Chapter 262

                Once the match after Alice’s was over, it was time for Vince to go to the prep room. He headed out just as Alice was returning, giving her a thumbs-up and a wink to congratulate her on the victory. Alice smiled back, and while she’d no doubt gotten her ear drums healed, the twin red stains on her shoulder were still there, a reminder of the lengths she’d gone to for a simple win. That level of determination had set a high bar for Vince to follow. It wasn’t that losing scared him; his opponents were the best of the current HCPs, after all.

                No, what worried Vince was the fear that he’d go down too easy, that he wouldn’t be able to match the hunger for victory Alice had shown. He knew he could get to that place, the mindset where things like self-preservation and fear fell away, leaving only the fight to fill up one’s mind. Much of his training this year had been accepting that, learning to fight with full commitment when the SIM civilian lives were on the line. That was against robots, however. Vince wasn’t sure he trusted himself to go that far against living opponents. Every time he pictured it, images of himself filled his mind. The burning version from sophomore year was a frequent feature, but scarier by far was the memory of his own reflection in the windows of the building where he’d held that speedster’s neck during the attack on Lander. There was darkness in him, deep-rooted rage and fear over all he’d lost that came bursting forth as violence, his sessions with Dr. Moran had helped him realize and come to terms with that. What remained to be seen was whether he was in control of it, or vice versa, when push came to shove.

                These sorts of thoughts probably weren’t productive right before a bout, so Vince forced himself to think of something else. He mentally cycled through the fights he’d seen so far, trying to figure out how he would have beaten each of the competitors that had gone already. This was a practical exercise to get his head in a strategic place, and it also had the potential to be helpful later on. True, they’d been eliminated, but there was no guarantee someone else wouldn’t have a similar power. The more he was ready for, the better a chance Vince stood of making it to the next round. He couldn’t take victory for granted; he didn’t have Chad’s track record or confidence. And while Dean Blaine wouldn’t drop him from the program just for losing, Vince knew how many eyes would be on his fights today. The son of Globe, who many thought shouldn’t even be here, had to prove that he belonged in this program.

                And that was without even taking into account the other burden on his shoulders, though at least that was a shared one. As the first Powereds to become Supers, what he and Alice could do here mattered for more than just themselves. Five had been turned. One was expelled, one dropped out, and one didn’t quite make the cut for Intramurals. That they’d made it this far was an incredible accomplishment in itself, but one that wouldn’t matter if Vince got squashed in his first fight. What happened here would have lasting implications on how former Powereds were seen. It might even play a role in whether or not the world boiled over in war and holy crap that was a lot to have riding on one fight and was this a good-

                Vince smacked himself in the forehead roughly. Damnit, he’d gone down another bad thought-hole. Hopefully the match would start soon; otherwise he might end up beating himself before the first punch was ever thrown.

*             *             *

                It was easy to see why the woman who’d bowed, drawing ire from her classmates, conducted herself with confidence. The gal had power; there was no question about that. Nick watched as the battlefield blazed, the dry, rocky terrain that had been chosen had scorch marks all along the ground. A huge fireball tore through the air, and her opponent dove to the ground, drenched in sweat, hurriedly surrendering.

                “Clifton Bean has surrendered, meaning this bout goes to Lucinda Cherry of Overton!” Victor was really getting into his job, announcing like there was a crowd of millions watching at home instead of the small group inside the viewing room.

                The announcement wasn’t met with much shock; Lucinda had more or less walked out and started dominating from the moment the fight began. She had the kind of wild-eyed enthusiasm for battle that would have made her quite at home in Lander’s Class of Nightmares.

                “Interesting. She fights like Angela.” Chad was keeping his voice carefully low as they talked, making sure not to give any of their insights away to others. “Although she pretends to be conducting herself in an erratic, chaotic manner, her movements are actually carefully chosen as counters to her enemies own actions.”

                “It’s not the most popular style out there, but more than a few Heroes have used it to solid effect,” Shane told him. “Being hard to predict makes it tough on your enemies, and that can give you an advantage if you know how to use it. Too bad for her, though. If Vince wins his fight, she’ll have to go up against him in the next round. Fire is a damn useful ability to have, but it won’t do much against him.”

                Nick found the discussion interesting. Not so much for their insights into the fight, he’d picked up on all of that already, but rather for what they’d missed. There was a dimension to her fighting style no one seemed to be talking about, although he couldn’t imagine he was the only one who caught it. More likely, the others in the room who’d noticed were keeping their mouths shut; hoarding every bit of information they could to keep even the smallest advantage. Or perhaps they were waiting until they knew more before they wasted time on conjecture. Regardless, Nick had a feeling a fight between Vince and Lucinda would be more entertaining than Shane might expect, although first Vince would have to get past his opponent from Korman.

                Across the room, Victor was choosing a field at random from his box, swirling the balls around until he pulled out what felt like a good one. Glancing at it quickly, he held it up to for the room to see. “Everyone, it looks like we’ve got our first urban combat match! Let’s see how these students deal with a more complex environment in a one-on-one bout. And let’s hope Dean Blaine made sure to clean out all the SIMs, or this match could get really exciting!”

                Victor, clearly quite proud of his joke, looked over to Dean Blaine only to find a hard stare waiting for him. Apparently Dean Blaine didn’t take well to even the suggestion that he would leave combat robots laying around, and when Victor spoke again it was with a touch less exuberance in his voice.

                “Handlers, bring out our next combatants. It’s time for a street fight.”