When Alex returned, to stunned peers and wild cheers, Allen was chosen as the next to be tried. His long-range explosive energy blasts allowed him to pick off Sims as he went, however they also quickly alerted the others to his presence. By the time he found the room with the cluster, they were spread out and lying in wait. He came the closest of anyone so far at failing to finish, only astounding reflexes and aim allowing him to bring them all down.
Britney went next, her rapier strapped to her waist before she even went through the door. For the first time since Will’s trial, Sims began deactivating on screen seemingly without reason. Unlike Will, she was only able to get two of the codes though, so as the students watched the outer door opened by invisible hands it was with four Sims still wandering the facility. She did well from there, mimicking Chad’s technique of going for the spine. Unfortunately, without his level of control and anatomical knowledge, she accidently killed two yellow-light Sims.
When Britney returned, visible once more, Professor Baker’s voice rang out through the room.
“Vince Reynolds.” She held the slip of paper in her hand, smiling all the while as she scanned the room for the silver-haired young man. If she was aware of the sudden tension that filled the air, radiating from faculty and students alike, then she kept that knowledge off her face as she finally locked eyes with her target. “Vince, you’re up.”
Vince started moving forward, keenly aware of the gentle pats on the back and shoulder from his friends. The actions were well-meant, but unnecessary. Even without physical displays, he knew unquestioningly that they supported him and wished him well. Sadly, their sentiment was the only thing of them he could bring along in this trial. As soon as he stepped through that door, he was on his own.
“Do you need to get any weaponry?” Dean Blaine asked.
Vince shook his head. Though today’s trials had opened his eyes up to the potential of such tools, he felt like trying to utilize one without proper training would do more harm than good. He wasn’t Chad, possessing an index of secret skills and abilities. All he had was his power and his training. If that wasn’t good enough to get him through, then he supposed he didn’t really belong here.
Dean Blaine motioned for him to follow, and the two descended the staircase. Vince listened carefully as the dean explained the details of the trial, making careful note of the rules and procedures. Failing on merit was one thing, but coming up short due to a technicality would be a mistake he’d never forgive himself for.
“Do you have any questions for me?” Dean Blaine asked as they reached the bottom.
Vince hesitated for a moment, fearful his words were being transmitted to unfriendly ears, then pressed on. It wouldn’t change anything if others were listening; all it would mean was that Dean Blaine might not answer him honestly.
“How important is this? Not for each of us, as students, with our grades on the line. For me, how important is this?”
It was a fair question; one Blaine himself would have asked had their situations been reversed. There was a difference in “this is a large part of your grade” and “this is your last chance.” It influenced how one approached the challenge, and how far they were willing to go to complete it. Still, Vince’s abilities were not quite stable, and it wouldn’t do for him to lose control. Even in a place like this, wide-scale destruction could have serious consequences.
“It’s very important,” Dean Blaine replied. “This is your first real opportunity to cut loose on your own. Nick’s stunt last year showed everyone what your potential was, what you could do without anything holding you back. Today, you need to demonstrate that you can tap into that potential on your own, and without losing control of yourself. If you can show them your power in a way that’s focused and deliberate, I doubt anyone will be able to challenge your right to be here on merit. But, all of that said, it’s still just one test. There are more to come before the year is out. Don’t give anyone more ammunition to use against you than they already have.”
“I think I understand,” Vince said, tucking his hands behind his back to conceal the nervous twitch in his fingers. “I’ll do my best.”
“I know you will, Vince. Good luck in there.”
Vince stepped through the door on the right and entered the room with the screen telling him to sit tight. While some had been frustrated by the delay, Vince was quite thankful for it. A few moments to calm himself down and gather his thoughts would be a big help.
He sat down on the floor in a cross-legged style, rested his hands on his knees, and began to take deep breathes. He needed to be calm. He needed to be clear. He needed to be focused.
He needed to be cold.
* * *
It was so hot. So damned, ridiculously, unbearably hot. When Vince had first woken up in this desert wasteland, he’d thought it was the hottest place on earth, but assumed that over time he’d get used to it. Instead, it was the opposite. Every day was worse the one before. Every day was hotter.
“I think my ribs are broken.” Vince lay on the sandy ground as he spoke, waiting for a breath that came without searing pain. So far, none had delivered.
“Yeah, I counted about two that snapped from my last punch,” George agreed.
“Feels more like three.”
“I did say ‘about’ you know.” He was standing there, gleaming in the wicked sunlight, all metal and power as he stared down at his wounded opponent. “That mean you’re calling it quits? I can have you to a hospital, hooked up to some nice painkilling drugs in no time.”
“No. I won’t quit.”
“You say that, but you’ve been on that ground an awful long time.” It was strange that now, when George was most able to gloat, he wasn’t. His usual mocking tone was gone, replaced by something that sounded an awful lot like sincerity.
“Why are you being nice?”
“Because I know what you’re going through,” George said. “Reynolds, since you got to Lander you spent your career losing because of your own restrictions. You held yourself back constantly; not keeping enough energy in you, not going after opponent’s full-force; all that shit. But right now you’re dealing with a new kind of losing. You’re coming at me with everything you’ve got, pulling no punches, and I’m still beating you senseless day after day. There’s nothing you’re doing wrong, you just aren’t strong enough to win. For the first time since you went from Powered to Super, you’ve finally started to hit your limits. And for any of us, the first time we find that wall, it fucking sucks.”
Vince said nothing at first; instead he put his energy into slowly pulling himself off the ground. That hot sand clung to his skin, leaving him feeling gritty and raw. He swayed for a moment as he stood, the relentless heat pouring across him. If only he could get a few moments of peaceful cold, a single gust of wind. It was too much though. Even he couldn’t absorb an entire desert.
“My father once told me that everyone should find their limits, because that’s how we learn to push them.”
“Did he now? What a surprise.” The mocking tone was back, and George watched Vince carefully. He’d been in the field for too long to do anything as dumb as underestimating an enemy.
Vince took a careful step forward and narrowed his focus. George was right, he’d hit the limits of what he was capable of. Nothing he threw at George was working, which meant his only options were to throw the same things harder, or find something new to use. Either way, he couldn’t stay the way he was now.
For the first time in a very long while, Vince was all-but-drowning in the desire to be stronger.