Chapter 112

“Did you get lost on the way to the observation room?”

Had the question come from almost anyone else Nick would have assumed a malicious intent. Given the genuine surprise and touch of concern on Chad’s face, it was evident he meant it sincerely.

“’Fraid not. I’m the guy who gets to fight you.” Nick raised both of his hands in an exaggerated pugilistic stance, moving them up and down slowly while shifting his feet.

“That seems like a poor decision,” Chad observed. “You cannot hope to defeat me.”

“Oh yeah, no way that’s happening,” Nick agreed, dropping his fighting stance with a shrug. “You’ll definitely beat me. No contest.”

“So then why are you here?”

“Because you’d beat any of us,” Nick replied. “You are the unquestioned King of our class. No single person on my or anyone else’s team can stand against you in a one-on-one match. I’ll admit, a few of the others would put on a hell of a show, but luckily for me this isn’t a contest of awesome battle footage.”

“It’s a contest of resource management,” Chad said, comprehension dawning at last.

“And while a Two will lose to King no matter what game you play, the fact is that this loss still takes you out of the deck.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Sorry, my team uses an analogy of cards when measuring ourselves and our opponents. You’re the King because you’re the strongest in our class; I’m a Two because I’m the weakest. I trust you can see the humor in us opposing one another now.”

“Very clever,” Chad complimented. “Of course, this strategy would have been better used later in the contest. Now my team and I will incorporate your logic into our own plans.”

“It isn’t a perfect scheme,” Nick admitted. “But hey, you work with what you’ve got.”

“Students, are you ready to begin?” Professor Fletcher’s voice boomed out from the wall, momentarily startling both students.

“I am,” Nick said as soon as he recovered.

“Listen, I don’t want to hurt you. Please surrender as soon as he starts us. Someone like you, without any physical abilities at all, well, even with my power of control it would be difficult to make sure I held back enough,” Chad warned. "My ability doesn't alert me to the breaking points of your body."

Nick sighed inwardly. This guy would be running a great game of smack talk if he weren’t so damned sincerely considerate. “You’re right, that’s probably the smart move.”

Chad smiled with relief. “I’m ready,” he called to the wall.

“Then this match has begun.”

Chad stared at Nick, who looked right back at him through his sunglasses. For a few moments neither boy said or did anything. Eventually Chad’s patience gave out. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“Aren’t you going to quit?”

“Certainly not,” Nick shot back with a grin.

“But it’s the right call. You agreed with me that it was the right call.”

“I agreed that it was the smart call,” Nick corrected. “And unfortunately my team has already rejected the smart method of dealing with this situation. Thus I am forced to decline your kind suggestion. Come at me whenever you’re ready.”

Chad laughed in spite of himself. “I wish you did have a power to fight me with. Someone with your guts could have made a great opponent.”

“No argument here.”

Chad’s small burst of laughter subsided and his calm of battle cascaded over him. It was a shame: beating up someone like Nick made him feel like a bully. Too bad, this was a match; there was no room for soft-hearted empathy. The kindest thing he could do was end it fast and efficiently, injuring his opponent as minimally as possible. In the blink of eye Chad was rocketing forward, closing the half-room gap between he and Nick in less than a few seconds. It wasn’t super speed, but it was coordination and acceleration that no human could hope to match. Chad threw his hand out to grab Nick’s arm and start a submission hold... but his hand closed around air. An abrupt stop and turn revealed the sunglasses-clad boy standing a few feet from where Chad had attacked. Not a vast difference, but a noticeable one. Chad didn’t make those kind of mistakes.

He narrowed his eyes and increased his brain’s level of perception. The world around him seemed to slow as his neurons began firing faster and faster. Mental overclocking too much was dangerous, even for someone with his power. If he accidentally damaged his brain, he wouldn’t be able to focus enough to fix it. Still, he was well below the limit of how high his perception could rise. He hurled himself forward, a hot knife through a world stuck in molasses.

This time he saw what happened, and he understood how he’d missed it earlier. Nick waited until the very last moment of Chad’s charge, when it seemed like he was inescapably caught, before turning his entire body on his heel at a precise angle and shifting away. It was similar to the technique used on rushing bulls, though because of Chad’s speed, Nick had to be hundreds of times more exact when he spun. For someone without a physical power it should have been impossible.

“How did you do that?” Chad brought his body to a halt and let his mind come back to regular speed.

“What can I say? I’ve always understood the importance of good timing.”

“Seriously. I move much too fast for any untrained guy to just step out of the way.”

“First off, I’ve been in HCP for a year and a half, too. I might not be lifting cars or punching invincible people, but I did pick up some training here and there.”

“Not that much,” Chad accused.

“Secondly, it’s not like I’m not banking on a little luck with my movements,” Nick replied.

“Luck doesn’t matter in a fight.”

“Luck matters in everything.”

“No, it doesn’t. Knowing when to dodge requires judgment, timing, and experience. Luck could never compensate for all of that.”

“It could, if it was all I was using.” Nick reached up and gently plucked his trademark sunglasses off of his face. Chad was curious to see what the always hidden eyes looked like, but in that regard he was disappointed. Nick’s eyes were firmly shut, not a speck of light going out or getting in.

“You were fighting me with your eyes closed?”

“No wonder Roy says you’re so smart. Got it on the first try.”

Chad felt something bubbling in the pit of his stomach, an unpleasantly hot sensation. Had he been more emotionally actualized he would have understood it was anger and hurt pride at Nick’s taunting words. Chad wasn’t self-aware enough to realize that, but he was far enough along to understand he wanted to end this fight. His brain sped back up as Nick put his sunglasses on. It was time to get serious.

This time Chad didn’t just barrel forward, he did a controlled charged that slowed once he got near Nick. The sandy-haired boy tried to pedal backwards, but once he was in range, Chad could easily stop the distance between them from widening. Even at this range, however, Nick kept nimbly slipping away. He twisted, folded, ducked, bent, and slid at just the right moment every time.

“You can’t keep this up forever,” Chad spat through gritted teeth.

“Oh, definitely. I don’t have your stamina. In fact, I doubt I can last another minute,” Nick agreed.

Chad didn’t have the patience to wait that minute. He brought his perception up by several more degrees, far more than he ever should have needed against someone like Nick, and let fly a flurry of attacks. This time even Nick’s luck couldn’t save him: his arm was ensnared by Chad’s powerful hand. After that, it was a matter of seconds before he was bent to the ground, Chad trying hard not to accidentally break his arm while keeping the submission hold.

“You win,” Nick said immediately. “I give up.”

“The winner of the first match is Chad Taylor of Team Two,” Professor Fletcher’s voice boomed from the wall.

Chad released his adversary and offered him a hand up. Nick took it gratefully; his own arm felt a bit wonky despite Chad’s evident restraint.

“Why in the hell didn’t you just do that in the first place?” Chad asked.

“You know, there are a lot of bullshit reasons I could feed you right now. I could say it’s because I like challenging strong opponents who make me grow, or because I had too much pride to give up without being properly beaten. Stuff like that, stuff I’m sure you’d swallow without hesitation. But I like you; not many people with your kind of power are decent enough to also respect those weaker than they. So just this once I’m going to do something out of character and tell you the truth. I did it to steal your overwhelming victory.”

“But you lost.”

“And you won. What you didn’t do was crush me, or anyone else on my team. You didn’t manage to demoralize us like you were hoping.”

“That more seems like you negated it than you stole it,” Chad pointed out.

“A King will always beat a Two,” Nick said. “It almost doesn’t matter what game you play. But it’s a given; no one expects any different.”

“I’m missing your point.”

Nick stopped walking toward the door and stared at Chad. Despite the sunglasses, Chad could feel Nick’s eyes boring into him. “A King will always beat a Two. The difference between them is so great that it should be as effortless as killing a bug. You beat me, there’s no question about that. But you didn’t do it all that easily. What my team, and yours, just saw was a Two managing to keep pace with a King. They just saw the weakest member of the HCP force the strongest to really work for an unsatisfying victory. Now you tell me, do you think something that impossible has my team feeling particularly demoralized? Or do you think it made them believe that if lowly little old me can do something so impossible that we might have a real shot at winning this thing?”

Chad took a moment before speaking. “You are much more dangerous than I expected.”

Nick smiled and began walking again. “This is only the first match. Wait til you see what I do with the others.”