Chapter 187

               Chad snared Sasha’s punched as it came millimeters from his face, quickly turning her momentum into a powerful toss that shattered the concrete when she hit. If not for her enhanced endurance Sasha would have been severely crippled, if not dead. As it was, she could tell as soon as she landed that she would either need to visit a healer or be walking with a limp for the next few weeks.

                “And that ends Chad Taylor’s exam,” Professor Fletcher announced. “All four assailants were taken out in two minutes, forty seven seconds. Anyone who needs healing, please head to the infirmary or see Ms. Belden. Otherwise, get clear for the next group.”

                Before Sasha could pull herself up, Chad was standing over her with a hand extended. A stubborn, willful part of her wanted to take offense at the gesture, as though he were looking down on her in a metaphorical sense, rather than a literal one. She pushed that piece of her aside, a task that was getting easier the more she practiced it, and accepted his help hefting herself up. It was just courtesy; something Chad showed most people he beat the hell out of. Heck, had the roles been reversed she’d have felt compelled to do the same thing.

                “That was a good punch,” Chad told her. “You nearly had me.”

                “Like my dad always says: ‘almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.’ But thanks for the sentiment,” Sasha replied.

                Roy, Violet, and Allen were pulling themselves up as well, the other three members of the dream team selected to fight Chad Taylor for his mid-semester Close Combat exam. Sasha had been a bit proud at being selected, even if she couldn’t help but question the choice. She was proud of her skill, and of the effort she’d put into improving, but she also wasn’t blind to the truth: there were stronger classmates that could have been thrown against Chad. Sasha wasn’t sure if the professor was taking it easy on him, or if there was other reason for the choices; she had just been thankful for the chance to prove herself in the moment.

                “Sorry we couldn’t put up more of a fight,” Sasha said as they reached the bunker area where the rest of the Close Combat students were waiting.

                Chad reached out and gently grabbed her arm, keeping her from going behind the clear barrier. “You four put up an incredible fight. There were two occasions where I nearly made a misstep and lost the match. Do not disparage what I consider to be an impressive effort.”

                “Chad, you beat us in less than three minutes. I appreciate the effort to make me feel better-”

                “I defeated you quickly because that is the only way I know how to fight; with efficiency and speed. I’m not like you or Roy or the other strongmen, the amount of physical damage I can take is lower, significantly so in some cases. My fights end quickly because I have to end them quickly, a lingering battle is too dangerous for me,” Chad told her.

                “Huh. I never actually stopped to think about that,” Sasha said. The mini-monolouge had taken her off-guard, she was used to Chad being polite, but offering up post-match assessments was a new one. Then again, before this year she could never have imagined seeing him dressed up for a sci-fi movie, so it seemed things were changing in all directions. Sasha decided to push her luck and see if she could get more insight.

                “Any thoughts on why we four were picked to fight you, instead of some of the higher ranks like Vince or Shane?”

                “Because you all excel at one on one combat,” Chad replied simply, tilting his head as though he were surprised she couldn’t already see that plainly. “Vince and Shane both have abilities better suited for dealing with multiple opponents, and fighting alongside them means the risk of getting caught up in their attacks. With teamwork and training this can be overcome, but in a sudden match like this their presence will lead to hesitation and missteps, weakening the team as a whole. For some opponents that’s a surmountable goal; however, I watch for exactly those opportunities to capitalize on.”

                “Damn, I need to have you narrate all the fights for me,” Sasha said. She nodded to the viewing bunker and pulled her arm free. “Come on; let’s get clear so they can start the next one.”

                They two former combatants had scarcely made it in before they hear Professor Fletcher’s voice booming through the room. “Next up: Thomas Castillo’s exam. Going against him will be Adam Riley, Allen Wells, Jill Murray, and Violet Sullivan. Wells and Sullivan, you all healed up?”

                “Good to go!” Violet hollered. She was standing next to Camille who was gripping the purple-haired girl’s hands in hers. Already the slight bruises from the previous fight had vanished. Allen gave a nod from next to them, his own concussion has already been tended to.

                Before anyone else could move, Thomas leapt out of the bunker and began to speak. “Professor Fletcher, if it is at all possible, I would like to request a different student be added to my exam.”

                Professor Fletcher’s eyes narrowed and in the span of a blink he was across the room, standing next to Thomas. “You don’t like one of the people I put you against?”

                “No, sir, it isn’t that,” Thomas replied. He kept his head raised and his eyes forward, refusing to show weakness. It was a gesture as much for him as for the others watching. “I want to fight Vince Reynolds. I need to, actually. You can add him on as a fifth if needed, all I ask is that he’s in the exam. I have to be sure that I can deal with the threat he presents in genuine combat.”

                “And what if you can’t?” Professor Fletcher asked.

                “Then I’m not certain I belong here,” Thomas admitted. A chorus of gasps didn’t echo up from the viewing bunker, but he definitely received many uncertain stares for this declaration.

                “If I can’t conquer my fear here, then how will I do it when lives are on the line, my own included?” Thomas continued. “Vince’s ability scares me, even after all the training we’ve done, but it won’t be the last one I encounter that does so. I want to be a Hero, not just in title but in capability. Please let me see if I have what it takes.”

                “Vince, are you okay with this?” Professor Fletcher asked, glancing into the bunker.

                “Yes, sir. I’ll do my part.”

                The professor mulled it over for a few moments, looking down at his clipboard no doubt filled with match-ups, then staring into the bunker, and occasionally glancing into Thomas’s earnest eyes. “Despite the fact that we carefully craft these matches weeks in advance, and there is no technical reason for you to fight Reynolds, I’m going to allow it,” he said at last. “But Vince, I expect you to come at Thomas with as close to full-force as you can safely manage. Your classmate wants to truly test himself; pulling punches out of concern won’t do him a bit of good. Got it?”

                “I do,” Vince agreed. “It was what I’d planned to do anyway.”

                “Good. Allen Wells, you can sit this one out. Everyone else, get ready. And Thomas, we’re going to have a meeting after this is over, no matter how the match plays out.”

                “Understood. And thank you,” Thomas said, finally relaxing his body a touch.

                “Don’t thank me just yet,” Professor Fletcher told him. “You just set yourself one hell of an unbalanced match. When this is all said and done, you might curse me up and down for giving you what you wanted.”

                Thomas nodded and began jogging to the middle of the room where the combat circle waited. Perhaps the professor was right, but he doubted it. This was something he needed to see for himself. If he came up lacking, then no one would have to tell him he didn’t belong in the HCP. Thomas Castillo would walk himself out the front door before anyone else had a chance.