Chapter – XXXVII
Max had barely slept Friday night. Despite a typically exhausting workout in gym to go with his slate of afternoon classes, he still had difficulty quieting his mind enough to fall asleep. And even so, his eyes snapped open with the first rays of dawn, a nervous energy propelling him out of bed.
This was a new feeling for Max. Because of his inability to control his power (and a lack of interest), he had never been an athlete, and grade school had come easily enough that tests had never caused him undue stress. Mac had never known the electric anticipation of “Game Day”, nor the jangling nerves that accompany an impending performance on stage. He couldn’t help himself from constantly glancing at the clock until Tom woke up.
Eventually they ventured to the dining hall in an attempt to find something like the nutritionally balanced meal Coach Strong recommend to keep him fueled through the fight. His search was pretty much in vain as the available fare was mostly bland institutional food designed to keep the students alive as inexpensively as possible. But even the aggressively tasteless food couldn’t keep Max from tapping a foot and talking incessantly about nothing with his friends while they ate.
After taking the lift down to the lower levels, Max found himself surrounded by a small crowd of the people he had come to think of as his friends. While the whole class had flocked to the observation room to watch the match between Cat and Danielle, the students gathered outside now there now were mostly his friends and a few others who weren’t prone to sleeping in. After getting changed into his black freshman’s uniform, Max found not only his roommates, but Robin, Cat, and Danielle waiting for him outside of the combat cell.
“Hey guys, what are you doing here?” Max asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Just wanted to wish you luck before your fight.” Danielle answered
“That and to tell you to kick that asshole’s ass!” Robin added, punching her fist in the air.
“Thanks! And wow,” Max said “that is a mental picture I did not want going into a fight.”
“What can I say? It’s a gift.” Robin replied with a smile.
“Come on, Victoria is waiting for us in the observation room,” Cat said. After offering a couple more words of encouragement, the group left to go get their seats to watch the fight and Max was left alone with his nerves. Somehow it was better and worse at the same time.
When Max entered the combat cell he wasn’t surprised to see that he had gotten there before his opponent. He didn’t have long to wait however, and John strolled through the door just as Max was settling in.
“Oh, good. You’re here. I was afraid you might be hiding under your covers” John said, as he walked in with his trademark swagger and sneer.
“Come on man, don’t make this nasty,” Max replied, offering his hand. “Let’s just make this a good fight and try to make each other better.”
“Eff that, I’m here to win and let everyone know that first fight was a fluke.” John said, then added “and that you’re right where you belong, on the bottom.”
Before Max could come up with a reply, a voice broke over the PA system. “This is a sanctioned ranking match between John Johnson and Max Hall. Please take your positions in the prescribed stairs. Any intentional attempt to use lethal force will result in severe penalties. The match will begin at the buzzer.”
“So, who do you think will win?” Tom asked the group sitting in front of the giant monitor. “I mean, obviously we all want Max to win, but let’s say if we were in Vegas, who would you put your money on?”
“I wouldn’t put my money on either of them,” Peter said. “Gambling is a sin.”
“Of course you wouldn’t.” Cat said, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen John fight, and we don’t exactly get to pay attention to the guys in gym class.”
“Pardon me, would you mind if I sat with you? I’ve made a point of watching all the the ranking challenges so far, and it’s always interesting to get commentary.” Cat turned and was surprised to see the voice belonged to Sean Kearney.
“Umm, I guess so,” Cat replied, then glanced at Erik. “It’s fine, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, sure. ‘Morning Sean!” Erik said affably. While Sean had remained aloof and wary around the massive young man after their fight for top ranking in the class, Erik had reverted to his normal good-natured self once the adrenaline of the fight had worn off and always had a friendly greeting for his former opponent.
“Anywho, I’d still put money on Max,” Erik said as Sean took a seat. “You guys got to see John fight me, so he has a clue about what’s coming, John didn’t see any of either of Max’s fights, so he doesn’t really know what he’s capable of.”
“That is a well thought out rationale,” Sean said. “I haven’t seen either fight, but since John is the more highly ranked, I believe I would bet on him.”
“Well then put me down for five on Hall.” Apart from Erik, the group stiffened as one at the voice of Christina Ross. “The big doof let it slip that Hall is getting extra training on the side, he might not be so pathetic anymore.” As she said this, she dug a rumpled bill out of her pocket and put it on an empty chair.
“Oh, hey Chrissy. What are you doing here?” Erik asked, “I didn’t think you would care enough to skip training.”
“Don’t call me that,” She said, making a mental note to make him pay for it later. “I was planning on training, but then realized my training bitch would be watching his loser roommate fight, so I decided to kill some time. So, who’s in?”
“Um, I really don’t think we’re allowed to be betting on the matches.” Robin said, grabbing Cat’s arm as she got ready to put money of her own on the chair.
“And besides, the fight’s about to start, so everyone hush,” Tom said. “Except for you Christina… Because you scare me.”
“Since our good Dean isn’t here, who’s everybody got?” Coach Helen said, reaching for her wallet.
“I’ve got a six-pack on Hall.” Coach Alex immediately responded.
“Me too.” Added Coach Strong’s resonant voice.
“I BELIEVE I WILL PUT SIX ON JOHNSON” It was a chilling voice, with a sepulchral finality to it. He had been the coaches’ colleague long enough that they were used to his tones, though they had unnerved many a second year student.
“I’ll take Johnson too.” said a woman’s voice. She was tall, even seated, lithely athletic, and her rich mocha skin almost seemed to glow under the glow of the oversized monitor. “He’ll probably be one of mine if he makes it to next year, so I want as many in the win column as I can get.”
“Of course you do,” Helen said. “Well, you can have him, I’ll take Hall. I want to see that cocky little prick taken down a notch or three. I don’t know how hard Hall can hit, but at the very least, the kid is stubborn. Okay, just so we have it straight, everybody is in for a six-pack. Bill and Janet have Johnson, and we all know how much she loves johnsons,’
That remark earned a crisp single-fingered salute.
“And Kevin, Alex, and I have Hall for the win.”
As the five professors in attendance settled in to watch the match, they considered their picks and breathed a collective sigh of relief that the Dean was busy with Ani-Man. He really didn’t like it when they bet on the students’ fights.