Chapter 111

“I’m pleased to see everyone looking so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” Professor Fletcher greeted. In truth, neither team was particularly befitting of either of those adjectives. This wasn’t due to any particular worry or case of the nerves: it was simply because all the super abilities in the world didn’t change the fact that college students hate being up early. Still, they’d accomplished their task of rousing and now stood in the gym with bleary but eager eyes.

“As you know, today is a match between your teams. I think we all understand what’s at stake, so I won’t waste any time telling you to try your best or any other such nonsense. Instead I’ll jump right into the rules. Today’s match will be a test of how you use the resources of your teammates over a prolonged time. We’re going to be going to the cells and doing some combat matches.”

Mary winced inwardly; everyone on Chad’s team except Will was either an experienced fighter or had an ability that would neutralize any skill brought against it. This was the system she’d been most afraid of.

“Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a test if we just randomly threw you all in fights, so instead you will be deciding the lineup,” Professor Fletcher continued. “Each team will take turns deciding who they want to send into the cell. The other team then gets to pick which member or members to send against them.”

The eyes of the students cleared as realization of his words dawned on them.

“You heard me right: you can send in multiple people to fight one person, or send in one person to fight multiple people. There are no rules on the match ups,” Professor Fletcher explained. He paused for a moment, savoring the attentive atmosphere before continuing. “However, each team member can only fight one time. So if you blow all seven members on the first match then you automatically lose the next six.” This time his pause was less about dramatics and more about giving them time to let it all sink in. Once a few brows had unfurled Professor Fletcher felt it was safe to move on.

“Standard HCP fight rules apply. The loser is the first one to pass out, give up, or be similarly incapacitated. Intentional lethal force will get you disqualified. Any questions?”

“How do we decide who nominates a fighter first?” Chad asked immediately. It was a sound question; the team sending a person into the cell was at a disadvantage since their opponent got to pick their combat reactively. With seven people per team, that meant if no one used double members in a match then the first team to send someone into the cell would have four nomination matches and only three reaction matches.

“Well, normally we just flip a coin or something like that,” Professor Fletcher admitted. “That method is a little problematic, given the presence of Mr. Campbell.”

“Oh really? The one way I can actually help my team and we’re going to make it sound shameful?” Nick protested, his tone pleading and hurt.

“Strictly speaking, the only test of abilities here happens in the cells and in the decisions you make regarding them. Influencing the coin toss is technically cheating.”

“Then how about this?” Mary interjected. “Let’s just assume we’ll win whatever game of chance you play and say that Chad’s team is going to nominate first.”

“That is hardly-”

“But,” she interrupted, “my team promises to do a two-person nomination one time. If they do the same then it reduces the total matches to six, which means no one really gets an advantage.” This wasn’t entirely true, since Mary and Nick understood the value of striking a victory early on and how it could impact morale.

“I’ll agree to those terms,” Chad said. He knew the importance of a fearful first strike as well, but this was as good a situation as he could hope for against someone like Nick.

“I suppose that settles it then. Okay, Team Two, who would you like to send into the cell for the first match?” Professor Fletcher asked.

There was no discussion amidst the team, nor any need for it. Most of them were just as Mary had assessed: seasoned fighters. They knew that dominating an opponent early on often broke their spirit and left them unable to rally. It was a principle rule of war, and one that made their choice effortless.

“I’ll be first,” Chad declared.

“Very well. You and your team come with me to the observation room. I’ll leave Team One here to deliberate until I return,” Professor Fletcher said. He led Chad down the concrete halls, with Rich, Julia, Sasha, Will, Jill, and Selena trailing just a few steps behind. The team didn’t bother with chit-chat. They were friends, and when this was over they would talk and laugh and celebrate a victory or mourn a loss. That was later. In this moment, all each of them saw was the battle at hand. This shared trait, more than any particular ability, is what made Team Two such a monstrous combatant.

Chad was directed into a combat cell, one much like he’d been in back during his freshman trial. Of course he still used these for sparring and training - it was one of the only places people like him could really use all their strength - but the ones with observation rooms above them tended to be reserved for official events like this one. Chad’s eyes swept the room and took in the scant surroundings with a single glance. There were the usual microphone holes at the corner of one wall that allowed the PA system to be heard. Two walls opposite one another had long open slits at the top with a specially-reinforced clear material covering them. It was as easy to see through as glass, but given what that material could endure it was compositionally as far from actual glass as was possible. Chad did recognize that the presence of two viewing holes meant the teams would watch from separate rooms. It seemed this was a trial the HCP had used before.

He was bored with the room and went to go stand in its center. A lesser fighter would have weighed the merits of ambushing his opponent when they walked through the door. That seemed like it would be grounds for disqualification, when one considered the challenge. Besides, Chad enjoyed most of the people on Team One. He saw no reason not to treat this fight with honor. As he watched his own teammates fill into their observation room, Chad idly wondered who they would send against him. Mary was the obvious choice: last time he’d defeated her she’d been unable to see him. A visually fair fight might be more interesting. Roy would likely lobby for the right of challenge, too. That was fine; it had been months since their last match. Chad knew his sparring buddy couldn’t win, but he still took a bit of pride in watching him get stronger. It was possible Vince would want to try his luck. He and the absorber had never been in any kind of official battle. It would be an interesting, if predictable, fight. By the time the door finally opened, Chad had run through just about every opponent scenario possible. Except, of course, for the one that turned out to be correct.

“Hey there, big fella,” Nick said as he slid through the entrance and sealed the door behind him. “Looks like you and me are gonna tango.”