Chapter 77

“Rule number one is that you’re stronger than you think you are,” Coach Persephone said as she walked down the line of students before her. The two hours of conditioning were over and they had finally arrived at a more specialized training. She was handling her kids in the regular gym while George had taken his down a floor to a combat field. The faces staring back at her were uncertain and timid. She knew these expressions well: every year she was surrounded with the same looks on different faces. It was an arrangement of features that told the familiar story of someone who was powerful yet mortal, a Super who had to fear the mundane. She knew these expressions very well - she’d seen one in the mirror all her childhood, after all - and she took a particular joy in wiping them off any student in her charge.

“That isn’t just pretty talk, either. I’m not encouraging you, or trying to build your self-esteem. I’m being literal. Each of you is more powerful than you believe. Alice Adair, for example, can fly. Now, how useful would you rate that skill in combat, Mr. Weaver?”

“Not very,” said Rich, body language solid but voice hesitant.

“You’d be right much of the time,” Coach Persephone agreed. “In circumstances where battle is taking place in an elevated location, or the enemy has the high ground, or even mid-air, though, you would be very incorrect. The ability to move freely through the air is a very rare talent among Supers, and one that has turned the tide of many battles. What about Tiffani Hunt’s ability to create illusions? Any thoughts on its battle worthiness, Mr. Murray?”

“Well,” Will began thoughtfully. “Normally no, it wouldn’t be useful in a one-on-one battle in an open plain. If it were used to alter the opponent’s perception of the environment, though, it could be downright deadly if used properly.”

“Mr. Weaver has hit upon the magic phrase,” Coach Persephone praised. “And that is ‘if used properly.’ You see, none of you are a tremendous threat in a regular fistfight, but we don’t deal with those situations. We deal with criminals and villains that are clever as well as powerful. Being a Hero very rarely boils down to something as simple as a fistfight. So while you are under my care it is important that you understand the purpose of this course. I’m not trying to teach you how to fight like the students in the combat course. I’m teaching you how to find the right scenarios where you are deadly, and then how to orchestrate them in a field of battle.”

She paused for a moment, seeming to collect her thoughts. In reality she had given this speech many times and found a small break here drove home her next words well.

“To put it more concisely, Coach George is turning your fellow classmates into tanks. But as for me, I’m building snipers.”

*          *          *

“Rule number one is that you’re weaker than you think you are,” Coach George said, pacing the line with a half snarl plastered to his face. He knew all too well the faces that stood before him in the sparse concrete combat area under the glaring fluorescent lights; they were same cocky stares that met him every year at this time. These were the kids who grew up unstoppable. They didn’t understand fear or insecurity. Sure, some of them knew what the words meant, but they didn’t know the horror of wondering if you’ll be able to walk out of a bad situation alive. They weren’t picked on or made to eat dirt, though plenty of them had done the picking. These were the expressions of arrogant idiots who’d never known what it was to really lose - George had worn one himself for longer than he cared to admit - and he took a special joy in smashing it off the face of any student in his care.

“I know you all grew up powerful, the baddest-ass kid on the block,” Coach George continued. “I’ll bet, with the exception of you who had Supers for teachers, none of you has even lost a fight before Lander. Hope you enjoyed it, kids, because that ride of luxury stopped the minute you stepped into my gym. This course is designed to show you just how weak you all really are, so that I can teach you how to be strong. Reynolds, punch Castillo in the mouth.”

“What?” Vince asked, making no move to strike Thomas, who was standing next to him. “Why would I do that?”

“Wrong answer, Reynolds. Fifty push-ups. Now,” Coach George ordered.

Vince looked at him uncertainly, then got down to the floor and began his penance.

“You see, this is not playtime. I’m going to be teaching you how to fight with the intent of taking an opponent down for the count. Me giving an order should be met with instant obedience, because there will be times when that order will save the life of you or another. Foster, punch Griffen in the mouth.”

Alex never even had a chance to react before Sasha’s fist buried itself in his unsuspecting jaw. The impact knocked him to the ground.

“Good job, Foster. The sound of flesh on flesh impact was the only acceptable answer there. Griffen, fifty push-ups,” Coach George said.

“But you told her to hit me!” Alex pointed out from his prone position as he rubbed his jaw.

“And if I told you not to dodge then you’d get a ‘good job’, too. But you didn’t duck a fist flying at your face. That shit doesn’t float in combat training,” Coach George explained.

Alex groaned, but he flipped over and began doing his own push-ups.

“Now, I’m sure at this moment Persephone is giving her kids a pep talk about how to use their special talents to be better Heroes. You lot don’t have special talents, though, you only have the one: kicking ass. Sure, it comes in different flavors, but at the end of the day that’s what it all boils down to. I’m going to tear you down and then build you up again, but this time the right way,” Coach George declared.

The gym was silent save for the soft grunts of Vince and Alex still doing their push-up. That was fine; George didn’t have to hear the grumbles and the ‘yeah, rights’ to know they were there. Kids like these didn’t take anyone’s authority on words.

“I know each of you is thinking that this speech doesn’t apply to you. That you’re the exception to the rule, a true warrior in every way, and that I don’t know a damn thing about combat. I know because I’ve been you, and I’m going to do with you what my coach did to us. I’m going to establish right here and now who the authority on the subject of winning fights is.”

Coach George shrugged off the jacket of his uniform and cracked his knuckles for show. “Anyone who wants to see where they stack against the old timer can step up now. One by one I’ll be glad to knock you down.”

Smarter students of this age, ones who had been on the losing end of a few fights, might have suspected that Coach George wouldn’t make an offer like this unless he was able to follow through on it. Unfortunately for a large portion of the class, they didn’t fall into that demographic, and as such hadn’t learned just how humiliating and devastating a loss can be.