Third Year Commences
“And, BREAK!” The cheerful voice of Overton’s Weapons Instructor was barely audible over the sounds of rushing water, exhausted groans, and loudly muttered profanity.
A few minutes later Dani stood on the damp gym floor smiling at the twenty half-drowned juniors giving her a uniform death glare. “A new record, you finished the game in only ninety minutes! It might not count though, since you all got the practice round back during your first year.” The red-haired Instructor strolled over to the magnetic metal ball and examined it critically. “Maybe I’ll have to come up with an extreme variation and you guys can try it again next year…”
A wave of unease rippled through the class in response to the Instructor’s musing. Before it could swell into full-blown panic however, it was dispersed by a barking laugh from the room’s entrance. Twenty-one heads turned to see the arrival of the bald Close Combat Instructor, wearing the most genuine smile any of the students could recall seeing on the man.
“You can relax, kids.” Rachd strode into the room, his good humor apparent in his tone. “As much fun as it would be to contemplate, the dean has explicitly forbidden Dani from increasing the difficulty of her favorite game any further.”
The relief from the gathered students was nearly palpable, though the Weapons Instructor responded by making a rude noise. “You didn’t have to tell THEM that, James.”
“If I didn’t, Blake would have.” Rachd paused to give the aforementioned telepath a quick, assessing gaze. “After she dried out and caught her breath, anyways.”
“I don’t know about that. I think I could have been okay with letting the rest of the class live in fear in order to keep on Dani’s good side. She is one of my two Instructors this year.”
A few incredulous looks met Catalina’s telepathic declaration but, after a moment of consideration, most of the juniors nodded in agreement with the auburn-haired girl.
“Everyone dried out and ready for the real work to begin?” The Overton Close Combat Instructor surveyed his seven as they made their way into the oversized combat cell. Five of his students were obviously still exhausted from Dani’s ‘Welcome Back’ game. The last two, Collin Gauge and Amelia Jacobson, would have to be put through a lot more than an hour and a half of intensive swimming before they started to show signs of fatigue.
“So, we might as well get this year’s big surprise out of the way. From third year on, students are not permitted to challenge other students to improve their class combat ranking.” Rachd smiled as the surprise announcement drew a flurry of startled looks between his students. He decided to pick the closest one. “Jacobson, you look like you have a question.”
“So, that’s it? After two solid years of pitting us against each other it’s suddenly ‘no more combat challenges?'”
“First thing, we’re hardly ‘pitting you against each other.'” Rachd’s tone carried the heavy note of condescension that his students had come to know and love over the past two years. Well, to know at least. “You fight, sure. And you fight each other a lot, definitely. Because who else are we gonna have you fight?” The Combat Instructor paused and surveyed the class for a moment as he let them consider his point.
“You think you should be going up against the Instructors from day one?” Rachd let out his traditional, barking laugh at that idea. “Sure, we could annihilate you day in and day out and call that training. Personally I find it rather cathartic when they let me beat on the students.” No one present doubted that statement in the slightest. “But minds sharper than mine determined that you all tend to improve faster when you compete with your peers, instead of simply being beaten and drilled by your superiors.
“And second thing, I don’t recall saying that there would be ‘no more combat challenges.'”
The Instructor’s final statement drew several confused looks, and more than one of the juniors looked about to call out Rachd on his contradiction when one face suddenly lit up in comprehension.
“You said no STUDENTS can be challenged for combat rank.” Scott Jameson blurted out the words so quickly that it took a moment for the other six students to understand them.
“So, who do we challenge if we want to improve out combat ranking?” Amelia picked the conversation back up with a look that said she’d already figured out the answer, and simply wanted to hear the Combat Instructor confirm it.
“What the hell combat rank are you hoping for, Jacobson? You’re still number one last time I checked.”
“I don’t know, ‘Close Combat Instructor’ sounds like a higher rank than ‘number one junior’ to me, though.”
The sudden intensity of Rachd’s expression, a grinning face made up of equal parts sadistic glee and predatory anticipation, actually forced most of the students to take an involuntary step back. All but one, actually. “Is that an official challenge, Jacobson?”
“Depends, are we officially allowed to challenge the Instructors this year?”
The absolutely calm, confident tone drew a long bout of deep, genuine laughter from the bald Instructor. “To answer your question properly, you’re technically allowed to challenge your Instructors at any time during ANY year. We just don’t bother telling the freshmen and sophomores about it. And I’ll be seeing you, bright and early this Saturday, Jacobson. Your first real match with an Instructor will be a private event, so don’t fret too much about how bad you’ll look in front of your little friends.”
Looks of anticipation building on the other students’ faces quickly fell away at Rachd’s announcement.
“So if I want everyone to watch me kick your ass, I have to challenge you twice?” The blatantly teasing question from the top-ranked junior quickly returned those anticipatory expressions, as the rest of the class was suddenly certain they were going to get to watch the fight play out a lot sooner than Saturday.
Rachd didn’t laugh this time, though the smile on his face was far more genuine than his usual expressions. “After the first, private, beating; you get to decide how far you have to go before you think you’ve got a real shot at a rematch. And this won’t be anything like your final last year. This time around, any Instructor you challenge will be fighting for real.”
The students all looked momentarily disappointed that they were not about to see an epic battle take place in the middle of their class, a mood they were quickly snapped out of as Rachd returned his attention to the current curriculum.
“So, getting back on track. This is the room where you will be spending your Close Combat training time this semester.” Rachd gestured grandly at the completely empty combat cell the class stood in, differentiated from a normal cell only by a series of barely visible lines scratched into the floor. “It’s a pretty basic class, really. A student is selected to go up against a team of other students, and they fight in this room. Everyone not fighting will be observing and evaluating from the next room with me. And you will be actively evaluating your classmates or I will personally beat you into the concrete.” A brief pause came before he continued. “Oh, and your grades will slip. Written or verbal analysis will make up almost as much of your grade in this class as the actual fighting. From here in, even the combat-oriented majors are going to require more than simple proficiency at fighting to advance.
“In addition to the one versus group nature of the combat, your mobility will also be restricted.” Rachd snapped his fingers midway through his statement, and the outermost set of lines in the floor suddenly lit up.
The students took a moment to examine the roughly circular shape they scribed around the majority of the room, when the Instructor snapped his fingers a second time. The outer lines went dark, and the innermost lines lit up this time; a roughly square-shaped area that couldn’t have been more than ten feet across. A murmur and pointed finger from Scott also drew attention to a now-lit line running around the room’s walls, approximately ten feet off the floor.
“Way to pay attention, Jameson.” Rachd’s tone caused most of the class to wince as it was clear he was pointing out their failure to notice the brightly glowing line more than actually congratulating Scott. “For some matches, there will be a limit on how far you can move vertically in addition to needing to stay within the ring on the floor. Though to clarify before anyone gets their panties all twisted up; the lines are simply a boundary that you’ll get docked for voluntarily moving across. If your opponent, or opponents, force you out of the ring, you get your ass back up and get back to it.”
“What’s the win condition?” Gerrad Finne asked his question as he slowly walked around the room, examining the patterns made by the many overlapping lines in the floor. Rachd’s only response was a withering glare and a long stretch of silence. After several uncomfortable seconds, the blond student attempted to answer his own question. “Fight until incapacitated?”
“Or until I tell you to stop.”
“How much advance time to we get to prepare with our teams when we’re on the group side of things?” Zachary Snyder was the next question, and this one drew a smile from the Instructor.
The Instructor shrugged. “None.” The monosyllabic response was obviously not the one that several of the Close Combat students were hoping for, but it seemed the only one forthcoming.
“Now, I think that covers all the basics. From here on we’ll learn by doing.” The muscular man surveyed the students briefly to see if any objections were forthcoming. Over the past two years, all the remaining juniors had learned better than that though. “Alright then. Jacobson, as the top-ranked student, you get the honor of going first. Center of the room, now.” As Rachd spoke and Amelia moved to the designated spot, the lines in the floor switched back to the large circle configuration.
The Instructor turned and headed towards the door, specifically the one leading to the previously-mentioned observation area. “Uh, Coach? You forgot to pick a team for me to fight.”
Rachd remained silent until he reached the door, and spoke quickly when it slid open. “Everyone else! Attack Jacobson as soon as this door closes.” The Instructor turned just far enough that Amelia could see an evil twinkle in his eyes. “Have to make sure she’s properly warmed up for her big fight this Saturday, after all.”
“Welcome to the heavy range, gentlemen!”
Rorie Samuels cocked his head in curiosity as he followed the Ranged Combat Instructor and Scott Jameson into the dimly lit room. I would expect a bit more of an echo when the professor is shouting at the walls like that. Rorie’s momentary mental distraction was immediately derailed, however, as the shout (or some other unseen signal) resulted in the lighting in the chamber to brighten dramatically. The room was only about as wide, and not quite as tall, as one of the combat cells that Rorie had grown all-too-familiar with over the last two years. Lengthwise, however, the ‘heavy range’ was apparently designed to rival the simulation rooms.
“Dear Lord, where is the back wall.” The voice from below and to the Samoan student’s right drew his attention briefly to Scott, then saw him also peering down range intently.
“I… think I can see it?”
Professor Banning let out a brief chuckle in response to his students’ observations. “Mr Jameson, I assure you that the wall is, in fact, present. And just as equally let me assure you, Mr Samuels; no, you cannot see it from here.
The tall Instructor led the pair of students several steps further into the room, and chuckled again as both started in surprise as a waist-high metal… – Is that a metal table? What the hell? – running the width of the room suddenly sprang up in front of them.
“Not that either of you have any equipment you need to lay out in advance, or heavy rifles needing a place to brace, but this,” Professor Banning slapped a hand down on the metal surface for emphasis. “Is still important for you two as well. Any guesses as to why?”
The two students exchanged a glance, and when Rorie shrugged Scott stepped forward. “It’s the firing line. No one goes past it while the range is live.”
“Technically correct, Mr Jameson. However you’re thinking in terms of a conventional shooting range.” The tall man leaned forward, and his usual tone was replaced with a much quieter, more serious one. “This range is ALWAYS live, so you NEVER go past the bench. Are we clear?” The Instructor waited for both young men to nod before dropping back into a more relaxed pose and motioning them forward to stand alongside him at the bench.
“Everyone in your class is going to spend some time down here, but you two are going to be spending a LOT of time down here. Care to tell me why that might be, Mr Samuels?”
Rorie considered the question carefully for a moment, somehow sensing that attempting to pass it off to Scott wouldn’t go over nearly as well after having been called out by name. The only obvious thing our powers have in common is… “I’m not sure, professor. But if I had to guess, I would say it’s because we’ve got more destructive ability than the other Ranged Combat students?”
“Your guess would be correct, Mr Samuels.” Banning grinned at how much Rorie relaxed at the confirmation, and continued grinning as both students’ attention was suddenly jerked down range by the sound of metal grating against metal at an ungodly volume.
Rorie found himself stuck somewhere between awe and terror as a massive, vaguely-humanoid construct was advancing towards the trio from the down range. Whatever it was, it was barely managing more than a lumbering walk. A pace that still seemed more than fast enough as the contruct’s enormous legs easily crossed thirty feet per stride.
“To tell the truth, I spend quite a bit of time down here myself.” Rorie found his attention dragged away from the metal monstrosity and back to his professor, and had to squint as the air in front of the Ranged Combat Instructor suddenly began to shine brightly. “It’s a good way to blow off some steam.” As the last syllable left Professor Banning’s lips, the light in front of him coalesced into an incandescent beam of energy that blasted through the construct and faded into the distance.
In spite of the large piece burned off by the professor’s ability, the construct continued to lurch forward. The second beam that lanced out from the Ranged Combat Instructor was so bright that Rorie found himself looking away and blinking rapidly while a few choice curses from his fellow student told him he wasn’t the only one having trouble with the light. A few seconds later with the spots mostly cleared from his vision, Rorie felt his jaw drop open in shock as he looked down range again.
The nearly 40ft tall monstrosity was nothing but a twisted pile of scrap metal now, with barely anything left to identify it as ever having been human-shaped. A few seconds later, and any identification at all became impossible as the construct’s remains seemed to melt seamlessly into the floor.
“Look like fun?” Professor Banning’s tone carried its usual, cheerful note, but there was something else underneath it that Rorie couldn’t quite identify.
“Is ‘giant metal monster’ the only setting, or does it have more?” Scott definitely sounded eager as he responded with a question of his own, but Rorie noted the wary look in the smaller student’s eyes. He knew that Scott had also noted the odd catch in the professor’s voice.
The professor laughed in response to the question though, all seriousness momentarily forgotten. “It does indeed, Mr Jameson.”
“This range…” Rorie trailed off for a moment as he ordered his thoughts, then forced himself to push forward. “This range isn’t for non-lethal training.”
“It’s good that you occasionally remind me, Mr Samuels, that your powers of observation were sufficient to reach the third year of this program.” The professor’s tone was still cheerful, but his expression was far more serious. “And you are absolutely right. Although a great deal of the HCP training focuses on minimizing collateral damage and loss of life, that is NOT the purpose of this room.
“Here you will learn exactly how much destructive power you can unleash, how quickly, and at what range. Ready for your first try at it?”
Neither Rorie nor Scott hesitated before nodding their acceptance.
This cannot POSSIBLY be a real class exercise. Eloise scowled at the bars in front of her for the hundredth time as the thought flickered through her head. To her right the continued repetition of triumphant shout, staticky crackling, and angry cursing told her that Louise hadn’t gotten out of her cell yet. Nor had she stopped trying, nor come up with a different tactic in over twenty minutes. Occasional faint rattling or rustling from her left told her that Erin was also still similarly locked in. Across from her she saw Tasha’s face wearing a scowl that matched her own as the massive healer strained against the metal bars and glowed from the effect of her own power.
“Does anyone have any real ideas on how we’re supposed to do this?” Eloise’s exasperated question momentarily quieted the other four Subtlety students.
“If these locks are pickable, I need a hell of a lot better set of lockpicks. And whatever these bars are made of, I cannot laser my way through them.” Erin’s voice was the first to break the silence, and it held more than a trace of repressed pain.
“Move all the way up to the bars, I think I can at least fix you up.” Antoin’s request came from the corner farthest from Erin’s, a layout that none of the five students doubted was completely intentional.
“I think I’m making progress!” Louise’s cheerful announcement led to more than one face briefly resting against a palm.
“Wherever we actually are right now, Professor Martinez is out of my range, so no hints. Also no Teresa or Be to spring us via teleportation.” Catalina’s voice echoed quietly through everyone’s head for a moment, sounding more than a little bit sulky about her apparently ineffectiveness.
“I can bend the bars, a little bit.” Tasha’s report drew a great deal more interest than Louise’s earlier assertion of progress. “But at this rate it’ll be a week before I can make a gap big enough for one of the tiny girls to squeeze through, never mind how long it would take ME to get out.”
“Um, not that we don’t like you or anything Tasha-…” Louise momentarily interrupted her own speech with another round of rippling, crackling electrical discharge. “But why are you down here with us? I mean this would be WAY easier if we had Be instead.”
“Probably why Be isn’t here.” The telepathic message came with a clear picture of hazel eyes being rolled.
“No idea. Professor Martinez showed up at the Focus classroom and told Professor Vree she was borrowing me, then I ended up down here with you lot.”
“So, the bars are too tough for any of us to break, and mine just happen to be electrified so I can’t ghost through them.” Eloise broke in to get the conversation back into potentially productive territory. “The walls are too thick for me to ghost through. And-…”
“And equally as unbreakable as the bars.” Erin’s interruption came in a much clearer voice than a minute ago. Apparently Antoin’s healing field did reach that far.
The white-haired girl suddenly snapped completely alert as that realization sunk in. “Antoin, can you crank your healing up to max and make sure it’s reaching my cell?”
“Do it.” Eloise took a deep breath and waited for the familiar all-is-well feeling that she associated with being healed by the French-Canadian. Then she pushed her power as hard as she could and lunged through the bars with as much speed and force as she could muster.
An eternity later the tiny girl forced her eyes open, looking up now at the grinning face of Tasha Johnson, and a smile made its way on to her own lips. “Think you can get the rest of us out if I boost you?” Eloise continued to smile, and nodded in response.
Less than a minute later the five juniors were all free of their cells, and all staring warily at the single door that led out of the tiny prison corridor.
“No people on the other side.”
“I don’t see anything moving in there, but the door is REALLY thick.” Erin’s and Catalina’s reports came at nearly the same time.
“Well let’s get moving then!” The ever-enthusiastic Louise strode boldly up to the door and kicked out savagely at the handle. And dropped unceremoniously onto her back in a shower of sparks as her kick budged the door not in the slightest.
Almost a full hour, and six similarly reinforced AND electrified doors later, Catalina suddenly whirled around and strode back in the direction the group had come from. Everyone else quickly figured out why, as they heard the sound of slow clapping coming from the corridor with the cells.
“Well done class.” Professor Martinez wore a genuine smile as she greeted her students. “That is the second farthest any of my Subtlety classes has ever made it in this exercise. I supposed I’ll just have to work a little harder the next time I assign you an escape exercise.”
The large Shifter dove forward and scrabbled quickly to the side to evade yet another concrete-cracking assault, and attempted to keep her focus centered on her opponent as she pulled herself back up to a ready stance. It cannot possibly be this easy. She’s supposed to be the best in the class, this has to be a trick. She cannot be this sloppy.
Susan Owens kept those thoughts at the front of her mind as she cautiously advanced towards her opponent, an average looking blond girl currently encased in a mostly-transparent, shimmering block of energy.
“Either fight me or forfeit if you’re too afraid to!” Meredith Hopkins, the girl defending her top combat rank from Susan’s sudden insertion into the Sizemore HCP, had started the fight with a calm, confident, and more-than-a-little-condescending attitude towards her opponent. Ten minutes into the match and still unable to land a single clean hit against the extremely strong Shifter, and Meredith’s composure had definitely slipped.
“You want me to fight?” Susan’s sepulchral whisper echoed throughout the combat cell. “Then stop screwing around and show me what you’ve really got.”
The blonde girl turned an interesting shade of red at the Shifter’s taunt, and a split-second later the energy surrounding her had shifted again and sent the girl catapulting forward at high speed. Susan simply sidestepped the reckless charge and turned her head at an unnatural angle to follow her opponent without shifting her body.
“FIGHT ME!” Genuine tears of rage streaked Meredith’s face as she lunged forward again. This time her energy-field shifted halfway to her opponent and, three quick direction changes later, the blonde charged in from the side instead of head on.
This time the nightmarish Shifter didn’t dodge. Feet carefully braced into the floor of the combat cell, Susan spread her arms and took the rampaging attack head on. And smashed it aside with no visible exertion.
“I think I just figured something out.” Susan strode slowly towards her opponent as she spoke, giving the smaller girl plenty of time to right herself inside her now-globe-shaped energy. The Shifter’s skeletal face was not particularly expressive, but its grin did widen noticeably as Susan walked closer. “I’m… I’m actually sorry about this.” Susan winced as her half apology/half observation came out far more threatening than she had intended.
“I’m NOT sorry about THIS!” Meredith punctuated her statement by forming her energy into a diamond-shape and propelling herself at Susan, the narrowest point leading the way.
A concussive blast swept through the combat cell and Meredith squawked loudly in surprise as she tumbled unprotected into her opponent’s waiting grasp. The Shifter had smashed completely through the shimmering energy field with a single, heavy, punch. As her other hand caught her suddenly terrified opponent, a strange tingle of familiarity rose in the back of Susan’s mind at the combination of rushing air and sound that breaking the barrier had triggered.
“Give up?” The Shifter’s question was met with an angry growl, and Meredith attempted to reform her field and push Susan away. An attempt that was quickly aborted as Susan did not relinquish her powerful grip, and the agony of trying to push away that taloned hand quickly shattered the focus Meredith needed to use her ability.
“You CAN’T be this strong.” Susan kept her grip on her opponent instead of responding, and finally the smaller girl looked away with a disgusted expression. “You win.”
A moment later and Susan stood much closer to eye-level with her opponent, though the redhead was still taller by a couple inches. “You have a really good ability, Meredith. Offense, defense, speed, and that barrier is big enough that you could shield quite a few people with it.”
“How the hell are you that strong!” The formerly top-ranked girl’s question started as a shout, but ended barely above a whisper as she waved off the rapidly approaching healer.
“Right now, if you could go back and fight yourself from the beginning of freshman year, when you first showed up and fought the ranking matches; how would that match go?” Susan smiled gently at the confusion she saw in the younger girl’s expression. “That’s right, you haven’t heard the story yet. I’ll have to tell you about it, after you let him check on you.” A nod clearly indicated the concerned looking healer a few feet away.
“We all know you had an extra year in the program before you washed out. At Overton.” The last two words came out muttered in sarcastic dismissal. Meredith turned towards the healer as she finished speaking, but was interrupted when the taller girl stepped back in front of her.
“Going to dismiss my story AND an entire HCP, just like that, huh?” Susan’s expression was much colder than it had been a moment ago. “Keep in mind when you do, I just kicked your ass. Effortlessly.” Message delivered, the redhead turned to head out of the combat cell.
“Wait.” The request from behind Susan was much calmer, and when the taller girl turned she saw a much more relaxed Meredith glowing softly as the healer had apparently given up on waiting out the conversation and started repairing the battered girl. “You just kicked my ass. I owe you a drink for that. And I think that might be an interesting story to hear.”
“Better just pick up a couple of bottles. It’s a LONG story.”