You and nineteen other initiates surround a sand-filled battle arena raked to perfection by a Zen master. The lines curve in graceful arcs reminding you of Yin and Yang, balancing natural forces, the central theme of the Academy, the place you’ve called home for thirteen years. An entire lifetime spent under one directive–to become the ultimate warrior–culminates in this final test of your skills. For the last six weeks, you’ve concentrated on CCT, close combat training under Senshi Zuliki. Her Asiatic oval face watched you with calculated, emotionless almond-shaped eyes. Others in your group say she has no emotions, that she was bred to be the perfect fighting machine. Proficient in a dozen different close-combat techniques, she tutored each recruit developing personalized systems garnering individual strengths and minimizing weaknesses.
Standing in the shadow of the Field Instruction building, your squad, or Viginti, waits for the Senshi to arrive and choose combatants for the final test. While everyone graduates, only the triumphant receive Bio-Enhancements for missions beginning next week.
Zeta looks at you from across the circle, tilting her head, auburn hair braided tight against her skull, in a silent question. She, like all initiates standing in the ring, wears a full-body Lycra suit in patterned greys and muted blues, the Battle Dress Uniform for field training. Unlike others in the formation, her clothes accentuate fetching curves.
You smile in self-consciousness, aware of other eyes watching you. With a single nod, you answer Zeta in the affirmative and shoot a quick glance at Tommy. Since returning from Christmas break, he’s had his eyes on Zeta. He flirts with her with the determination of a Dachshund in a Badger hole, but can’t quite grasp the concept of her overwhelming negative body language. Like the way she crosses her arms over small breasts when she looks at him.
Zuliki scars the perfect waves in the sand as she parts the trainees and walks to the center. She turns a tiny circle, scanning the young faces before her. “Zeta!”
Your worst fears bubble in your belly. You’re certain the trainer will call your name. You calculate the best defense against Zeta’s “Dancing Monkey” style of twirling, dodging, and lightning-fast strikes is Patient Power: gauge her rhythm, time her proximity, and knock her out with one blow to the head. But you’re not sure if you can hurt the only friend you have in this place. You recall the first time you met years ago when you were eight years old. The academic committee placed you in Physics class along with children five years your senior. Even on the first day of lecture, your superior intellect caused fear and loathing. Several cornered you in the hallway, using you for a punching bag. After the Master Sergeant broke up the crowd, you fled, leaving your book bag in the hall. Zeta found you sitting atop the observatory and dropped the bag at your side. She sat next to you, dangling her feet over the concrete edge, and offered a napkin, which you wadded and stuffed into your sinus cavity to stop the bleeding. It was your first memory of compassion.
The master sergeant stares at you for several breaths. “Johnston!” She backs up and places one hand, palm vertical, fingers straight in the air above the arena’s center. Johnston and Zeta approach and face each other, standing at attention one meter apart.
They raise their right fist chest high, elbows bent, forming a ninety-degree square. They complete the Wing Chun salute of mutual respect by lifting their left hand, fingers extended upward, wrist bent, palm touching fist.
Zuliki pulls her hand, a signal to commence. Johnston launches himself at Zeta, one fist raised high over his shoulder. He clearly concluded as you, leading with a power-strike.
Zeta leaned right and tripped Johnston with an extended left leg. Twirling, she planted both knees under shoulder blades forcing his lungs to expel what air remained.
Face red with rage, he rolled, throwing Zeta three meters away.
She bounced on her butt, rolled back, threw her legs over the left shoulder, and landed on her feet in a crouch. She completed a Tai Chi move, placing palms together, raising them until her elbows locked straight. Palms forward, she lowered her arms parallel to the ground. The intake of breath drew calm power into her being. Surprising to you, she glanced in your direction and winked–a cat toying with her prey. Sporting a feline grin, she motioned for Johnston to resume.
Johnston let out a primal howl but approached her with calculated, measured steps. Left foot forward, right to the side, left behind. From previous sparring, you know he is setting up a powerful left kick. Instead, like a ballerina, he pirouettes counter-clockwise and leads with a right round-about kick.
Zeta dodges the kick but leans directly into the path of the oncoming left line drive, which slams into her temple. Her knees collapse, laying her on her back, eyes closed. She moans through parted lips.
You will her eyes open, in silence demand her to rise and face her foe. Giving up is not an option.
“Tap out, while you still can.” Johnston approaches her and kneels at her side. He reaches for her throat.
Zeta tosses a handful of sand in his face and follows with a jab to the chin. Lacking upper body strength, it doesn’t hurt much, but he looses balance. She twirled two full revolutions on her knees. The first swept his feet out from under him. The second placed one knee across his throat, the other pinning one arm down. Left, right, left, she punched his chest and stomach, breaking ribs in the process. She continued until he reaches up with his free hand and tapped her thigh several times.
“Yes!” It escaped your lips before your brain caught up.