “I’m sorry, but you aren’t strong enough for me to waste time fighting. I won’t learn anything from beating you.”
“Giving up already?” Roy asked as he drew himself to his feet.
“Walk away, Mr. Daniels,” Chad said. “You’ve stepped into a league you’re not ready for.”
“Fuck you I’m not!” Roy yelled, swinging his huge fists for Chad’s midsection as he rushed forward once more. Roy missed again, but this time he saw what happened. Chad wasn’t teleporting or going insubstantial: he simply avoided the blows by a fraction of an inch, gauging the punches perfectly and placing his body in the areas where they were not. Another palm struck Roy’s ear and he felt his vision blur for a moment.
“You are a mess. You telegraph your movements so clearly that anyone with a bit of training can read them. You swing wild, focusing on power instead of precision, and you have literally no guard nor reflexes designed to block. You fight like what you are: an overly-strong fool who never learned how to focus his power,” Chad said as Roy blinked and cleared his eyes.
“I don’t need to guard from sissy shit like that,” Roy spat back. “Or didn’t you know? I’m tougher than a three dollar steak, Blondie.”
“Spoken like a true idiot,” Chad sighed. “I’ll bet you didn’t even bother to research my power before challenging me, did you?”
“Yeah, I know what it is,” Roy responded. “You suck dick like a Hoover.”
“I’m afraid not. My power is total control of my body, from the muscles that I move all the way down to my cells and the chemical composition of my skin,” Chad explained.
“That’s a pretty weak-ass power,” Roy chuckled.
Chad’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Most people would agree. Of course, most people wouldn’t think of ingesting carbon and other minerals daily to make their muscles as strong as interwoven steel cables and their bones harder than diamonds. Most people underestimate how useful full control of one’s mind is, of the power in being able to instantly train reflexes and increase the speed of one’s perception. I assure you, it is not a weak power, and if you come at me one more time, I’ll illustrate that to you personally.”
Roy pulled himself up and blinked one last time to clear his eyes. “Bring it on, babycakes.” Roy charged forward once more, but this time didn’t get a chance to swing his fists. Roy had barely realized it when Chad was suddenly beneath him, driving his own fist into Roy’s stomach. Before the pain could fully register, Chad had taken Roy’s left arm and spun it around behind him, cracking and breaking the arm loudly. Roy’s feet went out from under him as Chad’s hand wrapped around Roy’s head and drove it crashing into the concrete. The snap of a kick was all the warning he had before he felt impact and the sensation of broken ribs. In what seemed like less than a second, Chad had utterly destroyed him.
“One last thing about my ‘weak’ power,” Chad hissed down at Roy. “It is an inheritance from my father.” Chad raised his leg until his foot was over his shoulder, then brought it crashing down on Roy’s head.