Chapter 41

Match one was between Brianna and Mason.

“This is going to take forever,” complained Darian next to me in the stands. “Neither of their powers is of much use, so waiting for kill strokes is going to be boring.”

“Speaking of kill strokes, last I checked you can only die once,” added Lucio. “So unless there’s a healer in here somewhere, this won’t work out well. Unless these two are cats and hiding eight other lives. You can never be sure, and I wouldn’t want to assume.”

He squinted, looking down as the two competitors reached opposite sides of the arena and Darian rolled his eyes. The two guards watched from behind the table, each with one hand palm down, the other one clutching the side of the score cards. And below us, Brianna and Mason turned rigid as Siri’s hand hovered above the buzzer.

“May the winner advance to the opportunity to fight for Average,” she said, addressing the entire crowd. “And the loser remain a Bottom. Prepare to begin.”

Brianna reached a hand upwards, checking that her blonde shoulder length hair was still tightly tucked away, her sharp nose tracing paths through the arena. There was the stream to be avoided, the granite stepping stones that might aid in a speed boost, the obstacles for shelter in case of an unexpected attack. And there was the target, Mason, with his stared fixed on her, his face expressionless.  Already he had dropped in a sprinter's crouch, his fingers twitching against the side of his leg. Then without notice, Siri pressed the buzzer, the sound screeching through the gym as the two rocketed forward.

Mason rotated his arm along his cuff mid stride, slinging a wave of water from the stream towards Brianna, his aquatic power barely managing to push a few scattered drops across her path. Without blinking she darted through the wave, the water just enough to darken the fabric of her shirt, and danced around the car door. Mason reached back for another strike just as she leapt, her Jumper power propelling her a dozen feet into the air and clean over the spool in the center of the arena. Mason tried to stop, sliding on mud that he had created, his eyes widening as she arced through the air before him and rolled into a landing at his feet.

With two fists she bundled his shirt at the collar and forearm, ripping him sideways and attempting a trip. Sidestepping, Mason avoided her swinging foot, breaking the grip on his collar by rolling his arm around hers and popping it away. Brianna fought for the grip back, leaping forward with her power into him, and he deflected to let her momentum carry her past him.

“Look, their powers are so weak they’re fighting like Regulars!” jeered Blake from the Upper stands, the students clustered around him laughed. But below, Brianna and Mason continued to struggle, their actions seeming to flow from memory than from panic. From the outer edge of the arena Instructor Cane watched, nodding in approval once Brianna secured a hold on Mason’s collar again.

And this time, he had no chance to break it.

Brianna sidestepped once then turned, swinging her hip into him as she dragged his leg over her own outstretched thigh, forcing his front heel to leave the ground for an instant. Dropping, she twisted, pulling his body over hers in a throw that arced his ankles high above until they smacked against the dirt, following his back which struck just a fraction of a second earlier. He gasped as the breath left his lungs and Brianna oriented herself on top on him, her hand forming a fist and descending in a punch that carried her entire weight.

Without hesitation, she struck the center of his throat, her aim to cut off his windpipe in the kill stroke.

But the fist never made it to the target- instead, it glanced away against a shimmer of light as the guard keeping her score outstretched a hand. There, just above Mason’s throat, a tiny force field had formed, existing just at the edge of our vision from where we sat in the bleachers. Then her guard reached a hand to the score, flipping the number from zero to one.

The force field dissipated just as Siri’s finger pressed the buzzer once more, causing Brianna to roll away. Then they both made their way back to their sides of the arena, their chests rising and falling with exertion, and prepared to start again.

Chapter 42

The score was three to one when Brianna dealt her last blow, a strike to the back of Mason’s spine as he stumbled over in a mixture of exhaustion and defeat, wincing away from the assault instead of raising an arm to block. When she stepped away he gasped on the dirt, mud sliding down the right side of his face, his shirt torn from Brianna’s whirling throws. His hair was plastered down not from sweat, but from where Brianna had held him underwater, her fingers clasped directly behind his head as bubbles surged up around him in the stream in the center of the arena.

That had been more powerful than any physical blow- for an Aquatic, water was home, a sanctuary. In higher powers some even had working gills. But for Mason, his power was so weak that even in his element he faced defeat- and in the final round, it was more embarrassment than lack of skill that finished him off.

When they returned to their section, the next bout started, populated with two more Bottoms with equally as weak powers and resorting to the same Regular based tactics as Brianna. I frowned as one reenacted the same motion as when she earned her first point, performing perfect mirror of her twisting throw and following up with a similar strike to the throat.

In the Upper section, Blake’s jeers grew louder until one in particular caught on in a chant that erupted every time a Bottom started to form an advantage, the sound surprisingly loud for the few students occupying the stands around him.

“Who needs a Regular when you have a good Ass!” they shouted as the nearest Averages smiled, though the expression appeared on none who had an upcoming bout with a Bottom. Then the second Bottom match finished with a score of three to two, the final point more luck than skill, and both left equally as ragged from the encounter. The third Bottom match began, lasting only half as long as the previous, the two attacking each other in a flurry with such ferocity that all powers were forgotten and animalistic instincts took over. And when that fight finished, bite marks and scratches were as visible from the stands as the light behind Siri’s eyes.

“Bout four!” announced Siri.  Quiet rushed over the stands as dozens of eyes turned to the Average waiting below and several hands clapped against the Bottom’s back who rose to meet him. They were both the same same tall body type and size, both male and lanky, and both walked stiffly to their positions at the opposite ends of the arena.

But only one of the faces showed fear. Anthony, the Average, with the power of wind.

Against Slugger, the Momentive.

“I’m pretty surprised they made him a Bottom initially,” whispered Lucio, careful not to shatter the silence as Anthony and Slugger looked to Siri, who was conversing with the guards. “Used to play pick up baseball with him in the old lot behind the train station- with a swing like his, we used to joke that he could hit the ball farther than the next stop. I was never any good, but people seemed to forget that when picking teams.”

“It’s because for a Momentive he’s pretty low powered,” answered Darian, his whisper doing little to conceal his own voice. “From what I’ve seen, he has to have direct contact with objects to affect them. Takes away a lot of possibilities.”

“You haven’t seen enough of him yet then,” countered Lucio, barely containing the excitement in his voice. “His nickname applies to more than baseball.  My bet is he probably gave some lip to Siri and she sandbagged him.”

Siri turned from the judges, and Slugger spoke up from his end of the arena, shaking out curls of red hair as he leaned against a foot thick concrete pole obstacle, one similar to those found in parking garages to prevent cars from entering certain sections.

“Oi!” he shouted, straightening and bouncing back and forth inside his circle, holding up his fists in a mock fighting stance. “We about to get started here? I’m through with cleaning the jacks, and this is going to be good craic! Anthony, don’t look so nervous lad, yer lookin like you’ve never traded fists! Only hurts bad for a second.”

Anthony turned bright red, rolling his neck as he avoided eye contact, and Siri pursed her lips at Slugger. The crowd leaned forward as her hand hovered above the buzzer, particularly Wendy who had moved to the front of the Average section, her knees bouncing in anticipation and sending rhythmic waves throughout the stands. From across the aisle in the aisle in the Upper section, Connor looked from her to Anthony, and a chorus of boos sounded as Anthony managed to wave to the bystanders.

Then the buzzer sounded, and the fight began.

In all fights up until this point, powers had acted as accents to physical techniques. Brianna, with her jumping ability, had been able to enhance her throwing skills, but the finishing strikes had always been the result of a more Regular style fighting. In other Bottom fights, the same pattern had occurred where powers helped the combatants but never seemed to play a major role.

But for this fight, the dynamics shifted, made apparent in the first ten seconds as Slugger pushed against the pole obstacle he had been leaning against, likely testing its rigidity, and yanked it from the earth as if it was a twig. He swung the metal and concrete pylon above his head, laughing with each revolution, the whooshing sound reaching us in the stands as it carved a path through the air.

“Slugger O’Sullivan steps up to the plate!” he shouted, dancing forward with short stuttering steps. “The fans have been waiting for this stink all off season, for the prodigy of the playoffs to return! And the pitcher winds up, it’s gonna a fast one, a real fireball, and Slugger swings!”

He whipped the concrete pole forward, stepping forward and throwing his weight into the motion.

“And it’s a hit outta the park!” he bellowed, launching the pole forwards as he released it, the rotating mass whirling directly towards a wide eyed and frozen Anthony who had yet to move at the arena's opposite end.

Chapter 43

Anthony reacted when the pole was halfway across the arena, as the collective audience was holding their breath. Raising both his hands, he screamed, the sound more fitting for someone several years younger, and a blast of wind coursed past him to pummel the flying object.

It was a desperate move, one of instinct rather than thought. For no matter how powerful his wind was, the pole was concrete, and its course would only be altered a few inches. The action should have been ineffective, like trying to stop a semi truck with a ping pong ball.

But instead, the wind caught the pole like a leaf, throwing it off course and slamming it into a far wall, where it fell to the ground without even chipping the paint.

“What the Hell?” said Lucio as the crowd gasped, and Anthony’s face showed the same level of disbelief.

“Don’t you ever study?” huffed Darian.

“I consider the ripest fruits of knowledge to be delivered by life, not books.”

“Or you can’t read,” countered Darian. “Did you plant the idea you can tell vowels from consonants in my head too?”

“If you had studied,” I said, cutting them off, “You would know that Momentives can change the mass of objects. Slugger made the pole lighter to throw it- if he had been a higher power, he would be able to change the mass back after the throw. But since he can’t, it looks like it just reverts back over time.”

“So what was the point of throwing it then?” persisted Lucio, his eyebrows scrunching together. “Wouldn’t it just feel like getting hit with a twig, or-”

That,” interrupted Darian, pointing below.

Anthony had stumbled back with the force of his torrent, and had nearly recovered by squaring his feet. But racing down the left of the field at full speed was Slugger, tossing obstacles from his path as if they were made of paper, dirt spraying up from behind him with each step, and streaking like a bullet towards Anthony.

Anthony shrieked when he looked upwards, seeing Slugger’s fists raised, and ducked under an initial blow before sprinting down the left side. Slugger was faster, but Anthony’s head start carried him halfway to the other side before he could turn to pursue.

“Get back here ya gimp!” Slugger shouted when Anthony zig-zagged around him again, and took off back towards his original starting point. “I’ll make it quick!”

“Don’t you come closer!” yelled Anthony, stopping, the two facing each other with twenty feet between them, and the crowd booed again.

“Oh that’s grand, just grand,” laughed Slugger, and launched himself forward. “We’re not here to chat lad.”

Anthony raised his hands, directing a torrent of wind to blast against Slugger and pushing himself backwards. But Slugger plowed forward, his feet creating trenches in the soil, lowering his head as strands of red hair whipped around his ears. He grit his teeth, his progress slow but controlled as Anthony retreated toward the back of the arena, and Slugger was careful to box him in this time from the center to prevent an escape.

Then Anthony’s back foot reached the painted line that was the edge of the arena and he balked, pinwheeling his arms to maintain balance, while Slugger launched himself into an attack to take advantage of the momentary weakness.

But as soon as Slugger’s feet left the ground Anthony panicked, changing the direction of the torrent in a sideswipe that caught Slugger in mid air, buffeting his body left before he could recover traction. The wind howled and Slugger cartwheeled over the row of granite stones, trying to catch one as a handhold but his fingernails only leaving smudges against the rock, and toppling out of the arena onto the gym floor.

The buzzer sounded as Slugger stood and shook the dirt off of him, and Anthony released a smile mixed with relief and disbelief.

“Point one for fleeing the arena!” announced Siri, as one of the guards adjusted the score.

“Come on, you’re going to let that pass?” Slugger retorted to Siri, and her eyes flashed as the crowd booed.

“Competitors will return to the starting position,” she said, the ice in her voice cutting off the crowd's reaction. “Or forfeit the next point.”

“Grand, just grand,” he exclaimed, his voice exasperated as he threw his hands in the air but walked around the outside of the arena to his original end, and twisted his torso in a stretch as he waited for the buzzer. And this time, when Anthony took up his position, the fear had left his expression.

Then round two began, and Slugger started to walk towards the center while Anthony maintained his ground, waiting, rolling his wrists as Slugger advanced. And once Slugger reached halfway, Anthony struck.

First the wind howled from the right, but Slugger dug in, refusing to let it drag him outside the arena again, bracing his muscles against the force as his shirt flapped around him like a sail. Then the direction of the wind changed, crashing in from the left and nearly toppling Slugger, halting his advance but failing to knock him off balance and outside the arena once more.

For a full minute Anthony pummeled him with currents and Slugger absorbed them, his muscles bulging while sweat poured down Anthony’s forehead, both of them wearing down but neither letting up ground. Then Slugger shouted, his voice carrying above the wind, frustration biting into his words.

“Oi, so that’s how you’ll play?” he yelled, the spittle from his mouth flying back into his face. “Fleeing instead of fighting? Might as well get this over with then. Last I remembered, only two of the three points can be scored from leaving the arena.”

He darted left and jumped, sailing past the out of the bounds line and landing in a crouch.

“And now that that’s done,” he continued, his voice calm not that the wind had died away, and Anthony’s mouth hung slightly open. “Let’s begin.”

Then he turned to the guard at the table, and tilted an imaginary hat.

“Two to zero, lad, you’ll be wanting to fix that.”

Chapter 44

When the buzzer sounded, Slugger reached down and gathered two fistfuls of dirt, holding each at waist height. The muscles in his arms strained when he moved forwards, the steps short and deliberate instead of the running leaps from earlier, his feet sinking deeper into the earth.

And when Anthony started building up currents of wind once more, Slugger gripped the dirt tighter, before continuing to walk through the storm.

“Clever,” Said Lucio, his two feet resting on the bleacher in front of him, the student ahead of him casting back an annoyed look, “Weighing himself down with the dirt. Why doesn’t he just make his body heavier or something? That’s easy enough for me at lunch!”

“When you can’t pass Lynn’s class, don’t try to cheat off me,” Remarked Darian, speaking over the howl, “That was literally the first thing we learned about Momentives, that they can’t change the mass of their own body. It’s how you can tell one is approaching you- they’ll often have on knuckle wraps or gloves to make their punches land, or be holding a non traditional weapon.”

“See? That’s interesting. You should try that more often, Darian! We need to find a good Comic for you to mimic, I could use some laughs. In the meantime you and SC need to pick up the slack on the joke telling.”

“SC is already busy plan making,” Darian said, turning his eyes back to the fight. “Or he should be. There will be plenty of time for jokes when we get out.”

“That’s right,” I mumbled, as the fight below progressed. “But one step at a time. Let’s get to Upper first.”

I swallowed, watching as Slugger cornered Anthony, packed the dirt in his hand into a ball of mud, and wound up like a pitcher on the mound. Then he threw the makeshift baseball directly at Anthony, stumbling over with the force of the fastball, but managing to create a trajectory that ended with Anthony’s solar plexis. And thrown just hard enough to sting, had it been a regular mud ball.

Ooooomph,” gasped Anthony when the projectile connected, driving the wind from his lungs as he flew backwards, his gangly arms and legs struggling to keep up with his torso that appeared to be hit with a wrecking ball. Ten feet he flew backwards, easily clearing the edge of the arena, and toppling onto the ground as a heaving and crumpled mass, a hand clutched over his heart as he stared upwards.

The buzzer sounded and Slugger walked forward, extending a hand to Anthony from above.

“Lad, get up. This has gone on long enough, dontcha think? Come on, twas just a bit of dirt.”

“Contestants will return to their starting positions,” commanded Siri, pursing her lips, but Slugger ignored her.

Anthony shook his head, and Slugger reached down to take his wrist, pulling him to his feet and clapping him on the back once.

“Lighten up, let’s either make this quick or fun, shall we?”

“Contestants will return to their starting positions,” repeated Siri, this time in a sing song voice that made the crowd above stir, but Slugger rolled his eyes.

“Cut that out, Miss!” he retorted, shaking out his hair and cracking his neck. “Going as fast as my wee legs will take me, and they’re longer than most!”

Shock flashed over Siri’s face then was gone in an instant, her expression turning as conservative as the blue suit she wore, and the muscles in her necks tightening. Then the next round started and was over in under a minute, Slugger aiming a punch at Anthony’s face that was so strong that the protective force field lit up with a flash sparks when it connected to his fist. And when he prepared for the final round, the final strike to end the match, Siri turned to whisper in one of the guard’s ears.

“And now, for the grand finale, the bottom of the ninth!” shouted Slugger when the buzzer sounded, and he picked up one of the car door obstacles, holding it above his head. “Truly a one sided game, but Slugger will not let his fans down! No, he’ll leave with a grand slam, a nail in the coffin! And a warning to future challengers!”

He trudged forward with the car door, his legs straining as it gained weight, while Anthony appeared ready to wet himself. But two thirds of the way across the arena, Slugger tripped on something, though there was nothing but bare earth beneath him. And there, so faint I could barely see it and appearing only for a split second, was a spark just under one of his feet as he careened forward.

The car door slammed down on top of him, the mass enhanced, and his guard raised a hand to generate a force field only after his body bore most of the blow. The door rolled off,revealing Slugger’s face to be splattered with blood that rushed from his nose and was lapped up by the earth, staring back at the spot where he had tripped with disbelief as the buzzer sounded.

“Congratulations to Anthony, the winner!” announced Siri as she smiled. “Remember students, humility is a virtue! And as we watch you grow, we will be sure to nurture the virtues necessary for you to thrive. For what is a vine without a trellis, or a bush without pruning? Let the next match begin, and may the winner be deserving of the prize!”

Chapter 45

Of Lucio, Darian, and myself, my match came first. And after watching all the physical techniques of the Bottoms, I felt ready- I knew their top moves, their throws, how they set up a punch. While at first it had seemed near mystical, now I realized there were less than five combinations, which made perfect sense considering the short amount of time they had to train. And each of the combinations had an equally as simple counter- a side step, a twist of the hips, a dodge. So long as the move was recognized before full implementation, it would be trivial to evade it.

But for those who had no foresight, it was deadly.

“Match seven!” called Siri, and I stood, walking down the bleachers to the arena below. Each of my steps seemed to echo of the far wall as I descended and from the corner of my eye I saw a figure keeping pace. Both he and I reached the judges table at the same time, waiting to be assigned to a corner. Next to me I felt the heat radiating from his body in pulses that could only be a heartbeat, and straightened my shoulders while raising my chin, making a point to make my body as large as possible to combat the space occupied by his power.

Then we walked to opposite ends as I felt the earth crunching under my feet in the still dry regions, and passed several new obstacles that had been added after Slugger’s fight- a fresh car door, a new pole in the place of the one he had ripped out, and the scattered granite stepping stones realigned in their place.

I looked up when I arrived at my position, meeting Fino’s eyes, the ever present fury flaring up just behind them. I steadied my breath, taking account of the terrain, preparing my muscles to leap into action. And I remembered Lynn’s lesson on Fino’s power type, Furnaces.

Often emotionally driven, untrained furnaces face problems with containment- too easy do they let their power boil over, their embers turn to wildfires. At that point, they lose control, and are as much of a danger to themselves as they are to you. So remember, the more power they use, the less ability they have to direct it with precision.

Siri’s finger rested on the buzzer, and the crowd took a collective breath, knowing that this was no Bottom against Average fight. And aside from the Bottoms, none of us had seen the extent of Fino’s power since the first day. But with strategy, quick reactions, and Lynn's advice, I should be able to counter it.

Then the buzzer sounded, and I saw Fino’s power before I felt it. Hands raised, he screamed with rage, his face as red as the flames the licked up from his feet, smoke billowing away from the pillar on his left as the paint crinkled and bubbled. The air warped, shimmering like the layer just above pavement on a triple digit day, and blossoming towards me in a visible shock wave that expanded outwards to cover my entire side of the arena.

Reaching ahead with two forcepoints I took hold of both the car doors at opposite ends of the arena, dragging them backwards and together just in front of me, the glass shattering as metal twisted together at the center seam. Crouching, I ducked under the metal, driving the edge of the doors into the dirt to form a small mound in front as the heat wave struck, the structure becoming a shield.

The faded leather on the interior of the doors cracked instantly just as the remaining glass in the side mirrors exploded, sending not shards but powder raining down in a cloud. Above, I felt the heat reaching down to attack my eyebrows, threatening to burn them clean off, while the tips of the metal on the outside of the door already glowed a faint orange. Any moisture left in the dirt fizzled away behind me, the mud splitting open as steam billowed upwards, any organic matter immediately turning to ash.

Then the blast was over, like opening and shutting a grill for only a second, the remaining heat dissipating into the rest of the gym. Hearing nothing, I stood, chancing a look over the lip of the doors and meeting Fino’s eyes once more.

Ahead, in the direct line of the blast, there was only char and destruction- nothing remained intact, even the granite stones were chipped at the edges. And Fino had not moved, his hands still outstretched, his eyes widening as I entered his view, and launching a second blast that rolled towards me like an ocean wave.

Diving back down I weathered the second blast, hearing his shout of anger as the car doors held. I thought of my next move, remembering Lynn’s advice to spur a Furnace on until they lost control.

And I realized Fino was long past that point without my intervention.

Chapter 46

“Coward!” I heard Blake shouting from above as the third blast came, closer this time, and I huddled under the door again to escape. “Get up and fight!”

Only twenty seconds had passed since the buzzer, but I knew I had to move. I readied myself, gritting my teeth as I realized my black spheres would cut directly through Fino’s heat, likely absorbing it on their path, and would constitute at a kill strike before he had a chance to move. But using the spheres would expose my power, and therefore expose me.  Tis fight would have to be won as a Telekinetic.

I waited, listening, holding my breath for the fourth wave. Then just as it passed overhead, I slammed two force points past the car doors, flinging them open and hurling them at Fino. They spun through the air like cards, the outside glowing red from the heat, the interior an ashy black, churning through the heat while gaining speed. And Fino, his chest rising and falling with exertion, had no time to move.

They smashed into the force field generated by one of the guards, the energy on impact enough to split them into several pieces, the metal brittle from cycling heat and an exterior oxidizing layer. But without the protection, they would have hit Fino directly.

“Point one!” shouted a voice in the stands, and I turned to see Lucio with a finger raised even before the buzzer sounded. “Not too average for an Average!”

Darian nodded beside him as Fino turned his back to walk towards his starting position and wait for the next round, the shimmering air around him turning into a frenzy as he held in the heat. With each step it surged, seeming to be corralled in just barely by force of will, and eager to be released.

“Not bad!” shouted Blake from the stands, a smile forming over his face that made warning bells go off in my mind. “But let’s see how you perform without a shield!”

Chills ran down my spine as I turned, looking to the remains of the two car doors on the ground in front of Fino, now nearly entirely disintegrated. And as Fino followed my gaze a smile raced across his lips, matching Blake’s while his laugh shrieked across the gap between us.

Seconds later Siri pressed the buzzer, and I dove to the earth as the first heat wave struck with no time to develop a better plan. Immediately the guard generated a field above me as the heat came crashing down, and the buzzer sounded again a mere five seconds after the round began.

One point Fino, one point me.

The next round I flung the granite stones at Fino, hurling them like comets towards him- but while he could dodge the stones, the wave he propelled was as wide as the arena, and there was no dodging it’s breadth. Instead it caught me head on, with no defence, the blast of hot air burning my arms before the guard generated a shield.

Two points Fino.

For the final round I tried lifting the earth in a shield, my powers pulling upwards at flecks of dirt in two tornadoes to form an insulating wall, heaving the mass upwards with the strongest force points I could muster and bringing the stream water with it. But the earth broke apart in clumps as the gravity took hold, and the stream water turned to steam by Fino’s third wave. With both points focused on maintaining the wall, I had nothing left to utilize in an attack- and when the fourth heat wave came, it flew through my cloud like water through a strainer, completely unaffected as thoughts raced through my mind, last second possibilities that came too late. And I realized that today, I would only be fighting once.

That as the buzzer sounded, I’d be making my way back to the bleachers.

And I’d be watching the rest of the fights from the Bottom seats.

Chapter 47

“Sorry SC,” whispered Darian as he brushed past me, walking the aisle between the Average and Bottom bleachers. “But I’m not going to spend the rest of my time here scrubbing toilets, as short as it may be.”

“Darian,” I hissed back. “No matter what happens, don’t use my power, or we’ll actually be stuck here. It’s our only way out, understood?

He paused, looking back towards me from where he had continued walking down the steps, and nodded.

“Understood,” he answered. “Besides, I wouldn't need it until the next round anyways. Not like I’m about to lose to a Bottom.”

Eleven minutes later, I rubbed the blisters forming on my forearms while Darian sulked next to me, his scowl deep enough for both of us, maintaining silence for the next four matches.

“It’s absolute bullshit,” he outburst eventually, slamming a fist down on the seat next to him. “She should have clarified the rules before the match. I sat in the front row for your battle to absorb Fino’s power, I spent twenty minutes this morning picking up Flamethrowing from Josh. It should have been over in an instant.”

“Looks like we’re sticking together then,” I said. “Depending upon the outcome of Lucio’s match.”

Beside me, Darian huffed, and I suppressed a smile remembered the details of his match- or rather, the detail that mattered.

“Remember,” said Siri, shortly before the match began and staring directly at him. “All interference is strictly forbidden.” She smiled, and her tone took on a light quality as realization dawned across his face, “Of course, that includes the powers of others outside the arena. Ready? Begin!”

She slammed her hand down on the buzzer as Darian stood, stunned, and his opponent tore across the arena towards him. And in the entirety of the match, no powers were used, the Bottom relying solely on physical combat techniques. Techniques that Darian had utterly no training in using.

Darian managed to score a single point with a rogue punch, catching his opponent off guard, but the remaining three were scored against him- with no power to absorb, he too was powerless, and even worse, unprepared. And though he walked away from the arena with no injuries, his face was still bright red when he sat next to me, and he avoided eye contact with the rest of the students. Including Lucio as he was called to the arena and his own fight began.

“You better be watching!” Lucio had said the night before, scribbling on a piece of paper before bed. “It’s going to be a real show!”

“Just make sure you win,” Darian had lectured.

“Eh, I’m not too concerned about that. Besides Darian, I want to be a movie director, not a warrior! How about you judge this off of the entertainment value?”

“Just know I’m not waiting for your ass if you lose,” Darian had answered, and jumped into his bed. “All that matters in the end is the score.”

And now, in the arena, Lucio looked our way as Brianna prepared on the other side. Then both dropped into a sprinter’s crouch, their eyes turned towards Siri, and their muscles tensed. As soon as the wall of sound broke the silence, they launched themselves forwards in a dead sprint, their arms pumping and thighs straining for extra speed. But Brianna had the advantage- with her jumping power a leaping start placed her slightly ahead of Lucio, tilting their collision course towards his side of the arena as they raced closer, neither slowing but rather speeding up with each step, their faces staring directly ahead.

And just as the crowd winced, preparing for them to slam together with a sickening crunch, the opposite happened- they ran right past each other, barely brushing shoulders, until they arrived at opposite ends of the arena. Nearing the edge, Brianna jumped the last ten feet, sailing out of bounds past the painted line as she raised a triumphant hand.

“Point one to me!” she shouted, beaming. “Never lost a race in my life, I knew I would win the racing round!”

“Sneaky bastard,” whispered Darian as confused whispers broke out in the crowd.

“Maybe you won the race Brianna, but not the point!” answered Lucio, tapping his forehead as a blush formed across her face. “I’ll be taking this one!”

“That’s cheating!” she protested. “That’s not fighting, that was a trick!”

“I don’t recall saying anything. Maybe you should be a little less trusting of your memories, it’s quite easy for them to turn even the best of us into fools.”

“Well this time it’s not happening again," she countered, raising a clenched fist. "I’ll hit you before you have the chance.”

“Be my guest,” he said, sweeping an arm in front of him and bowing. “Just don’t miss.”

With the start of the next round he dove behind one of the car door obstacles and waited for Brianna to approach, staring into the mirror on the side to watch her movements. She crept forwards, then suddenly changed her path halfway across the arena, moving toward the second car door with nothing behind it, passing Lucio without a second glance and failing to see him where he hid.

Tip toeing, he maneuvered behind her and followed, exaggerating her steps as she prepared to pounce, his arms raised like a puppet master. In the crowd, giggles started to erupt as he pulled a face, and Brianna froze, sensing something was amiss.

“Briaaaana!” he called, dragging out her name from right behind her as she jumped like a surprised cat, spinning in midair. But before she hit the ground she recovered, lashing out with a punch that caught a force field just before Lucio’s face and scored her the point.

“Rats,” he said, snapping his fingers from his fallen position on the ground. “Don’t know how I didn’t see that one coming. Guess I’m just too clumsy, aren’t I?”

The next two points were scored in a similar fashion- each time, Lucio lead Brianna around the arena as if she were blind, planting memories of false move combinations in her head that made her trip over her own feet or convincing her that she had already won the match to drop her guard. Each time, he came within striking distance, but not once did he move to attack, Siri's eyes narrowing as she noted each missed opportunity.

“Now that was fun,” he said a few minutes later when he took a seat next to Darian and me in the Bottom section, the crowd laughing and applauding as he bowed after the match, though the scoreboard showed a clear loss. “Sorry to keep you waiting, and hope you enjoyed the show. I’ll be expecting critiques later! Anyways, I suppose I’m just not good enough to stay an Average according to the score board. Worked out well then with the outcomes of your two matches, didn’t it?”

Chapter 48

The rest of the matches progressed over the next two hours, some devolving into little more than scrap fights while others showcased powers in a fashion that appeared more similar to dancing than pugnacious. Arial defeated her opponent to remain an average with little difficulty, simply lifting them into the air and dropping them, and several Uppers started to relax as their competition eliminated itself in the lower brackets.

When it was Connor’s turn, even Darian couldn't resist lightening up as waves of comfort and warmth washed over the assembly, the floating feeling displacing negative thoughts and brooding. Students slumped in the bleachers, relaxing and yawning, their thoughts turning to places and people far away. Together, Connor and his opponent skipped outside the arena twice to score him two points, and his opponent smiled from his position on the ground as Connor raised a granite block high into the air, and dropped it directly on his face to win the third round.

Then the day was over, as Siri stood in the center of the arena and the bleachers looked on with a mix of emotion. Some faces were crestfallen, others triumphant, and a minority neutral. Few were without cuts, scrapes, and sweat, though the shields from the guards had borne the brunt of the strikes. Still, a small line had formed to the on site nurse at the right of the bleachers below, who had already sent two students to the on campus infirmary consisting of three beds erected inside the old theater room, along with a smattering of medical equipment to immediately treat most varieties of mid grade injuries.

“New placements shall take place immediately,” announced Siri, her voice filling the gym. “Some of you should be proud of your actions. Others, quite the opposite.” She scanned the crowd, until her gaze found Mason, and spoke the next word in a somber, low note, “Ashamed.”

He flinched backwards, the blood running from his face, and even from my position I felt the impact of the word, my ears burning and my gaze avoiding contact with the other students. And the truth hit home- we had lost, while the others had won. We were exactly as our name implied- the Bottoms, those who couldn’t keep up, and were dragging down the rest. We would have to try harder, we would have to become Uppers, to become perfect students.

Then I blinked, feeling Lucio’s touch inside my mind that pulled away the thoughts, and looked to the other Bottoms as they cringed before Siri, some even balled up, their feet folded under their seats and hands in their armpits. As if they had been caught by a parent in a truly heinous act, like torturing a pet, or standing before a judge after committing a murder. And I realized that was what I had felt just a moment before.

When Siri finished speaking, it was the responsibility of the Bottoms to clean and restore the arena, the work taking several hours and lasting long past dinner. I went to bed hungry and exhausted, taking my belongings to the holding cells downstairs, and was packed together inside one with several other bottoms. We shivered through the night, our only blankets the clothes on our backs and our laundry, which still allowed the concrete floor to wick away the heat and grind against pointed bones.

And at one in the morning, I gave up on sleep. Even keeping my eyes shut had proved difficult as I realized I had no inkling of a plan. As I wondered if perhaps it was better to escape the facility and try to teach myself to fight, to take Lucio and Darian with me and work together, to start something new. But I knew that even together we would be unable to imitate the lessons given by instructors Lynns and Peregrine, and that somewhere out there the Hunter was waiting for me to reappear, and that he was ready to attack.

I turned to look at Darian in the darkness, knowing that in the morning I would have to convince him to stay or risk exposing my power. That he would take nothing less than a concrete objective, and that might not even be enough prevent him from leaving.

Sitting up, I left the others in the holding cell, the lack of their snoring meaning that I was likely not the only one who would be exhausted in the morning. And I started walking towards the place I had heard Siri and Peregrine a few nights before, my spirits leaping as I saw the familiar light and the voices ahead, and I stood stock still listening for their conversation.

“I need space,” Peregrine was saying, his voice rushed. “And he’s making that next to impossible. You said you would take care of him.”

“I did, and I will.” Siri responded, her voice annoyed. “She starts full time tomorrow, just like several of our other previous commuters, and he won’t dare coming near again without a reason from the police. And the police know better than to come snooping. Relax, Peregrine, the situation is under control. We’ve talked about this every night for months, your paranoia is starting to be more of a problem than the police.”

From my position, I shifted, moving closer to hear the voices more clearly and hide behind the broom closet door, holding my breath. Praying for details that would help my situation.

“Siri, I’m mere weeks away from completion, and when this project is finished it will be far more dangerous than it is now. Without secrecy, we lose all advantage. But when it’s finished, the advantage will be incredible. I trust you’ve secured the building for the new facility?”

“Of course I have, Peregrine. All the steps have been taken, and your secrecy is top priority in exchange for your loyalty. Nothing is going to happen, even if they knew about our project they wouldn’t be able to find it. And the Hunter's daughter starts full time tomorrow, so he's under our thumb.”

And as Siri spoke the next few words, the muscles in my shoulders tensed, and I felt a chill run from my neck to my ankles, and I bit the inside of my lip to keep from gasping.

Every precaution has been taken. The location, the Hunter, the distractions, the maid we captured for you to keep your precious project out of their prying eyes. Now focus on finishing it, you're driving me over the edge.”

And she changed the quality of her voice, song entering it, “And leave the rest to me, and retire for the night.”

“Of course, Siri,” he answered, his voice slightly more dull than normal. “Of course.”

He left the room, turning away from me and walking down the hall, not seeing me from my hiding place behind the closet door. And from within the room, Siri started to sing once more, softly and to herself.

        

Focus on the end and naught more,

Forget what brought it there,

Of those dashed upon the shore,

Dust under the rug not shared.

        

Forget father, who met his end,

After his last command,

I decided my will shan’t bend,

When I took my final stand.

        

Remember the power to move,

To inspire, shake, to drive,

Of loyalty they’re possessed to prove,

When it means their very lives.

        

“Of course, of course,” she muttered from within, her own voice now dull. Then she shut off the light and followed Peregrine’s steps into the darkness. "Focus."

Chapter 49

Thoughts raced in my mind as I hurried back to the holding cell and I repeated Siri’s discussion in my head.

Even if they knew about our project they wouldn’t be able to find it.

The maid we captured for you to keep your precious project out of their eyes

The maid, my mother, with her power to hide even the most obvious of details. That had to be who they were speaking about.

Without secrecy, we lose all advantage.

Now that Arial was at the facility full time, that secrecy would be a guarantee. For the first time in my life, I wished that the police would be more involved. That I actually wanted their help.

And in my mind, a plan started to form, one that solidified with the slap of each of my footsteps against the cold tile floor. A risky plan, one that may even get me caught. But even if I was caught, it might be worth it. It might expose Siri and, in doing so, free my mother.

I was so absorbed in my thoughts that I failed to see the shape growing larger in the darkness in front of me, the slightly darker blotch blending into the shadowy surroundings. Only once I walked into it did I jump backwards, feeling the cold hand that cupped the back of my neck, barely catching the scream in the back of my throat.

There, hanging and just barely visible, was a body with a rope tied around its neck, swinging from the rafters from the force of my collision. The ankles dangled several feet off the floor, one of the shoes kicked off, and two swollen eyes staring forward like miniature full moons. And I recognized the face as I rushed forward to help him down, to see if I could still save him.

Mason, who had lost the match earlier that day to Brianna.

There was no warmth to him as I reached upwards to find the knot, stumbling over a chair in the darkness that he had used to climb upwards and fit his head through the noose. No breath passed through his lips, and as I felt his wrist, no blood pumped through his veins. Swallowing, and shivering, I knew that there was no Mason left inside to save. And I pulled my hand away from the knot where I had started to untie it from my position now standing on the chair, and I hesitated.

Then I climbed down and walked past Mason, leaving him alone in the darkness.

Knowing that if I had been caught wandering the halls at this time of night, it would only raise questions. That Siri might suspect I had been listening in to her conversations. That I might find myself in a special session with her.

And that helping Mason now would do nothing to bring him back, no matter how guilty I felt as he stared into my back.

We were awakened the next morning with a scream down the hallway, and I worked to keep my face as confused as the others as we surged out of the holding cell, searching for the source, infusing my voice with panic as we caught sight of the body.

It took little effort, and the fear came quick as I beckoned it- the details of Mason’s body in the daylight introduced fresh shock into my emotions. A shaft of sunlight caught him across his face as he twisted, the rope biting into his neck, and blood trickled down from where he had bit clean through one of his lips to stain his shirtto puddle on the floor.

As Siri arrived one of the guards cut the remains down, carting what was once Mason away, and she spoke to the gathered crowd, her voice slow but not quite melancholy.

“A terrible, terrible outcome,” she said, shaking her head. “Truly unfortunate, particularly considering we saved him from the streets. No family or relatives to speak of, and this is how he shows his gratitude. No, he shan't be remembered, not after this.”

She shook her head again, and placed two fingers over her lips before continuing to speak, turning from where Anthony had been to stare directly at the Bottoms.

“Perhaps if he had been an Upper, this never would have happened.”

Then she walked away, her heels clicking against the floor, her tightly wound hair bobbing with each step.

“Oi,” said Slugger, gripping me by the shoulder. “Did you see this when you got up last night SC? Be hard to miss, wouldn’t it?”

Ahead, the sound of Siri’s steps stopped, and she half turned around, one pupil moving to look at me out of the corner of her eye.

“Of course not,” I answered quickly. “Without dinner last night, my stomach was killing me. Just had to use the restroom is all. This sight made it no better, I'm going to be sick again.”

Click, click I heard as Siri’s steps resumed, and I quieted my sigh of relief as she turned the corner ahead. Around us, the other students made their way to the breakfast hall. One of them cracked a joke from ahead, and there was a chorus of laughter in response that changed from nervous to raucous. Then, just twenty minutes after finding Mason, we departed to our first class.

After all, Siri had commanded that he would not be remembered.

And the students obeyed.

Chapter 50

“Don’t even try, SC,” Panted Darian after the morning run. Without sleep, we’d fallen into the back half and had to run extra laps as a result. As usual, Blake sneered from each passing lap, and even Connor was hot on our heels. Next to him jogged Wendy, who typically finished in the top third but had taken it upon herself to improve Conner’s times. And it was working.

“Like I said, don’t even try,” he repeated, sweat trickling down from his forehead. “I’m leaving. After last night’s misery, it’s not worth it. I’m out, and we both know I have the means to do it.”

I caught him by the elbow, my grip tight on where muscle met bone, my voice level but menacing.

“You want to escape? Fine. But give me one more night,” I said. “One more, then you’re free. I’ll even give you a fresh dose of my power in case it has started to wear off. But we do this my way, understood?”

“Understood,” the words came through gritted teeth, but they still came in agreement. “But don’t think you can keep putting this off.”

“I don’t. This is for real, Darian, and part of the plan.” I stated, finally gaining control of my breathing. “Details tonight. And I can promise you more than just your freedom. How about a hot five star meal, and some special treatment? A soft bed in a top hotel?”

“For that, I’ll wait SC,” he continued, and strode towards the body weight training portion of the class. “What’s the plan?”

“Tonight, we talk tonight. There’s something I have to confirm first.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

After work outs, instead of reporting to Lynns we started a separate class, one tailored to the Bottoms alone. One vastly different than the Average’s and led by instructor Cane.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said, tapping the board. “Fortunately, we are all acquainted! And I have the pleasure of seeing several faces that otherwise would have departed to be with my softer friend Lynns. Fear not- I’ll be sure to make up for all the time you’ve missed.”

He chuckled, and turned on an old overhead projector, a flurry of dust rushing out of the vent as the fan kicked to life. And he pulled out a stack of transparent laminations, shuffling through them until he found a specific sheet, and placed it on the flickering light. A few crumbs sprinkled over the image as he smacked a small chocolate chip cookie from a foot tall tower on his left, and he pointed to Slugger before beginning.

“Ay, milk maid, you’re still in my class aren’t you? Don’t make me think you’re slacking this Monday morning- not if you ever want a figure as pristine as mine!”

He laughed again and slapped his stomach, the reverberations rolling down to bulge resting on his knees, and gestured back to a small fridge in the back of the room.

“Oi, wasn’t planning on making this prompt of a return,” groaned Slugger, sighing as he stood and made his way to the fridge. “Can’t you tell how excited I am to see you? It’s grand, just grand.”

“Maybe you should have won your match then princess,” retorted Cane, “Besides, I think you’ll find yourself far better suited here than above. And the rest of you would do well to think likewise. Ah that’s it, just one glass for now. Froth it up!”

Cane leaned to his right, where Lucio was sitting, and commented out of the side of his mouth like he was sharing a dirty secret.

“Mind my words, Momentives make the top baristas. No one can froth glass of milk the same way, and don’t even get me started on Momentive bakeries. Had a scone so light once it floated out of my fingertips and into the sky. If I had my way with that one, he’d be in a different type of school right now.”

“I’ll make ya mean shepherd’s pie,” Slugger commented, shaking the glass, the milk scattering on the inside as if it had forgotten gravity. “The meanest.”

“I’m sure you’d love that, wouldn’t you? So mean it would probably off me, wouldn’t it? That’d be a real stretch with my power, you’d have to make something so atrocious to earn a place in the history books. But we both know how much you’d miss me, that’s the real reason you’re back, isn’t it?”

“Course it is,” Slugger answered, and dropped the milk on the projector, letting a few drops splash over the edge. “Ya read me like a book. How much longer do I have to wait until the adoption papers are signed?”

“Peh, I have standards, why would I ever want to take in someone who wanted to be an Upper? Pure snobbery. Now, enough of this nonsense, back to the subject matter. And before moving forward, let’s clarify something. No matter what you hear, or what anyone else thinks, Bottom is where you want to be. It’s where you learn. And it’s where change occurs.”

He cleared his throat, coughed, and turned a knob on the projector so the shadowed image came into focus. Squinting, I could see a pair of bodies moving around the screen, with arrows and shading highlighting certain muscle groups or regions, and step patterns etched underneath.

“For those who are new, let me clarify my purpose. Here, I teach you not how to use your powers. Here, I teach you not technique that may fail you during inopportune circumstances,or upon the nullification of your ability. No- here, I teach you to actually fight. And as many of you who used to be Averages have noticed, it works damn well across all the power ranges.”