Chapter 65

That Friday, Vince’s Close Combat trial was the final first round test for any of the Melbrook students. Mary and Alice had both placed exceptionally well in all of theirs, with Mary dominating Focus and Alice easily crushing her adversaries in Control. Vince had fared decently in Ranged Combat, however his imprecise and somewhat slow shots had left him well-outstripped by the quicker students. Aware of his need to impress those watching, Vince walked into Friday’s class ready to fight the devil himself if needed.

“Vince Reynolds,” Professor Fletcher called, pulling him from the observation room. “I want to see you against Murray, Riley, and Castillo.”

Vince walked out to the center of the room, followed closely by Adam, Jill, and Thomas. He moved to the middle of the battle circle, while the others took their places in a triangular pattern around him. All of them wore serious expressions, though Thomas seemed to be visibly nervous, unlike the others. This was well within the expected standard of HCP attitudes pre-battle. There were two slight variations, however. Thomas’s hands were shaking, ever so slightly, and Vince’s expression had grown uncharacteristically stoic. Few noticed these oddities, but the ones who did were keen enough to deduce the implications almost immediately.

As Professor Fletcher reviewed the rules, Chad and Roy stood in the observation room, attention rapt by the ensuing pre-conflict.

“What’s your bet?” Roy asked.

“Ordinarily this situation would result in an expedient loss for Vince,” Chad replied flatly. He didn’t want to see his future dorm mate lose; however, if loss was what made him better then it was a necessary process.

“Ordinarily,” Roy agreed. “Then again, if he can steal Thomas’s energy again…”

“That would indeed shift the dynamic,” Chad surmised. “But I suspect Vince has not gotten much opportunity to practice such a technique.”

“Thomas didn’t exactly jump up and down to volunteer himself,” Roy confirmed.

“Still, that is not the anomaly in this match that will affect the outcome.”

“You talking about how serious Vince looks? Usually he goes into these things a little more cheerful.”

“Partially,” Chad replied. “The implications of his demeanor lead me to believe he would fight well, but still lose. No, the difference in this match will be based on a single element: Fear.” Then the students in the circle began to move, and both young men gave the match their full attention.

As soon as it started, Jill leapt forward. Her suit whirred constantly, the servos and synthetic muscle amplifying every motion she made. She was confident in her suit; she knew Will’s creations could stand up to a little rough-housing. Generally, Jill liked to work to the opposite of her opponent’s style. If they fought up-close, she’d hit from a distance, and if they were good at range then she would get in their face. Vince, unfortunately, also possessed such versatility, so there was no such basic strategy that would make him easy prey. In the end, the choice boiled down to which would be more effective. After last year’s display, she knew his ranged powers were too damn strong. Better to get right next to him.

Hot on her heels was Adam, clearly intent on copying his opponent rather than his allies. It was not a terrible strategy, since without the suit Jill was nearly powerless and Thomas’s power was strong enough to not require a replicate. Fighting absorption with absorption: now that was one Adam knew could turn the tides of battle.

Thomas glowed as his energy flowed around him, bright circles appearing on each of his hands. With two of them going in close, Thomas knew his place was striking at a distance, keeping Vince off-balance. He took deep breaths, trying to keep his focus as Jill and Adam drew near. He just had to wait for a good moment to strike. That’s what he kept telling himself. Just wait for the right moment.

Vince, meanwhile, stood unmoving from his spot in the center. His eyes were half-open and his hands were at his sides. If his strange behavior worried Jill or Adam, neither showed it by slowing down. Jill’s pace increased, the power in her suit driving her forward. She came in range and wound up, throwing a massive punch at Vince’s shoulder. It very nearly made contact; in fact it was only inches away from shattering his collarbone.

But, just as Jill punched, Vince moved. It was a small step to the side, yet it was enough to take his shoulder out of her range. She had just enough time to wonder how he’d reacted so quickly when Jill noticed Vince's hand resting on her forearm. A moment later, the screens in front of her eyes went dark. She reached out to her suit, trying to uncover what had gone wrong. Understanding dawned in the darkness as she realized her suit, the ingenious invention that Will had spent days, if not weeks, working on, had gone dead. With a single touch, Vince had drained every drop of power it had, leaving her imprisoned in her own armor.

To Adam, all he saw was Jill miss her punch and freeze. He kept expecting the techno-armored girl to move as he drew close, but she remained as lifeless as a politician’s conscience. He redirected himself, spinning around her, using the still suit as a barrier so he could come at Vince’s other side. Adam had skills: he was adaptable, trained, and talented, especially at melee fighting. What he didn’t have, however, was nearly three months of recent experience against a merciless opponent.

Just as he rounded Jill’s frozen form, Adam felt Vince’s boot deposit itself in his stomach. The kick had been fast, aiming for the precise moment when he’d have to shift from turning to charging. Adam coughed loudly, but stayed standing. He hadn’t made it through two years of HCP training to be undone by a single kick.

The bolt of electricity, on the other hand, was more than enough to do him in. Adam collapsed on the ground and Vince stepped over his body.

From across the circle, Thomas felt the opportunity as much as he saw it. There was an instant, one second between blasting Adam and shifting his focus, when Vince was totally vulnerable. A single, focused blast would be enough to take the silver-haired student out of the fight. There wasn’t even a need to feel guilty; two out of three opponents was a fine showing. It was the perfect opportunity for Thomas to seize a win. He focused his power, lined up the shot…

And froze. The feeling, the horrible, sickening feeling of losing the energy that was as much a part of him as his beating heart, was all that Thomas could focus on. If he fired, Vince might drain it again. All logic of knowing it had been a different Vince fluttered out of Thomas’s head. It could happen. He could get drained again. That thought alone roared through his mind, deafening all other possible responses.

The bolt of electricity hit Thomas dead in the shoulder, sending him reeling to the ground. As he hit, his terror was replaced with shame. Not just about the opportunity blown, but about what he felt when he collapsed to the concrete. Even though he’d been burned by the bolt and bruised by the impact, Thomas was overwhelmed with relief. At least he hadn’t been drained.

“Winner, Vince Reynolds,” Professor Fletcher announced.

“Told you,” Chad said, back in the observation room. “The deciding factor in this match was fear.”