Masks 13: Part 6

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Masks Thirteen: Chapter Eleven


Rodford Edmiston

"You look tense," said Melanie, during lunch.

"Yeah, well, this being my second day of classes at a new school, I think I'm justified," said Vic.

Alex slid in between them, her tray sporting her usual odd mix of food and near-food items.

"Did you hear about Tigerl? I mean, Cindy?

"Dropped out," said Angel, as she sat across from them. As usual, she had the far side of the table all to herself, due to her wings. "If she hadn't, they were going to expel her. Got in a scream fight with her advisor, accusing her and the rest of the staff of hiding the super classes."

"It's like trying to convince my baby brother there are more flavors than 'salty' and 'sweet,'" said Alex, scowling. "Some people just don't want to know."

"So, what have you learned about women since turning into one?" said Melanie, as she sat to Vic's left.

"A gal's boobs shrink in cold water," said Vic, actually blushing a bit. "Just like a guy's junk."

"Wait," said Alex, startled. "A guy's junk shrinks in cold water?!"

"If you were straight you'd have noticed that," said Melanie, smirking.

"Or if you had been a guy most of your life," said Vic, rolling her eyes.

"Okay," said Alex, so distracted they weren't sure she'd heard either comment. "That explains a few things. Especially some jokes."

"I was also surprised the first time I went swimming - at the insistence of my mother and sister - at how... firm they got," said Vic, reflexively looking down at her chest.

"You went swimming in cold water?" said Melanie.

"Pond water, the first official day of Summer," said Vic. "It's this weird ritual my mother and sister have, they jump in this decorative pond in our subdivision, every year, regardless of the weather. This year they kept telling me I had to go, that it wouldn't be too bad because women are more resistant to cold, and on and on."

She shivered, dramatically.

"They lied to me..."

That brought general laughter.

"Well, eat up, students," said Angel, following her own advice. "We need to fuel these brains for our afternoon classes."

There were general sounds of good-natured derision at her overly cheerful dictate.

"My first martial arts class is this afternoon," said Vic.

"You got in!" said Alex, happily. "Great! I remember you weren't sure you would."

"I am a bit worried," said Vic, trying to play her case of nerves down but not completely succeeding. "First time I tried to ride a bike after my change I fell right over. Took me a couple of hours to get a smooth ride again. All the old reflexes were gone. I've practiced martial arts on my own a lot since, but not with a partner. What if I hurt someone?"

"You'll be fine," said Melanie, patting Vic's hand. "The teacher will know better than to simply throw you in the deep end. Given the powers of some of the students here that would be outrageously foolish."

"Yeah, you're right. Any competent instructor would start easy, and find out what the students are capable of before doing anything demanding."

Though she remembered Dr. Cargraves, and had an odd twinge, deep in her gut.

* * *

At the appointed time Vic entered the gym to find about half the class already waiting. She had worn her gi, and so had two of the others. Two more were in more Western workout clothes. One was in street clothes with no sign of anything else to wear. Two were in mask costumes.

As the hour approached, the rest of the class arrived, with roughly the same mix of outfits. Right on the dot, a man in a white gi with a red belt stepped out onto the floor of the indoor basketball court where the class was held. Vic immediately felt a bit uneasy. What sort of instructor didn't greet his students and get to know them before class started?

"I am Martin Holdouer, formerly known as Holdout," said the man, with a smirk. "I was the trainer for the Specialists. Now I'm your trainer. Okay, shoes and socks off and line up along here!"

Vic was instantly regretful she hadn't checked out the instructor before signing up for this course. This guy had worked with that group of posers and... What was the word from World War II France? Quislings, that was it. They had kowtowed to the Thurlin administration and got bitten in the ass by it. Well, maybe he had learned his lesson. As some in the class grumbled or were obviously confused about taking off shoes and socks, Vic moved out onto the line.

"This class will not teach you sports," said Holdout, pacing back and forth in front of the row of sixteen students. "It will not teach you to score points. It will teach you to take out an opponent quickly and efficiently. It - I - will also teach you appropriate use of force. While you will be taught to kill, you will also be taught how to disarm, pin, joint lock and stun."

That sounded like real martial arts, though with a stronger emphasis on the "martial" part than Vic was used to. Her spirits lifted a bit.

"Okay, first we do a warm-up. Everybody out on the floor!"

The next half hour was a refreshing dose of familiar routine, at least for Vic. Oh, Holdour didn't teach exactly the same exercises, or put them in exactly the same order, but overall it was pretty close. She noticed some of the other students weren't doing so well.

"Okay, some of you need to work on your fitness," said Holdout, sternly. "Very few powers come with a fit body. Oh, and that reminds me: No powers in class unless I tell you to. This helps make an even playing field and is safer for both the other students and the facilities. There will also be times out in the world when you can't or don't want to use your powers and must rely on skill alone. Okay, everyone over to the edge of the mats!"

Vic was about to sit with the others when Holdout pointed to her.

"You! What's your name?"

Vic straightened and proudly held up the end of her black belt, which had her name embroidered on it in white.

"Vic Peltior."

"Did you earn that belt or did it come with your outfit?"

"I earned it," said Vic, trying not to seem smug.

"What's your training?"

"Three and a half years with Dr. Lin Thom."

"He's good," said Holdout, nodding. "Anyone else have any prior training? I don't count sports, only real martial arts."

Some who had started to raise their hands quickly lowered them. A few of those looked irritated.

"Okay, I'll start with you, then. If you are worthy of that belt you'll be senior student. Come on up here."

"I, uh, am out of practice," said Vic, growing more and more uncertain. "Dr. Thom stopped training me when my powers activated."

"Don't worry," said Holdout, reassuringly. "It's like riding a bicycle."

Vic winced at that choice of words, but moved out to the middle of the mats.

"Now, I want you to hit me, hard as you can."

"Huh?!" said Vic, startled. "Uh, wait. You don't know how strong I am, or how fast, and we don't have pads..."

"Come on," said Holdour, smirking. "Don't worry; you won't hurt me. Come at me with all you've got."

"No!" said Vic, alarmed, backing away a bit.

"Come on," said Holdout, scowling. "You afraid?"

"Yes, of one of us getting hurt. This isn't training, it's showing off."

She turned and started to leave.

"Don't you turn your back to me!" Holdout snapped. He grabbed Vic and spun her around. "You signed up for this class! If you're afraid of getting hurt, drop it!"

"I'm going to do that, all right," said Vic, furious.

She pulled free of his grip easily and turned her back on him again. As Vic half expected, the "instructor" grabbed her and yanked her back around. Unexpectedly, his open right hand smacked her across the face. Vic immediately hit him in the solar plexus with an uppercut. She then turned again and walked away, not bothering to watch him drop to the floor.

Vic was extraordinarily surprised when Holdout grabbed her again, whirled her around and hit her with a heel-palm strike hard on the left side of her face. She dropped, stunned, a roaring in her ears.

"Get up, bitch!" Holdout screamed. "Get up and take your medicine!"

Vic tried. She really did. She couldn't move. Holdout screamed insults, and kicked her in the ribs hard enough to send her rolling across the mat. Vic grayed out, only dimly aware of what was happening around her.

* * *

"I thought she was tough," said Holdour, his tone a mix of whining and outrage. "They told me she had potential, but had an attitude problem. I saw that was true as soon as I told her to come out on the mat and work with me. She immediately started making excuses. So I made a point of challenging her, and then disciplined her when she failed. I didn't think I was hitting her hard enough to hurt her, that she was just... unwilling to make an effort."

"Well, now you're going on trial," said the Detective sitting on the other side of the table in the interrogation room. "Probably to jail."

"What! Why?!"

"You assaulted a teenage girl, you moron," raged the cop, jumping to his feet and slamming his fists on the table. "In front of witnesses! You even admit it!"

"She's a super! You're supposed to treat them rough! She's supposed to be tough!"

"You broke her jaw and gave her a concussion with one punch," said Jacobs. "Then you literally kicked her while she was down! Broke three of her ribs. If she wasn't a regenerator she'd be in the hospital for days, and require treatment for months."

"But... but... but... they told me to get tough with her," said Holdour, his voice barely more than a whisper.

* * *

"At least my regeneration is working better than it was when I first got it," said Vic, sourly, the next day. "I only needed half a day to completely heal."

She shuddered.

"Second half of my second day of classes missed. God, I hate my life... I'll be lucky if they don't expel me."

"Not likely," said Melanie. "Even if the administration blames you for losing their super combat teacher, if they throw you out the publicity would eat them alive! They're already potentially liable. Punishing you for something illegal one of their staff members did would be handing you the keys to the place."

"The police are really throwing the book at Holdout," said Alex. "Once he realized how much trouble he was in, he tried to claim he was acting in self defense. Except that his grabbing you when you tried to leave counts as assault, so he actually started it. Then he kept hitting you after it was obvious you couldn't fight back."

Vic shuddered again.

"Some of the things he said..."

"Well, he is on the outs with most of the super community, 'cause he sided with the Thurlin administration," said Alex. She started to make a joke, but changed her mind and said it plain. "I guess he has a lot of stress to get rid of."

"I don't understand why my punch didn't drop him," said Vic, sourly. "I know he's physically super human, but a punch there..."

"Did some research on that, since I was thinking the same thing," said Alex. "Turns out he's not actually physically tough and strong. He has a sort of energy absorbing power. Not exactly a force field, but it protects him from harm. Anything over a certain intensity is absorbed, and just makes him stronger. Even energy blasts."

"That's why he wanted me to hit him," said Vic, nodding. "Only he didn't explain that! So the way to beat him is with a choke or joint lock."

"Well, you're not likely to get the chance," said Melanie, patting her gently on the shoulder as she sat beside Vic on her bed. "He's probably going away for a long time."

"Well, I got a very potent lesson in humility," said Vic, sourly. "Don't turn your back on an opponent, even when you're sure he's down. Especially don't do it before he actually drops."

"I also hope you learned to keep your temper in check," said Alex, concerned.

"That's... a work in progress..."

Chapter Twelve

A routine was quickly established among a small group, thrown together by circumstances. Most of the Usual Suspects - as Vic mentally labeled the group - were already gathered for lunch a few days after the assault on her person as Vic arrived at the table. Vic put her tray down and sat among them, already feeling at home with this odd assembly. In part, she felt good because of the reason she was nearly the last to arrive.

"Well, that was interesting," said Vic, mildly, as she unrolled her silverware from the napkin. "I'm late because I got called to the office of the Dean."

"Dr. Ronald Baker?" said Mel. "I think that's his name. Yeah. He's been here for years, since well before the current owner took over. I think him staying on was part of the deal. He's supposed to be really good."

"Yeah. I was half expecting to be chewed out and thrown off campus, or maybe receive a half-hearted apology and handed a refund check. Instead, I got a heartfelt apology from Dean Baker, with a promise from him and the school's attorneys to support whatever charges I want to make against Holdour."

"I can see that," said Alex, nodding. "They don't want to be sued."

"I think there's more than that going on," said Vic, looking thoughtful as she chewed some chicken pot pie. "He was upset, and angry and a few other things, all of which you would expect. However, there was also something else. I got the distinct impression he was angry at someone besides Holdour. It wasn't me, either."

"There's always politics going at places like this," said Candy. "Could be someone gave Holdour bad information and/or bad advice, in order to make the current administration look bad."

"That'd be especially likely, with the new ownership," said Melanie, nodding as she sat beside Candy. "To have this happen, when they're just getting started... Could be bad blood on the part of someone who expected to be dean, instead of Baker."

"No wonder you're happy," said Alex, grinning at Vic. "Bad guy in jail, his boss supporting you."

"Well, besides that, right after lunch I have my first actual super class."

"I thought those were all college level," said Don, frowning.

"Remember, my advisor had me add some courses. Two of those are actual, college courses. This is one of 'em."

* * *

"To the eye, neutralizer beams and fields usually appear to be a sickly green or weird mauve color. However, photos show a pale, violet color, and that is very faint. In full daylight they may not be visible at all to a camera, whether film or digital. However, even then humans - and apparently many animals - can see them clearly. As best anyone can determine, the apparent color perceived by living eyes is due to the way the beam affects even non-super nervous systems."

Vic sat, entranced, as Dr. Julia Harper went over the beginning of the basics of being a super. She'd already briefly covered the course goals and requirements, and the statistics on latent and active supers. Vic was rather surprised those numbers were so high. Roughly eighty percent of the Earth's population had at least one gene associated with powers. The vast majority of those had too few to ever manifest powers, of course. Most of the rest would never be triggered.

Epigenetics, again, thought Vic.

Dr. Harper had then started on things which only affected supers, or affected them more than they did the unpowered. Super cancer was very worrying, as were the mental disorders which afflicted some classes of supers. On hearing of the side effects of a neutralizer on a super Vic was glad they were strictly regulated.

"Many people believe - and even state - that neutralizers put supers and non-supers on an even footing. The truth is, the majority of supers are disabled by them, at least at first. The initial shock can drop even powerful supers, and several minutes are needed for most of them to recover enough to operate at normal human levels. Even after that they are not merely rendered without powers, but left with a series of symptoms resembling those of a mild case of the flu. In other words, even after considerable time under a neutralizer, most supers are actually less than normal human in capability."

This affects me, Vic thought, with an odd chill.

Somehow, the realization that she was now subject to something which was only a concern for people with active superhuman powers was more convincing on a gut level than her low-level powers or even her physical change.

I'm a super.

Dr. Harper was not a super, but she was related to several. That included the original Night Master, who was a Great-GrandUncle to her. She had a degree in Super Studies, which included their history, their powers and what was known about the science behind those.

"Interestingly, people - supers and not - have repeatedly tried to use a neutralizer or something like it to detect latent supers. It just doesn't work. By their nature, neutralizers work by interfering with powers. Active powers. Genetic tests remain the best method for finding latents, and they don't predict how likely a latent is to become active. I'm fifty-one years old and still a latent. Likely, I'll never become an active super, despite having several super genes."

The bell rang. Dr. Harper smiled and told them there was no assignment this time.

As the class gathered their books and papers and rose to leave, Vic noted that the percentage of supers attending was about the same as for the remedial program in general. That is, roughly seventy-one percent.

Guess I'm not the only young super who's curious about themself.

* * *

Those meeting in the luxurious office that afternoon were carefully evaluating the news in regard to Vic's encounter with Holdout.

"Interesting," said Rokuro, as he read the report on the incident between Vic and Holdout. "From previous news reports and evaluations I assumed she was much more formidable."

"Could be she just got sucker punched," said Banpresto, with a shrug. "Even when working with the Specialists he had a tendency to do that, to show them he was in charge."

"He has no previous record of assault, or charges of abuse from his team members," said Sam, seeming a bit skeptical.

"Irrelevant," said Rokuro, waving the point away. He frowned in thought for several seconds. "She is one of very few super students with actual fighting skills and the only one known to have been in a serious fight. Yet she did so poorly against Holdour she might as well have been a norm."

"Her only real fight was against high school bullies, who had all been drinking," said Banpresto. He shrugged again. "Though only three were actually over the legal limit. Still, none of her attackers had any sort of formal combat or self-defense training. Just brawling and contact sports. None of them were in boxing or sport judo. They weren't even very experienced brawlers."

"I'm lowering her priority," said Rokuro, after another long silence. "We keep an eye on her, of course, but there are many others who are more deserving of close attention."

"Emotional stress can stimulate the development of powers," said Sam, helpfully, "or motivate training which likewise improves abilities. Wouldn't be hard to arrange some additional tragedy to put more pressure on her."

"I think she has more than enough stress in her life right now," said Rokuro, with a wry laugh. "No, she's likely not worth any such effort on our part. If the natural course of events leads to her improvement, we'll take another look at her."

* * *

"Oh, you gotta be kidding me," said Vic, stunned, as she read her e-mail the evening of her fourteenth day at Ramsey.

"Whatwhatwhat?!" said Alex, starting awake from a nap.

"The judge for the case against the jocks who attacked me and my friends has dismissed the charges," said Vic, sourly.

"How could he do that?!" said Alex, sitting up on her bed and rubbing her eyes. "I mean, what grounds would he have..."

"He declared that the video of the attack a bystander put online has prejudiced the case and made a fair trial impossible."

"That's... that's... Oooooohhh!!!"

"Yeah," said Vic, with a tired sigh. "That about sums it up."

"So, what, now?"

"Dad says that with support from the DA's Office, he's going to have our attorney take the case to the state level, and get the charges reinstated. The attitude of that one detective I dealt with seems to be the minority view; guess I just had bad luck getting him. Most of the police who are aware of the case support pursuing it, including the Chief. They know what was done to me was wrong. I guess they're also tired of those troublemakers for a lot more than attacking me. Or maybe they're just tired of dealing with their families.

"The really weird part -" said Vic, continuing to read, "and that's saying something in this matter - is that none of the judges in the cases for the others they attacked have done this and don't look like they're going to. Anyway, Dad says we're going to also add civil rights charges, accusing them of... Dad says 'racism' but I don't think that's the term for hate crimes against supers. What would it be?"

"Hate crimes against a super," said Candy, looking in through the open door. "That's illegal in spite of all the politicians who say it isn't. Did you know we could hear you all the way down the hall? Well, mostly Alex."

"Sorry," said Vic, blushing.

Alex, of course, did no such thing.

"No, it's all right. Not late enough to be a problem. We would want to hear the news, anyway."

"You're not going to cry, are you?" said Alex.

"Oh, fuck, no."

"You look like you're going to do something," said Candy, warily. "Maybe something dangerous."

"Don't worry. I'm just gonna go pound a heavy bag until either it or I bleed," said Vic.

Until they could get a new teacher for the super martial arts class those who were in it were excused from the PE requirement. They were also allowed - and encouraged - to use the assigned training facilities and equipment, as long as they were careful not to over use them. Vic had quickly learned where such items as the boxing and martial arts equipment were kept. She had startled some of the collegiate boxing and sport martial arts people by not only lifting more weight than most of them, but by punching and kicking harder. They tended to keep their distance, making no objections to this stranger using their equipment, instead generally ignoring her. Given Vic's recent experiences with jocks, that suited her just fine.

Vic rose and grabbed her gym bag. Scowling, she exited her room, headed down the stairs and outside.

* * *

Vic tiredly entered the locker room and began stripping. There was only one set of showers each for guys and gals in the whole athletic complex, located in the same building as the pool. That made sense; all of the dorms were close enough to make showering there convenient. The main exception was swimmers, who would want to get the chlorine off quickly. Normally, Vic would have walked back in her gi and showered at the dorm. However, she had used her last clean towel a bit earlier. Here, the towels were supplied.

Vic had her top and sport bra off and was untying her gi bottoms when she heard people approaching. For a brief moment she had the panicked thought that she was in the wrong room, which she quickly quashed. Within seconds a swarm of very wet, very athletic women - most of them a year or two older than her - came rushing in, as the swim team finished practice. Chattering among themselves, they barely took notice of Vic. Some strode directly into the showers, to rinse off in their suits, but the rest began stripping. Right there, in front of Vic. After all, they could see that the only other occupant was definitely female.

Vic managed not to stare - for the most part - though she couldn't help but grin as she finished removing her sweaty clothes and followed the other girls into the showers.

There are definitely some advantages to my situation, she thought, as she stepped under the steaming, stinging stream and began soaping herself. Surrounded by other women doing the same. Much as I hate to admit it, Alex was right.

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