Chapter 8

                Hershel followed Professor Fletcher up the small set of stairs, stepping into the viewing room that stared down at the cell below. The clear, plastic-like material that separated him from where fellow Supers would be slugging it out seemed almost flimsy, despite the number of matches that had safely been watched behind it. It wasn’t the plastic that felt weak though, it was Hershel himself. Despite taking a more active role in their education since last year, this was feeling firmly like something Roy should be handling, which made the fact that Professor Fletcher told him not to shift all the more confusing.

                “As we covered downstairs, these are your deterrent controls,” Professor Fletcher said, gesturing to a small panel on the right side of the viewing window. “The blue lever will send electricity coursing through the entire room, the yellow will fill it with gas, the white one will start lights that blind everyone, and the red will do all of that at once. Given the power sets of the two students we’re about to watch over, the yellow lever is most likely to be the one you’ll pull if the need arises. Both are physically durable enough that the other deterrents might not work as well.”

                “Do you really think I’m going to need to stop their fight?” Hershel had already memorized which levers did what, and even if he hadn’t there were small drawings positioned below each one. While it was nice to know he wasn’t expected to break into their match personally, the responsibility of making such a call was still heavy on his shoulders.

                “It’s possible, but not likely,” Professor Fletcher admitted. “This fight is one where both sets of powers are strong enough that there’s a fair chance of injury, which is why I’m on hand to watch it. If someone needs to take action, I’ll be the one to make that judgement. That said, I might need a little assistance, which is why you’re here too. Just watched the fight carefully, and be ready to act if I give you an order.”

                “Yes, sir.” Hershel turned and looked into the cell, noting that the door had opened, and it’s combatants were walking in. One of the young women was medium height, with tawny brown hair in a braid that fell halfway down her back, while the other was tall with dirty blonde hair that was chopped short. Just from watching them step into position, Hershel could see the difference in their training. The blonde walked like someone who’d spent years learning to be aware of her movements, while the brunette with the braid merely plodded along, trying to appear bigger than she was.

                “Ashley Beck,” Professor Fletcher said, pointing to the girl with the braid. “And Judy Bush.” This time he motioned to the blonde, who was already carefully examining her opponent’s stance. “Ashley has the more dangerous power, though it’s assumed that Judy will take the match.”

                Hershel nodded absent-mindedly as he continued staring through the window. “She’s clearly the more skilled of the two. Prior training, I assume?”

                “I can’t say from whom, but yes, Judy Bush has been extensively instructed in combat, as well as the use of her power,” Professor Fletcher confirmed.

                “Yet you’ve got her going against someone who’s obviously an amateur.” Hershel studied them both carefully, trying not the let the sense of nostalgia overwhelm him. Thinking back too closely would take him to when Roy had been down there, and for this he needed to be fully in the moment. “Which means Ashley has a power suited to doing lots of damage, but not to being precise. That’s why you’ve put her against an enemy who can hold her own.”

                “Spot on.” Professor Fletcher spared a glance away from the window to look at Hershel, who was so engrossed in watching the freshmen that he didn’t even notice. Dealing with Roy so often, it was easy to forget that his counterpart possessed quite a capable mind. It was why he hadn’t briefed the student on the combatants’ powers; he wanted to see how well Hershel could break down a situation just from observation. So far, Professor Fletcher was impressed. If Roy could learn to think as tactically as Hershel, he truly would be a nearly unstoppable force.

                “Hershel, whenever you’re ready, they’re waiting for you.” Professor Fletcher pointed to the only button on the wall, a large gray one that most people had to lean into to hold down.

                Hershel pressed his hand against it, and the soft crackle of static filled the air. The intercom was engaged. “Please introduce yourselves.” Hershel tried to sound more sure of himself than he felt, though he doubted there was any chance they’d sense his nerves over their own.

                “Ashley Beck. Here to take the number one spot.” She was confident, and in a way Hershel admired that. He’d admire it a lot more after she proved it was deserved, though.

                “Judy Bush. The spot is yours, if you can take it. But I have no intention of making it easy.” Judy hunkered down slightly, preparing herself for the fight that was about to commence. She was well-balanced, but far too low for any attack Hershel could imagine her pulling off. He chalked this up to either an unfamiliar combat style or something power-related, and continued with his duty.

                “Remember, the use of lethal force is banned in all ranking matches, but what is lethal will vary from opponent to opponent. Use your best judgement, because we will be watching. You may begin.”

                Hershel barely had time to let go of the button before Judy acted, though it wasn’t to break into attack as he’d expected. Instead, she dropped her hands to the ground, slamming them palm-first into the concrete. No sooner had she made contact than her skin began to ripple and shimmer. In mere seconds,her entire body had taken on the same gray chalky appearance as the concrete that lined the combat cell. Across the room, Ashley merely watched as her opponent shifted, clearly content to see where this led.

                “A property mimic who can do a complete alteration? Holy crap, those are rare.” If Judy was at all inconvenienced or weighed down by her new concrete body, she didn’t show it. The young woman was as controlled and graceful as ever when she rose back to her feet, shifting to a defensive stance.

                “Yes, they are,” Professor Fletcher agreed. “Though Ms. Beck is not exactly a common variety of… well never mind, I’ll just let you see for yourself.”

                From across the room, Ashley Beck had begun a headlong charge that would have made Roy proud, racing right toward her enemy without so much as a thought spared for her own safety. Hershel hoped she really was powerful; otherwise this was going to be a very short fight.