Chapter 257

                Adam was surprised to feel wistful as he left Lander for what would almost certainly be the last time. From the start, it was a means to an end. A way to help get access to the protected data first, and then to feed the others information as time wore on. He’d never actually planned on being a Hero. Even if they’d have taken someone like him, the real him, Adam knew too much. He’d seen the corruption of the system, the people left behind in its wake, and he had no desire to ever be part of that world. When this was all over, if he managed to get away (and deep down he knew that was a hell of an if) Adam imagined he’d slip away to another country. Out of the Hero’s jurisdiction, somewhere he could live out a peaceful life with no more fighting or scheming.

                Yet, in spite of all that, he still felt an unexpected pang in his heart as he walk off Lander’s campus, getting into his car and driving out of town. Shimmerpath couldn’t pop a portal anywhere near the HCP without the DVA noticing, not on Intramurals day, so he had to get some distance. It was nice, though. One last drive through the town where he’d spent four years feeling closer to being a normal kid than he had since that day on the bridge. Part of him couldn’t help wondering how Lander was doing in the matches taking place below ground. Were they showing the same fighting spirit that had dragged them out of the safety of their underground campus in May, or did the other schools have stronger students to put an end to The Class of Nightmares nickname? It shouldn’t matter to him, he’d never really been a part of that class in the first place, but all the same he hoped they were doing well. No matter how hard he’d tried to fight it, Adam was connected to those people through years of effort and competition. It was impossible not to care a little.

                A half hour of driving brought him to a small dirt road, which he turned down and went for another couple of miles. Finally arriving at an abandoned gas station, Adam pulled his car around behind the building and killed the engine. He stepped out, taking a stretch after the lengthy commute. Seconds later there was a ripple in the air as Globe and Clarissa both became visible.

                “Right on time,” Clarissa noted.

                “Of course. I know everyone is waiting for me. Can’t get the party really started until Quentin and I have gotten the crew amped up.”

                Globe had once again fashioned a fake left arm for himself, but it was the real hand that he rested gently on Adam’s shoulder. “You don’t have to do more than that, you know. We can handle this next part. There’s no need to put yourself in harm’s way. So much of your life is still ahead of you, Adam.”

                “Thanks, but I’m seeing this through personally. I’ve waited a long time for George to make good on our bargain. I’m not putting it off for a minute more than I have to.” Adam stepped away from Globe, and his attempt at comfort, looking over to Clarissa. “Ready?”

                “Always.” She made a quick motion and suddenly there was a rift in the world, revealing the rest of the team clustered together back at the base.

                Adam didn’t say any more, he merely walked through the portal without a second glance. Even if it was true that part of him would miss Lander, he still had to keep his eyes forward. The past was a dangerous place; it threatened to drag him down if he let it. Moving forward was his only way to survive.

*             *             *

                This was, in Hershel’s carefully considered opinion, bullshit. Everyone else from Melbrook had managed to find a way to watch the fights live, but he was stuck in the gym with the rest of the class waiting for results. Not even Titan being down there had been enough to score him an invitation, since a Hero wasn’t allowed to bring along future interns. Instead of getting to see his friends bring their best to bear against the top tier from every other HCP, he was sitting around, having some snacks, and making side-bets on how things would go as they waited for word from below.

                Professor Pendleton suddenly hopped to his feet, leaving behind his romance novel and the magazine he’d been poorly using to conceal it. “Hey! Attention everyone, word from below just came up. To what I hope is the surprise of none of you, the first match of Intramurals has been won by Lander’s very own Chad Taylor. We’ve got a bout between other schools next, and then Alice will be fighting someone from Overton. More to come as I get it.”

                With that, he plopped into his seat and plucked the book back up. Over at the chalk board they’d wheeled in, Violet wrote “Chad” on the winning bracket for the first match, then flipped it over to check bets. “Looks like the only bets we had on this one were ten push-ups between Rich and Thomas, with Rich betting that Chad would lose the first bout. Wow, ten whole push-ups, you guys are big spenders.”

                “It’s fucking Chad,” Rich said as he lowered himself to the floor, ready to pay off his bet. “I only took the wager so there would be some stakes, but I’m not stupid enough to put anything hard on the line.”

                “Yeah, well, next up is Alice against someone from Overton. Anyone want to log bets on that one?” Violet did a cursory scan of the room, not really expecting much activity. There would be more action later on, when they had some previous matches to go on, especially once the first Lander student was knocked out of the running. For now, it was all guesswork pitted against the historical performance of their peers. Once, betting against Alice would have been a fair wager, but after the year she’d put on it was hard to imagine she would be knocked out so early in the contest. To Violet’s surprise, there was one hand sticking up though. “Hershel? Got a bet?”

                “I’ll put up a hundred push-ups on Alice losing, if anyone wants to take me up on that.”

                Several sets of eyes turned to Hershel, uncertain they’d heard him correctly. Violet clearly shared in that sentiment. “Wait, you think Alice is going to lose in the first round?”

                “Of course not. I’m just bored, and paying off a dumb bet will at least break things up a little.”

                “Huh. I guess that’s fair. Anyone want to take Hershel’s offer?” Violet asked. Several hands shot up, but she was careful to watch for who got there first. “Amber, looks like you’re the lucky lady who’ll do a hundred push-ups on the off chance Alice loses. Hershel has a point though, so I’ll also stake a hundred on Alice losing. Fuck it, gives me something to do, right?”

                More hands went up as the class got into the idea of losing on purpose, and Hershel leaned back, wondering what sort of opponent Alice would be up against. If nothing else, this experience was lighting a fire under him to be better, and stronger, for the next time a situation like Intramurals came along. He didn’t enjoy being on the bench, and it wasn’t an experience he wanted to repeat anytime soon.