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Tom waved his gloves and resumed trying to move the couch. "But it's sleep."

"We put the time to better use." She bent down to smile tauntingly in his face, her dark hair wreathing her head. "Maybe that's why we're winning."

Tom laughed. "Maybe that's why the foreign Combatants would rather live in Russia!" He hurled the couch to the side, and then leaped to his feet and punched her.

"Are you from Texas?" Medusa asked him out of the blue, punching him back.

"Why Texas? Do I seem like a Texan?"

"Texas and New York are the only places I've heard about in America. Oh, and California."

"Not from Texas, but I know a guy from Texas. He's named Eddie."

"Did he live on a ranch?"

"Nah. He's not a cowboy, either. I think he's a doctor. He and my dad got in a fistfight once, and then they got beer afterward. They're still buddies. I guess it's how they make friends down there or something."

"Isn't that how we made friends, too? Fighting?" She knocked him through the wall.

Tom found his feet, charged back into the room, and tackled her. "Yeah, but we didn't just fight. We wrecked the Beringer Club together. Oh, and I died horribly at your hands. Gruesome murder always builds the foundation for a beautiful friendship."

She laughed, and her Egyptian queen roundhouse kicked his ogre across the room, slamming him into the stone wall and collapsing it. Tom's ogre got buried, and he couldn't help the mental picture his brain was forming: a pretty Chinese girl who loved video games, shooting fire from her eyes, and fighting him. Oh, and who also happened to be the greatest warrior in the world.

He was glad Medusa couldn't see him right now, just his ax-wielding ogre avatar, buried in stones, because he'd feel embarrassed if she saw his huge grin.

THAT TUESDAY, TOM received a ping as soon as Tactics ended: Report to Elliot Ramirez for semester evaluation.

"Oh. Oh, great." Tom knew how this was going to go.

The plebes were all being evaluated for the promotions to Middle Company, a small but important step up the ladder. The decision was in the hands of Marsh, but their Applied Simulations instructors had a say, too. Tom had been avoiding Elliot, hoping to put off the inevitable lecture about his lack of teamwork, his inability to play nicely with others, and something else like his lack of self-actualization or something. But Elliot was obviously sick of waiting for Tom to come to him on his own time.

He'd never been to the fourteenth floor where the Combatants in Camelot Company lived. He heard rumors the way everyone else did: that the CamCos didn't have their own rooms, they all slept in one massive barracks-type place. They also had a swimming pool, feather beds, a hot tub where all the CamCo girls romped about wearing nothing, a private bar, and a masseuse. When the doors parted to reveal a common room like on every floor, and private rooms like on every other floor, Tom felt a twinge of disappointment. He stepped out onto the soft carpet, his eyes trained on the massive window overlooking the green expanse of Arlington fourteen stories below them. He turned in a slow circle, looking at the doors.


Elliot's voice made him jump. The dark-haired boy stood in the doorway to his bunk, and he gestured Tom inside.

Tom followed him into the private bunk. Single occupant. Nice.

Elliot must've been lounging on his bed, because he flopped back down and slung his legs across the sheets, a silent screen running on the ceiling over his head-the battle at Mercury from a few months earlier.

"So, your first evaluation," Elliot said, eyes trained on the ceiling.

Tom shifted his weight. "Yeah."


Tom lowered himself into Elliot's plush leather chair.

"Sorry to rush this, Tom, but we've been busy trying to prep for Capitol Summit. General Marsh keeps sending me messages from India, telling me to urge CamCo along in nominating my proxy. And here I was, hoping maybe I could play as myself this year."

Tom looked up at the screen, because he wasn't sure what to say to that. Of the members of CamCo, Elliot's fighting was the most rote and predictable. There was a good reason Marsh never let him serve as his own proxy.

Elliot was gazing at the image again.

"Tell me something, Tom, what do you think I did wrong here?" Elliot waved his finger and rewound a segment where his ship grazed Medusa's, swerved at the last minute, then caught a missile she blasted back at him. His ship exploded, a fiery mass of flames streaking toward the surface of Mercury.

"Uh, you got blown up."

"Obviously. But why did it happen? How did I mess up?"

"You're asking me to play armchair quarterback?"

"Exactly. Armchair quarterback me."

Tom shifted in the chair. He'd be glad to tell Elliot why he'd messed up, but it didn't seem like the right time to rub in his failings. Besides, ever since Elliot let him fight Medusa in Troy, he didn't feel the need to do it.

"Um, you would've gotten blown up anyway. Even if you'd done everything right there."

"But I might've taken Medusa with me if I'd played my cards right. What should I have done?"

"You did everything by the book. You'd know better than me. You're much farther along in tactics than I am."

"But … ?"

"You should've kamikaze'd her," Tom blurted. "You had the chance. Knock out Medusa and the rest would've been in shock. You could've just picked them off."


Tom winced at the slip. "I think of Medusa as a girl for some reason."

"Me, too. Kind of funny. To be honest, ramming her didn't even occur to me at the time. But it would've occurred to you, wouldn't it have?" Elliot pondered him, rubbing his thumb across his chin. "That's something about you, Tom. I've seen it time and again, the way you aim straight for the throat. You have the killer instinct. At the end of the day, I don't. I don't have teeth and claws and the hunger for it, I suppose."

"You're not vicious like me, you mean."

"I suppose that's one way to put it. Do you know why I wanted you to pay fealty?"

Tom had theories at the time. Some need for power, some deep-seated egotism. It didn't feel fair saying anything about that now.

Elliot answered his own question. "Because that's as much a part of advancing here as your battle performance. All the killer instinct in the world won't get you anywhere if you're not willing to play the social game. There's not a person in history who achieved greatness without choking back some pride, without ever smiling at someone they despised, without playing along even if they hated the very idea of it."

"I get it. I'm not a team player."

"You could be." Elliot leaned toward him. "You can be. A very valuable, effective team player. Exactly the kind of player who leads teams to victory. But you need to play that other game, too. You need to learn to-"

"Suck up?" Tom said before he could stop himself.

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