Chapter 118

               The room that the students stepped into was different from what they’d been expecting. Instead of a small area with a clear strip out of one wall, the usual area for watching trials and matches, the vast room was lined with television monitors. They were all dark for the moment, but it seemed obvious that would be changing soon. At the far end of the room was a single steel door, and near the lift area sat a weapons rack that ran half the length of the wall.

                “Today, you are going to observe your fellow students' matches the same way we professors do: from every angle and vantage point,” Dean Blaine announced. “This means that those of you who are tested later have the advantage of seeing tactics utilized by others first. You might see something that never occurred to you and incorporate it into your own strategy. Of course, going later also means that your professors and I will be harder to wow, since duplicating another’s tactics is less impressive than being the first to utilize them. The terrain of the building will shift between trials, so you won’t get any advanced field knowledge before it’s your turn to fight the Sims.”

                Dean Blaine stepped around the crowd so he was in front of them, lined up with the six professors. “Who goes in what order will be decided randomly, unless you volunteer to go early. There are valid reasons to take either path, so I encourage you to think hard on what you feel is the best course for you. Once you’ve been selected, you may equip yourself with any of the available weaponry.” Dean Blaine motioned to the large rack on the far wall hosting a variety of sharp, deadly implements. “Those of you using custom equipment should already have it on you. Beyond that, the rules are simple: neutralize the targets using appropriate force. Being rendered unable to continue, either by incapacitation or injury, will be a serious point penalty, but it does not disqualify you outright. We will gauge what techniques you use to accomplish your goal as much as how effective they are. If you are set on continuing in a specific discipline next year, now is the time to prove it to us.”

                Dean Blaine glanced around the room, ready for questions but not expecting any. By the third year most of the students had gotten accustomed to being provided only basic information, understanding that things left out were omitted for a reason. It was important practice for them; working with little information and adapting to changing situations was a key aspect of any Hero’s job.

                “Very well then, we will now move onto the selection process. Anyone who would like to volunteer to go early, please line up single file starting right here.” Dean Blaine stuck his hand out on the word “here” and a flurry of movement occurred as various students jostled to get into position. Chad and Roy were darting forward, held back by their position surrounded by a crowd of people, as were Thomas and Amber. Adam was near the front of the crowd, and he neatly stepped away as Violet careened toward him. However, it was none of these who arrived first at Dean Blaine’s starting point. Instead it was the young man who’d begun carefully moving through the crowd from the moment the dean had put forth the idea of volunteering.

                Will Murray slid into the front position, custom staff clutched in his hand and a serious expression on his face. “I’d like to go first, please.”

                Dean Blaine stared down at the wiry young man, then cast a quick glance to Professor Pendleton. Those trying to work the Subtlety discipline generally tried to be the last in exams like this, gathering information from the successes and failures of those who went before them. Professor Cole had said Will was doing well in Weapons, but nothing she’d reported had indicated that the young man would be competent enough to handle a room full of Sims. There was, of course, the Subtlety factor, however unless he’d completed every part of it Will would still be in for a hell of a battle.

                Professor Pendleton met the dean’s skeptical eyes and gave a small nod. Blaine’s worries weren’t entirely assuaged, but he trusted Sean’s judgment. No one knew a student’s potential better than their professor.

                “You made it here first, so that is certainly your right,” Dean Blaine told Will. Behind the surprisingly eager Subtlety student, Chad slipped into the second spot in line, followed by Shane, then Thomas, then Roy, then Violet, and finally Amber. How Chad had gotten so far ahead of Roy despite starting in the same position was a mystery Blaine would have to live with, since it was now his duty to escort the first student to the trial.

                “Everyone else, wait here. The monitors will go live when the trial begins.” Dean Blaine headed to the door, followed by Will Murray and Professor Fletcher. Despite all the remote shut-down capabilities built into the Sims, Dean Blaine always felt better if there was a professor nearby to respond in an emergency. Given Professor Fletcher’s lightning speed ability, he was the most obvious choice.

                The three men stepped through the door and descended down a long staircase. When they reached the bottom, a pair of steel doors awaited them.

                “Professor Fletcher will be going through the one on the left,” Dean Blaine explained. “He’ll be watching from behind the scenes, and if anything truly life-threatening occurs he will try to intervene. That said, this is real combat. By walking through that door you are putting your body and potentially your life on the line. We try to minimize risk whenever possible, but in this sort of training there is no such thing as total safety.”

                “I understand,” Will said. He meant it. He knew he was weaker than almost everyone else here, and he knew threats that would be mere annoyances to others were life-endangering to him. That was why he had to go first. This was his chance to make a big impression, to set the bar of success on his own terms.

                “Good. Then step through the door. There will be a screen with directions for you. Once it tells you to continue, you are free to do so. From that point on, you will be entirely on your own.” Dean Blaine gave the young man a small pat on the shoulder. “I expect a great showing from you, Mr. Murray. Show the other students what the power of a strong mind can do.”

                “Dean, that’s been my intent since the first day I got here.”