Chapter 72

                Vince was holding back. No one yelled at him about it, or called out the fact that he was taking twice as long as it should have required to drop his opponent. The rest of his team was busy dealing with their own challenges, and besides, Vince didn’t need someone else to point out his current failing. He knew it from the moment the new Sims had appeared. As much as he’d tried to treat the old Sims like stand-ins for real people, at a certain level he always understood they were just machines, circuits and wires that could be rebuilt after he tore them apart. And yes, on a fundamental level Vince grasped that nothing had changed. The problem was that seeing these human-like models was driving home just how different it would be when he was actually in the field.

                Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad, if he’d never left the HCP’s safety on that fateful night in May. Then he’d be able to dismiss the concerns, convince himself that when staring down real criminals, he would have the strength of his convictions and the knowledge that they were killers to carry him through. But Vince wasn’t blessed with such ignorance. He understood, he knew, what it was like to look into someone’s eyes as their life slowly drained away. If not for Camille, Vince would have seen the task all the way through.

                Dodging an energy blast from a woman in one of the prison jumpsuits, Vince came up with electricity dancing in his hands. For a moment, looking at her, he saw past the artificial enemy, and in her place stood the speedster from so many months back. Before this battle, Vince would have expected such a sight to bring him up short, guilt causing him to falter. Instead, the electricity in his hands surged, sparking brightly as Vince fought to regain control. All these months, and he was still so goddamned angry. Angry at the man who’d killed his friend, at all of the criminal Supers who would chip away at the other Heroes, to say nothing of the civilians.

                Pushing the rage down, Vince throttled his energy and hit the woman with what he hoped was enough juice to knock her out. Unfortunately, all it did was stun her, and he readied for another attack. The issue wasn’t that Vince didn’t want to attack the new Sims; it was that he wanted it too much. All the pain, and fury, and loss, it was all still there, and now that he was being handled a supposedly appropriate target that darkness wanted to come bursting out. Vince was pulling his punches and holding back because he had to. If he didn’t, if he let himself give in, he feared it would become a rampage.

                That was when he noticed them. More Sims, though these weren’t wearing jumpsuits and slinging powers. No, this duo was a woman in a red jacket crouched over her shivering son, the two of them peeking out from the corner of an alleyway. Civilians. The team was still on the outskirts, but the deeper into the city they went the more civilian Sims there would be. Vince had been so caught up in the secondary curve-ball he nearly forgot about the first one: saving the civilians was deemed secondary to stopping the criminals.

                His opponent had noticed that something else drew his gaze and she began to turn in place, swiveling her head toward the hiding mother and son. As soon as she saw the pair, there would be hostages in the equation. Maybe, maybe Vince could stop her before she unleashed a few blasts, but if he failed then he’d have to bring her down while she hid behind innocent people. Those lives would be as good as lost, all because Vince had hesitated.

                The bolt of electricity that roared through the air was so powerful it half-blinded anyone who’d been looking in his direction. When the spots in their eyes faded, what remained on the scene was a smoking melted husk in place of where an energy-blasting Sim had once been. That, and Vince, slowly lowering his hand as small sparks still danced between his fingers.

                “No more.” The words came without stopping by Vince’s brain to see exactly what message they were supposed to impart, surging up instinctually, just like the massive attack he’d unleashed. As soon as they hit his ears, Vince understood what a more primal part of him was trying to say. No more innocent lives lost. No more bystanders buried. No more friend’s funerals. He refused to let his anger overtake him, to forget that the people he’d be fighting were just that: people. But all the same, he wouldn’t lose any more lives, not when he had the strength to protect them. And he would protect them, no matter the cost, no matter how the blood weighed him down.

                Around Vince the rest of his team was finishing up their own opponents, and Alex released his focus from clearing out the mist. The others had made it through largely unscathed, and as Vince did a full sweep of the field he realized something that lessened the tension in his heart, just a touch. Though there were other civilian Sims tucked about in the building and on the street, none of them had been injured. Even with their vision reduced, the team had managed to bring down its opponents without sacrificing a single civilian. One fight down, unknown more looming before them.

                “We’re clear,” Alex said. “Next cluster is a ways up to the north, should be around seven in total. This time, we won’t let them catch us by surprise.”

                Wordlessly, Vince joined the others in jogging down a nearby street. He noticed the worried look on Roy and Mary’s faces, but thought little of it. This was a test meant to tax them mentally, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that the others might be struggling with it as well.

*             *             *

                By far, the fastest moving team was Chad, Shane, Britney, and Amber. Though the latter two had shown some initial hesitance, by the end of the first battle they were adjusting to the new dynamics. After the third fight, Britney was sneaking up on Sims and slicing spines with her rapier while Amber’s sonic attacks stunned entire groups. With Chad and Shane quickly cutting through the enemies, striking before most criminal Sims could recover and bring in nearby civilians, their group was tearing through opponents at an exceptional rate. Dean Blaine couldn’t help but feel a small hint of semi-paternal pride as he watch Chad handily dispatch Sim after Sim, though of course he showed none of it on his face.

                Jill’s team was having a tougher time of it. While she’d been healed, thankfully, that much damage had worn her out, and as a result she was slowing the others down. Combat was still going briskly when they engaged, the stoked fires of seeing a downed teammate burning in their souls and giving them the willpower to overcome their enemy’s human facades, but the time between those moments was dragging on. Their fights were taking longer than needed, and more than once that slowness had dragged unnecessary civilians into the fray. Were she on his team in a real fight, Blaine would have pulled Jill from the field. As it stood she was endangering herself and the others.

                Allen, Adam, Rich, and Selena were doing well in their own right. A team without any capacity for withstanding heavy attacks, they’d chosen the calculating route. Selena’s songs lulled nearby groups into letting their guards down, then Rich and Adam, in his Camille transformation, raced closer to neutralize them, while Allen fired on any who resisted Selena’s abilities. They tactics made them the slowest group on the field, but they also had by far the lowest casualty rate, only Allen was accidently killing a few in every engagement. Thanks to the heavy emphasis on containment, none of the fighting spilled over into nearby buildings, which meant they were protecting the hiding civilian bots as well. But Dean Blaine knew more than them, and he was aware of a few Sims in the field they wouldn’t be able to contain so easy. If they ran across one of those, their only options would be to hope Adam-Camille could manage a hit, or to break and flee.

                The team of former Powereds, and Alex, had been off to a rocky start, though they were quickly picking up speed. Between Alice’s ability to increase the gravity on her enemies, Roy’s strength to stay mobile in spite of Alice’s gravity fields, and the other’s versatility with ranged attacking, they were handling their opponents quickly, if not delicately. Pinning entire groups down stopped the criminals from fleeing into buildings, adding more lives to the mix, but also trapped any civilians that happened to be too nearby. Vince seemed to have taken on the role of balancing that aspect, striking hard, perhaps too much so, at any Sim close enough to injure a civilian. That strategy was a sound one, for this exam. In the future, it wouldn’t be so easy, the civilian bots would be mixed in with the criminals, and sometimes knowing which was which would be a struggle in itself. Area of attack methods would either be dismissed, or used with the understanding that innocent lives would be lost. That came later, however. For the moment, it was one adjustment at a time.

                Still, as Dean Blaine looked on, watching his senior students slowly quell the fabricated uprising, he couldn’t help but notice they did so with a certain ruthlessness, sometimes even hinging on brutality, missing in the Supers of years past. From the whispers amidst the watching Heroes, it seemed they’d taken notice of it too. This was something Dean Blaine had expected, after all this was his only class to have seen what it was like to fight with real stakes on the line. They understood that this was more than just a battle for grades or ranking, it was about survival. Overall, the sentiment would serve them well after graduation, giving them a leg-up on the new Heroes who couldn’t quite grasp that lesson yet.

                But for the moment, Dean Blaine couldn’t help thinking that this probably wasn’t doing much to disprove their reputation as the Class of Nightmares.