“As Mary, being gentler than myself, likely told you all yesterday, today is the first day of your competitive challenge. Though this class is the least frequent of the Hero Program classes, your success in this class is most important to your success as a hero.”
Coach Mary stepped forward and addressed the costumed students. Sean noticed that more of the students had personalized costumes now.
“Cain and I have spent the last few days measuring your abilities and getting an idea of what you are each capable of, but we have no idea how you compare to each other, or to any established heroes. Hence the competitive nature of this class.”
This was the first time Sean had heard anyone use Coach Masters’ first name. It made sense to him that the two would be on first-name terms, though.
“Today, you will do a series of one-on-one battles so we can gauge your relative power and skill. Remember, though, combat skill is not the only thing we will be focusing on, just what we’re focusing on today. Up there is the listings of who is going against whom and where. People not in a fight may watch others, however, you may not watch fights of people you are scheduled to fight against. Everyone understand?”
There was a chorus of ‘yes’s and other affirmatives from the gathered students.
“First round, Angstrom vs. Bluefang, Red room; Klazo vs. Sylpher, Castle room; Them Bones vs. The Max, Black Box; Jumpstart vs. Headcount, Hazard Chamber. Guardian Angel vs. Daedalus, Skybox,”
The list continued, but Sean was already heading to the door marked ‘Wind Tunnel, Vaults, Skybox.’ He and whom he assumed was Daedalus walked down the hallway to the Skybox. Daedalus had a strange contraption, like a cross between a suit of stylized medieval armor and ultramodern power armor with a pair of half-mechanical and half-electronic wings.
They entered the Skybox. The room was enormous, a sphere with a small balcony protruding from one side. On the door was a sign saying,
Rules for skybox combat:
First to touch the wall loses,
No crippling or permanent injuries,
Limit structural damage
“I don’t get much chance to talk to other fliers. Isn’t flying great?” Said Daedalus as he readied his equipment.
“Buddy, you’re preaching to the choir. Hate to destroy your suit,” Sean replied.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got spares. School’s got a fund for tinkers.”
Sean spread his wings and launched off the platform. He turned in the air to see Daedalus take off. Daedalus opened a pair of metal wings with the strange sheen of hyper-advanced alloys. They had a number of luminescent circles on their underside, arranged in lines and triangles, getting smaller towards the wingtips. They flared with light and Daedalus lifted off the ground, leaning forward to get forward thrust. Sean drew the flaming sword. He wished he still had the electric spear; it would probably knock out the electronics in Daedalus’ suit.
The flaming sword was AtlasTech like the spear, custom-made. It worked by pulling water vapor out of the air, splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen, then igniting it along the heated blade. It wasn’t the most practical of weapons, but it was intimidating.
The two circled each other, trying to get an idea of the other’s maneuverability. Sean had to hand it to him, Daedalus looked impressive. The power source on his back was putting off a lot of mist, which was illuminated by the glowing thrusters on the ‘wings.’
Daedalus struck first, raising a hand. On his palm was a circle similar to the ones on the wings which pulsed silently. Sean dodged to the side. Daedalus corrected his aim, and this time, Sean felt an invisible fist of force smash into his breastplate. It didn’t do much more than push him backward. Sean swooped in under Daedalus, swinging the sword overhand to catch him with it, but the force from the thrusters forced him down dramatically. Daedalus wheeled to try to get Sean back in sight. Sean looped around in a tight circle and came back at Daedalus from the side. Daedalus threw out an arm and clipped Sean’s wing with a blast of force, and though the forcefield around his wings absorbed most of it, it was still enough to force him to stop to regain his balance. Daedalus turned to face Sean and leaned forward, pouring on speed. At the last moment, just out of reach, he pulled up and blasted Sean with the thrusters in his wings, completely arresting his momentum and throwing Sean back.
Over the PA system in the room, a voice said, “Jumpstart vs Headcount, Headcount victorious.”
The room was large enough that Sean managed to recover before he hit the edge, but he was much closer than he was comfortable with. Sean used the distance they had built to gain some altitude. If Daedalus had to blast up at him, he would force himself down. Sean pulled himself up almost to the top of the room, directly above Daedalus. Daedalus took the opportunity to try to blast him into the ceiling, but at that moment, Sean pulled his wings around him and cranked up the forcefield. He felt the impact as he hit Daedalus through the forcefield and pulled his wings back into a more traditional dive. Daedalus was using the thrusters on his wings to slow the fall, but Sean, now in close enough range to use it, reached around drew the flaming sword across a thick bundle of wires connected to the wings on Daedalus’ back. The thrusters went dark and Sean pulled up.
“Sorry,” said Sean as Daedalus tried to use the thrusters on his palms to slow his fall. He slowed himself enough that the impact didn’t break anything, but it still sounded painful.
Over the PA, Coach Mary’s voice said, “Guardian Angel vs. Daedalus, Guardian Angel victorious.”
Sean’s next fight was in the Castle room, so he landed lightly on the platform and headed there.
* * *
Sasha blinked up to a higher vantage point. She found herself wishing she knew Will’s trick for seeing invisible people.
Of course I’m paired up against Liam, she thought. The Hazard room was strange, a rocky terrain full of loose rocks, sliding sand, and pitfalls. Liam was somewhere among the spikes and canyons, invisibly, waiting for her to pass by, probably. She jumped again. There was a scuffing sound to her left. She looked, but saw nothing. She teleported away, getting a vantage point of where she just was. One of the slot canyons around the central pits caught her eye. It was totally free of the dust and rubble that most of the area had strewn around.
If I were invisible, that’s where I’d hide.
She teleported down into the canyon and snuck forward along it towards the open area with the pit in the center. She spotted what she was looking for. She shoved her arms out and encountered Liam’s crouching form. He had evidently been waiting for her to come into the open area where he could ambush her. Liam stumbled forward, shouting. He had evidently been too proud to see the healer after attempting to ambush Will, as Wren had told her. She walked towards the cloud of dust his fall had raised and kicked out at it. This time, his invisibility dropped and she shoved him into the pit. He had never seriously practiced combat, relying on his ‘cunning,’ as he had put it. He wasn’t nearly as good at that as he thought, either.
Coach Mary announced her victory over the PA system and Sasha headed to her next fight.
* * *
Shatterpoint returned to the house where he had first met the Upright man. He had the strange feeling that it was actually just his house. He knocked on the door, and it swung open from the force. He entered the house. He was wearing civilian clothes, but had changed out of the suit and into clothes from his deserted home. He carried the suit and the device he had taken from Dr. Mind’s lab.
No one greeted him as he walked through the house, but he occasionally caught a whiff of peppermint in the air.
“I’ve brought you what you asked,” said Shatterpoint to the empty house, dumping the suit and the nullifier unceremoniously on the table in the well-maintained kitchen. “Now I’m through with you.”
The kitchen was uncomfortably similar to his own. As he turned, he caught a glimpse of silver cufflinks flashing in the corner of his eye and made nothing of it. His attention was focused elsewhere. On the floor between him and the door was a crisply-folded origami flower.
“Stop toying with me,” Shatterpoint whispered, no longer trusting his voice. His daughter had loved that kind of origami.
He picked it up gently. On one of the petals was written:
she has manifested powers
she will be very useful to me
The shreds of the flower drifted to the ground as Shatterpoint’s power tore it apart.
* * *
Sean backpedaled as the chair went flying past again. It hit the end of the rope and whipped around. Sean perched himself on a rafter and looked down. While the person he was up against was wearing the school-issued grey costume, he had a grappling-hook crossbow that seemed to be very high quality. Coupled with the ability to make objects weightless temporarily, he was proving to be quite a nuisance.
Below, Free Radical was pushing one of the Castle room’s tables up at him. The castle room was styled to be a medieval grand hall, with long tables, and a number of chairs. There was even cutlery, a cloud of which was drifting around the room making flying quite difficult.
The table passed over the beam Guardian Angel was on and suddenly plummeted, the rope pulling tight. The rope sliding across the bema made a buzzing sound as it pulled Free Radical up. Landing expertly on the beam, Free Radical turned and the two faced each other.
Free Radical fired off a shot with his crossbow, but Sean flicked the shot away with a wing. He spread his wings for balance and ran towards Free Radical. Free Radical fired his crossbow at the beam and stepped off, swinging around the underside and landed behind Sean. Sean spun and clipped Free Radical with a wing. He had underestimated Sean’s reach with his wings. Still attached to the beam, he swung down below the beam. He didn’t have enough momentum to make it back up, so he held the rope in one hand while he fired off another at the ceiling, pulling himself up. Sean pulled out his flaming sword and put it against the rope.
“Yield,” said Sean, hoping Free Radical couldn’t make himself weightless.
Free Radical paled and said, “I yield.”
“Guardian Angel vs. Free Radical, Guardian Angel victorious.”
* * *
Sean woke up in a bed in the infirmary. He vaguely remembered squaring off against a diminutive girl, but everything after that was a blur.
“You’re all healed up,” said the healer from across the room. “That telekinetic managed to take you out without any major injury. That takes some skill.”
Sean looked at his communicator and leapt out of the bed. He needed to prepare for taking on Masquerade.
* * *
I checked the time on my phone and stood to leave the library. It was about ten minutes before the Hero class got out, so I needed to get into my gear. I returned to the dorm, pulled on my body armor, and went out into the city.
I met the rest of the team at the warehouse, minus Dame Danger, who was still helping Dr. Mind repair the building, and Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm, who were going to try to stop another heist by Limit Break . Guardian Angel started briefing us.
“Jamisson convinced the Opera House to cancel the performance, but we are pretty sure Masquerade will show up anyway. It’s on the other side of the city, so we should get going,” he said.
We arrived at the opera house, a large, modernist building. The opera had been scheduled to start fairly soon. We passed through the building, and it was eerie. It had been totally evacuated. We went through the large gilded doors and entered the lowest level. There were five or six levels, progressively steeper as they got higher, giving the room an impression of being much larger than it actually was, though that’s not to say it actually was. In the center was a grand chandelier, hung high so it wouldn’t block anybody’s view and designed not to disrupt the acoustics. We got in position and waited.
A faint jingling rang softly through the building’s spectacular acoustics, followed by a snap! The chandelier plummeted down, the lanky figure of Masquerade riding atop it. Plateau was first to react, sending spikes of wood and metal from various points below it to stop it’s fall. It wasn’t enough, and the metal frame came crashing down, shards of glass flying from it and slicing unprotected skin. Just before it landed, Masquerade had lept deftly off the chandelier and landed on the stage. He looked around, cocking his head. He swiveled abruptly to me, rotating on the tips of his feet.
“My little Shadow,” he spoke, his rich tenor ringing through the opera house,
“I knew your father, you know,
We were best of friends.”
“My father hated you,” I said. I was surprised at the vehemence in my voice. The others looked towards me, questioning.
“Did he not tell you?
I see, he would not say it,
The truth can be hard,” Masquerade said pityingly. The emotionless white mask was made jarring by the expression in his voice.
He turned to Guardian Angel, saying mockingly,
“And you, sweet Angel,
You have grown up far too fast,
Daddy must be proud.”
“The shit?” said Legion, cutting off Guardian Angel’s reply. “He’s speaking in haiku.”
Masquerade looked towards Legion without turning and said sternly,
“You prose-speaking folk
Are quite vulgar, and filthy,
I will kill you now.”
As he spoke, he drew his glass sword from his cane. The blade was nigh invisible, apart from a shine along it’s edge and a flash as it caught the light. Continuing in one fluid motion, he stabbed Legion through the heart almost casually. So it seemed at first, but Legion stumbled back just before the copy was stabbed and dissolved into mist. Masquerade didn’t even seem surprised, stepping forward to execute a second copy of Legion. Plateau started trying to box Masquerade in, but Masquerade nimbly flipped out of Plateau’s cage. Masquerade began to sing.
There wasn’t any reliable information on his powers as far as I could tell, but it seemed to have something to do with his singing. I blocked my ears against it, just in case. Kismet stepped up, extending a collapsible combat baton. She swung out at him. Masquerade skipped away lightly and flourished his sword in her direction. She had to deflect one of his passes, but the others she leaned away from, her foresight letting her dodge by the smallest of margins.
While Kismet had him distracted, Guardian Angel advanced on Masquerade from behind. He raised his flaming sword and brought it down at Masquerade, but at the last second, he spun like a dancer and blocked the blade. I was surprised the glass sword didn’t shatter under the force of the much heavier blade. Kismet tried to strike while Masquerade was occupied, but she hesitated. She was beginning to show signs of fatigue far earlier than she normally would.
Shockwave was paralyzed, possibly by fear, possibly Masquerade’s singing. Possibly a combination of both. I couldn’t tell. He had taken a number of small cuts from the glass shards from the falling chandelier. Plateau had stopped trying to trip up Masquerade probably, for fear of hitting Kismet or Guardian Angel instead, and was instead talking to Shockwave, trying to stir him into action.
Masquerade spun in a circle on the toes of one foot, sword out. Kismet jumped back, avoiding the blade, but Guardian Angel was hit on one of his wings, which he had pulled in front of himself as if to protect him. To my surprise, it was nearly undamaged, the blade barely slicing the feathers. This didn’t last long, though, as Masquerade started to beat on Guardian Angel’s wings. Guardian Angel had curled them tightly around him. When Kismet stepped up to take the pressure off Guardian Angel, he leapt into the air to escape and recover, but faltered, his weakened wings unable to support him. He came crashing to the ground in a heap of feathers.
Kismet was squared off against Masquerade once more, but using her power so much was taking it’s toll on her, her reactions visibly slower. Masquerade, by contrast, continued to have the same boundless energy. She parried one of Masquerade’s stylish lunges and attempted to riposte, but stumbled. Masquerade flicked his sword in towards her, but a copy of Legion dived in front of his swing, dying as the other pulled Kismet out of the way. Masquerade’s blade continued as the clone dissipated, slashing at Legion’s back. Legion and Kismet tumbled off the stage into the orchestra pit.
I advanced on Masquerade. He turned to face me. It was strange to know he was singing but not be able to hear him. He paused, looked at me quizzically.
“Sorry,” I said, “can’t hear you.”
He shook, and it took me a moment to realize he was laughing. He flicked his wrist at me and I dodged only by virtue of being able to feel it’s path through the air; I couldn’t see the blade. I ducked low and snapped out an arm instantly, grabbing one of his legs and pulling him off balance. He had evidently not expected that as he fell ungracefully, but he managed to roll and flip back to his feet. His suit was still entirely unmarked, apart from a splotch of darkness on his leg where it had clung to him. I had never noticed it did that; likely I hadn’t seen it against Kismet’s dark costume when we were sparring.
I advanced towards Masquerade once more. He was more wary now, being more cautious. He dropped his guard and swung at my midsection. I bent my body around the blade, and at the last moment shifted so I was bent around the other side of the blade. His blade passed through where I had been until a moment ago. My rib ached. It was healing much faster than normal, but I hadn’t exactly been going easy on the injury. I dashed forward and punched him square in the face. There was a “crack” I felt through my hand, and Masquerade stumbled back. His mask now had a smear of darkness over his eyes, with a single crack from the edge of one eye to the edge if the mask.
Now blinded, Masquerade lost all of his grace and flailed around, clawing at his face. He tore off the mask, and threw it to the ground, where it shattered. His eyes were still covered by the darkness that had entered through the eye-holes.
“Plateau,” I yelled. I couldn’t hear him respond, so I hoped he’d heard. I shoved Masquerade back, and he tripped on the ridge that raised up behind his feet. When he hit the ground, rectangles of white-stained wood formed angular loops around his arms and legs, binding him to the floor. Masquerade was down.
I noticed something on the inside of the mask and picked up the pieces to examine later.
* * *
Jamisson watched through the security footage again. Dr. Mind and Dame Danger had gotten the building reconnected to the power grid. On the screen, a metahuman containment van arrived. Cryoclasm got out first, then Pyroclasm exited and pulled open the back. Suddenly, the timecode jumped forward and the van vanished. He opened the records from the cells’ security feed. It showed until Cryoclasm opened the cell door, then a moment before Shatterpoint broke down the cell wall. If he didn’t know better, it would look like Shatterpoint was breaking out.
While the power had been down, almost three days worth of security footage had been erased. The man they had thought was Shatterpoint, possibly the Upright Man himself, had been carefully edited out of the records.
* * *
Guardian Angel exited onto the roof, aching from the week’s trials. Below, Masquerade and Labyrinth had been restrained and were being sent to specialized metahuman containment facilities; the security of the Warden’s cells was compromised, and they certainly didn’t want Labyrinth in the building any more.
“Shockwave,” said Guardian Angel.
“Guardian Angel,” replied Shockwave. He was standing in the center of the helicopter pad, looking down.
“Are you okay?”
“I don’t… think I can do this,” said Shockwave. His voice broke as he choked it out.
“Do what?” Asked Guardian Angel gently.
“This hero thing. I can’t do it. I froze up, against Limit Break, against Masquerade.”
“Everyone does that the first time.”
“It wasn’t the first time. Last year. Phenomena…”
Guardian Angel recognized the name. Phenomena was the old leader of the Wardens of Tomorrow. They had never told him why Phenomena had been discharged. Shockwave ran a hand through his hair. He had his mask off
“He, he went bad. Tried to kill Legion. For good, I mean. We had to take him down. We never even learned why. I froze up then too. He took down Kismet, Dame Danger, and almost killed Plateau and me… I just watched. Plateau ended up pushing him off the building.”
“That’s a hard thing to do. To fight someone you trusted. I know how hard that is,” Guardian Angel did. He knew better than Shockwave could have known. The two stood silently while Shockwave calmed down. He had thought he was useless in a fight, but he didn’t have to be. Shockwave clenched his fists.
“I’m going to do something stupid,” he said, and activated his power. He had been thinking about his power, and he didn’t think he had been using it right. He had always been too careful, too cautious. If this worked, he could have some use. If not, well, he wouldn’t have to worry about that. Guardian Angel ran towards him, but was too late, and Shockwave vanished in a blast of wind and sound. He sped off into the distance, four stories off the ground. He could fly. He had thought he could, but he had always been afraid to try.
The streets of the city flew past, a grey blur. He stopped, enjoyed the feeling of weightlessness as he fell. A moment later, he activated his power again, faster this time, instantly accelerating to faster than the speed of sound. He reached the edge of the city and continued. He didn’t worry about getting lost. His sense of direction had always been excellent, and he now realized this was part of his powerset. He had been thinking of a new name, and one popped into his head as he blasted past the crowded interstates into Colswell City:
* * *
Guardian Angel called it down to Jamisson.
“You’re going to have a lot of noise complaints to deal with,” he said.
“You’re helping me with the paperwork.”
Guardian Angel laughed bitterly and said, “deal.”
“Oh, and by the way, your team is going to get a new member soon once it clears with the higher-ups. Calls himself Adam.”
* * *
I pulled the shards of Masquerade’s mask out of the bag I had put them into and set about piecing them together. There seemed to be something written on the inside of the mask, letters here and there, which helped me find which pieces went together. Once I had the pieces in order, I stared down at what it said in shock. On the left side, it said:
do what you do best
you will distract the savage
keep him away from the warden’s building
And on the right:
there is hope for you yet
* * *
A streak of light pulled up beside Jet. He turned to look towards it. Inside it was a man he recognized from countless news broadcasts: Photon. Photon looked over at him and pulsed the aura around him. A signal to stop or slow down so they could talk, he assumed. Jet let go of his power, stopping abruptly. Photon went speeding away and looped around to come back. Jet faced down and rocketed downwards for a moment and stopped again just above the ground. The air he had pulled along with him flattened the grass around his landing spot.
Photon landed gently in front of Jet, glowing with light. He deactivated his aura so he could communicate.
“Hey, if your flight is so loud, you should probably fly at a higher altitude. I’m going to assume you’re pretty inexperienced, given that you haven’t figured that out by now. What’s your name?”
“Uh, I guess I’m going by Jet now. Used to be Shockwave before I figured out what my power did. You’re right. I just barely figured out I can fly. Thought I was just a speedster.”
“Mm-hm. Happens to a lot of people. The bigwigs called me out because there have been a lot of noise complaints and they figured I would be able to catch up with you. Shockwave… Weren’t you one of the kids that Phenomena tried to kill?”
Jet winced. “Unpleasant memory, huh?” asked Photon before Jet could respond. “Well, I won’t bother you on it. I think your team wants you back at base at some point. And just a tip: if you’re changing your name, it’s a good time to design a new costume. Helps people not get confused by the old name. Oh, and give my regards to Director Jamisson. That man’s a hero. More so than us, even.”
With that, Photon flared back into his energy state and shot away silently, a streak of light. If Jet remembered right, he used to be called Shooting Star, but later changed it because it seemed too juvenile. Jet suspected they had sent Photon after him for more reasons than his speed.
Jet looked to the sky and rose to meet it halfway. He needed to take a weekend off.
* * *
Sasha walked up next to Sean as he returned to the campus.
“Hey, you hear about that party for the Hero program students tomorrow?” She asked.
“What? Oh, no, I haven’t,” Sean replied, pulling himself out of his thoughts.
“Apparently the sophomore class puts on a party for the freshmen who survive the first week of the program. You coming?”
“Uh, sure. I definitely need a chance to relax. My week has been crazy.”
“Cool. It’s at one of the sophomore’s house off campus. Ask someone else where it is, I’m crap with directions, cause’ I can just ‘port there.” She jogged off. “See you there!”
Sean wondered briefly if going was actually a good idea. He didn’t want it on his record if it went bad. I can’t use that as an excuse to have no social life, he thought. I’m going.
* * *
Sean and I laid on our beds. We were both clearly exhausted, but sleep wouldn’t come. The unseen threat of the Upright Man was looming in our subconscious, keeping us awake.
“Long week, huh?” said Sean into the dark.
“Oh yeah. Glad it’s over,” I replied.
We both went silent, pondering what was to come.