"Alouita and Jarrald, my office please."
Jason looked up from the basic flight manual he was reading with a barely concealed lack of enthusiasm. Beside him, Mark abandoned whatever it was he was doing equally hastily, and the two of them got to their feet and followed Commander Nykinnen out of the Team Seven common room and down the ten feet of corridor to his office.
"I've been asked to put together a grading team for the Academy's younger karate students," Nykinnen said with no preamble as he took his seat. "It's on the fifteenth. Barring unforeseen incidents, are you two interested? Congratulations on the second Dan, by the way, Jason. Past due, from what I hear."
He couldn't quite hide the silly smile. "Thank you, Commander. I was just glad I didn't have to pull out at the last moment - or even half way through. I'd painted myself into a corner there."
He'd been enjoying the new training group far too much. Two other Team Seven black belts his age, and three more who had two white bands on their belts already. They were skilled, they were fast, and he'd taken the opportunity to refine his technique. Killing goons didn't take form, or perfect timing, or the ability to interpret strings of moves flung at you in Japanese into combinations which looked as if you'd been practicing them for months. He'd loved the opportunity to go back to pure technique and skill, and it had come as a horrible shock to be told that the other two were grading shortly, and since he was ready, why didn't he join them? There wasn't an excuse that wouldn't sound contrived, so he'd agreed, primed Chris Johnson in case he should be in action at the time and in need of a convenient bout of stomach flu, and hoped desperately that Spectra would leave them alone on the relevant day.
And, just for once, he'd got lucky. Not only for his grading, but the day before as well. He'd done all the right things - taken it easy beforehand, made sure he got a decent amount of sleep. He'd enjoyed every minute of the grading, too. Walked back to black section floating on air after the glowing report he'd received, almost too tired to move.
Then, of course, the alarm had gone off. He'd rarely had to dig so deep as he had to get through that mission.
"I can't do it," Mark said, and something in his tone rang every alarm bell in Jason's mind.
"I don't have time."
Well, that was a blatant lie if ever he'd heard one. From Mark, undisputed master of cover stories, it was beyond belief. This was taking security concerns way too far - who was going to figure anything out from what they said to a bunch of mid-teen green belts?
"You have plenty of time. Come on, Mark - it'll be fun!"
Mark glared, and Jason belatedly realised just how tightly clenched his fists were. "I can't."
"Why not, Lieutenant?" Nykinnen asked mildly, and Mark redirected his glare.
"Because to grade others you need a black belt, and I don't have one, okay! Now laugh all you like in private. Officially, I'm not available."
He was gone before Jason could collect himself enough to say anything, or do more than stare at Nykinnen.
"I get the impression that he's not happy about his lack of status," Nykinnen said.
And how. Jason shrugged. "I guess that's why he always trains in regular clothes. Or birdstyle, of course. His problem."
"Unfortunately not. They're cracking down, making sure all security operatives are as competent hand-to-hand as they need to be. I'm perfectly happy to forge Mark's credentials, but he has to accept that I've done it. It might be easier if he just did the grading."
"I can't grade him to black. I'd need to be a fourth Dan, not second."
"I understand that. But his life in Team Seven will be very much simpler if he either has a black belt or pretends to have one. I'd appreciate it if you'd talk to him."
Yeah, yeah, I'll do your dirty work. Jason limited his response to "Yes, Commander" and left in search of Mark.
He finally found him in the smaller black section gym, beating the stuffing out of a punchbag in a style-free way which would have made any karate instructor wince. Jason pulled the door shut quietly behind him and leaned against the wall, waiting. He wasn't senior to Mark in much, but here he was, and he needed to act it.
Thump. "Can't you leave it?"
Thump. "That was a subtle hint, Jason."
"Doesn't matter. You're drawing attention to yourself."
"How? By not having a black belt? Who cares?" Thump.
Well, you do, a blind idiot could see that. "They're checking up, since that Team Two operative got ambushed and it turned out he'd lied about his hand-to-hand skills. You either need to grade or you need to say you have, or you'll be in remedial classes trying to hide how good you really are. Your call."
Thump. Silence. Thump. A pause, a textbook, full force roundhouse kick, and the bag landed on the floor as the abused fitting at the top let go. Mark wiped a sleeve across his sweaty face and turned to Jason, expression filled with exasperation.
"Jase, I haven't graded since before I was implanted. You want me to walk into a grading session wearing some kiddie stripe? You want to see me do Pinan Nidan and a three move combination, and listen to me count to ten in Japanese? Because, no, Sensei Alouita, I won't do that. Go whistle."
"I am not."
"Jealous. And embarrassed. And apparently never heard of the concept of skipping grades, or that black belt gradings are closed. Hell, Mark, you want a brown-black stripe belt to grade in? I can grade you to first kyu any time you want. I'd give you a black except I don't have the authority. I sure as hell wouldn't report you if you started wearing one, though." He paused. "Since you were implanted? You were doing karate grades at four?"
"Three." Mark finally cracked a smile. "I don't think I can still get in my gi."
"Then go get one from stores. And a belt. Any colour you like. Do you want Nykinnen to fake your black belt, or shall I set up a grading?"
"A black belt grading?"
Jason snorted. "Mark, you're almost certainly the best pure martial artist in ISO. Yes, a black belt grading. You'll need to be sure you know all the kata."
"I can do that. What else?"
"Well, written paper demonstrating knowledge of the Japanese terms - yours is better than mine, so no worries there. Some sort of proof of fitness which will be a joke for you. Basics you can do in your sleep. Random combinations called in Japanese. Pairs - I'll have to look up the exact requirements, but you have to make them up. Since you'll be grading alone, I'll partner you, unless you want someone else. Three kata from six – you get to choose, plus any of the previous ones at random. And thirty minutes continuous sparring. Oh, and you have to pass every section – they stop you if you fail any of them. No making up for poor sections with good ones later. Not that you’d need to."
"Is that all?"
"Well, you can go grade somewhere that makes it into a two day endurance test if you prefer. I can recommend a school in Melbourne."
"Two days? And you're offering me a grading which takes, what, a couple of hours?"
Jason shrugged. "The other sort? It taught me I could still fight when I was so exhausted I could hardly see straight and wanted to throw up. I think we all know you can do that already."
Mark nodded slowly. "Okay, I'll do it. But heck, Jason, do you have any idea how long it is since I formally sparred with anyone who wasn't implanted?"
"Look, you go get yourself a gi. I'll run you through what you need to do."
The tension finally left Mark's face. "I'll do that."
Fate was, Jason decided, having a laugh at his expense. Surely there could be no other reason for the man who would have to set up any black belt grading inside black section being the one man who he tried to avoid talking to. At all.
He had to steel himself to knock on Grant's door. And then relax again, deliberately. He wasn't sure he'd ever been here before other than to be chewed out. This time, though, was different. He'd considered the niceties of how to ask a question based on karate rank in a situation which was military, and decided to be blunt.
"Come in!" Grant called. He frowned as Jason entered and closed the door behind him. "G-2, how can I help you?"
"Sensei Grant," Jason said, and the other's eyebrows went up quite gratifyingly. "I understand that you are the senior karate black belt with black section clearance. I wonder if you would consider running a grading."
They eyebrows stayed up. "For whom? I hear you graded quite recently."
"Ah. To what degree?"
Grant frowned. "You're seriously telling me that the Eagle doesn't have a black belt?"
"Apparently he hasn't graded in a very long time."
"I see. And his rank is currently...?"
Jason shrugged. "Don't know; don't care. If it matters, I'll bully him into the next public grading and make it first kyu. We don't really have the time for it, though. Not to mention how fine a line he’d have to walk between getting failed and someone noticing just how good he is."
"So what's the sudden hurry?"
"It's about to become a Team Seven requirement."
"Ah, yes. That young idiot who got himself killed because he couldn't fight without a gun in his hand." Grant sighed, apparently more at the inconvenience than the fact that the man had died. "Do I take it you're proposing him as ready to grade immediately?"
Mark, I do hope you know all those kata. "Yes, I am."
"Then I'll put a grading together as soon as possible. And give him this. I know the Eagle's sense of honour, and I won't have him show up wearing a belt completely inappropriate to his skill level simply because it's the last one he graded to." He reached into his desk drawer and tossed Jason a long, folded package.
"Grey? I never heard of a grey belt."
"Among my security teams, grey means 'I may not be qualified in this style, but I'm damn good in another one.' It prevents misunderstandings." He closed the drawer and sat back, steepling his fingers. "I want you on the grading panel."
Well, he hadn't expected that. Jason barely stopped his jaw from dropping. "I already told Mark I'd partner him for the pairs combinations."
Grant rolled his eyes. "Then you'll need to do both. You're the only implantee qualified to sit on the panel. I don't care how high his rank is in ISO. If he wants a karate black belt on my watch, he gets it without using his implant. Nobody else will notice if he cheats. You will. Tell him it will be unacceptable."
You really don't know him very well if you think he'll need telling. Jason just nodded. "Yes, sir. I'll do that."
"Is it wrong to wish Spectra would attack?" Mark asked quietly as Jason dumped his breakfast tray on the table and pulled a chair out.
"Only if you've realised you can't remember half the previous kata."
Mark managed a chuckle. "No, I know them. Man, I haven't been this nervous in a very long time."
Jason glanced at the other's plate. "Too nervous to eat?"
"Yes. And yes, I know I still need to. Forget the lecture."
"You won't get one from me." He tucked in appreciatively to the ISO canteen's best cooked breakfast, as almost everyone around them was doing. Mark was on toast and orange juice. Jason remembered that sick feeling of nerves all too well. He'd felt exactly the same before his own grading.
Even given his full plate of food, he still finished before Mark, and decided to leave him in peace. If Mark wanted to discuss anything, he could ask. Besides, they'd run through everything the evening before. Mark was foot-, hand-, everything-perfect. The pairs combinations he'd invented were classy. Impressively difficult...and perfectly suited to show off Mark's fighting style rather than his own.
Still, it wouldn't be the first time he'd played second fiddle to the Eagle.
Jason smiled at his own touch of nerves, slotted his tray into the stand, and headed for the black section elevator.
Thirty minutes later, clad in his gi, Jason walked into the black section gym tying his belt, and stopped in his tracks. His own black belt grading had involved five examiners. His immediate impression was of a room full of black belts. Grant stood behind a table at the end of the room, wearing his own gi and a belt so worn it was almost white, and talking with a man who he was fairly sure was a high-ranking black section security officer. He was certainly older than most, old enough to have white streaks in his black hair. The belt wasn't visibly worn, but four white bands round each end said clearly enough just how senior he was, karate-wise. And he wasn't even heading the panel. Jason was starting to suspect that, second dan and four years of black belt seniority notwithstanding, he was going to be the junior member of this examining panel. Which appeared to be enormous.
"Sensei," he said, nodding his head respectfully to both Grant and the other man for whom he knew neither name nor what title he preferred. "I wasn’t expecting to see this many people."
Rather to his surprise, Grant grinned broadly. "I asked for volunteers. I could have filled the panel five times over. Nine seemed not unreasonable. Black belts to spar with the Eagle? The queue to sign up stretched from my office to the main elevator, and I took sixteen. Thirty minutes, a fresh black belt opponent every two minutes, two opponents for the last two minutes. Last I heard, the going rate for a slot was twenty night shifts, and nobody was selling."
Jason rolled his eyes. "If I'd known two minutes sparring with the Eagle was that desirable, Mark and I could be millionaires by now."
"Somehow I don't see you emulating that particular side of Peter Parker."
"Maybe not." Jason glanced sideways. Sixteen black belts, arranging chairs into two rows at the side of the mat. So much for no audience. Mark was going to kill him.
"Where are you?" he asked on the bracelet as he left the room.
"Gym two. You ready for me?"
"Stay there. I'll come get you."
Mark was sitting on the floor when he went in, one leg drawn up, bent almost flat over the other one. He was dressed in a white gi, the colour so bright and creases so perfect it had to be fresh out of the packet. The grey belt was lying on the floor beside him, obviously equally brand new.
"Ready?" Jason asked.
Mark took his time straightening out, before standing up, belt in hand. "Sure."
"Grant's got one hell of an array of sparring partners lined up."
Mark rolled his eyes as he tied his belt. "You think I'll have a problem?"
"No! Just...don't underestimate them. They'll be fresh later on, when you're not. And they've done more competition sparring than you have. And they can go flat out. Remember you can't use the implant."
"Yes, sensei." Mark gave a last tug to his gi and slipped his shoes on. "You know, Jase, I think you're more nervous about this than I am."
"Don't make me have to mark you down."
Mark grinned. "Don't you just wish."
All eyes turned them as they entered - sixteen men seated in two rows of eight along the side of the mat, and eight at the top end, behind a long table. Only Jason's seat at the end of the row of examiners remained empty.
He'd have liked to say something helpful and meaningful, but couldn't think of anything. 'Not that Mark needs it anyway,' he told himself, making his way to his seat. Mark seemed entirely calm, as he placed water bottle and towel neatly on the bench, tucked his shoes under it, and finally removed his bracelet and laid it alongside the towel. That done, he sat on the bench in an unconscious mirror of the men opposite him: feet slightly apart, leaning slightly forward, hands on knees, alert and waiting.
Alert and waiting was, after all, something G-Force were very good at.
Grant waited until Jason had taken his seat before standing up and glancing around. The low murmuring chatter stopped instantly.
"Good morning, gentlemen. This is a closed grading session for black belt, first Dan. We have one candidate. I believe you all know Mark Jarrald. He's cross-grading from a high level of unarmed combat."
Just a flicker of relief passed across Mark's face. Jason could appreciate why. He'd half expected Grant to have dug out Mark's previous grading history from somewhere and proclaimed it to everyone. Had it been Jason himself involved, he was quite sure Grant would have done so.
Mark had stood up when his name was announced, and now bowed respectfully to each member of the grading panel in turn, as Grant introduced them. As Jason had suspected, this was one high-ranking panel. Only one other member was as low as second Dan, and since he'd been on Jason's examining panel the week before, he was certainly more senior than Jason was.
"Mark's written papers were perfectly adequate," Grant continued. Jason interpreted that as 'word perfect'. "So, if you are ready, we will carry on with the physical assessment. All instruction will, of course, be in Japanese from this point."
That was never going to faze Mark. Heck, it wouldn't even have fazed Jason, who'd spent two days interacting in Japanese only for his own black belt grading at the age of fifteen, and had never been so silent before or since. Mark spoke Japanese, at least well enough to have the Japanese sections of the ISO forces do what he wanted without the delay of an interpreter. Jason was reasonably sure that he'd be one of the more fluent Japanese speakers in the room.
He noted with amusement that Grant left the next section of the opening spiel: the detailed description of what form the examination would take, to the man next to him. Sensei Hajimoto doubtless did speak better Japanese than Mark. For now, though, he was speaking clearly, slowly and simply, and, as far as Jason could tell, was sticking strictly to the standard phrases and information.
At the end, Mark inclined his head respectfully, walked to the far end of the mat, and stood waiting. There was a surprising amount of tension in his posture. He couldn’t be nervous about the basics, surely?
He didn't wait for long. Grant called for the standard opening sequence: masubadatch, then rei, then yoi. One movement each time, ending up in ready stance. The first basic move was, as always, junzuki hidari yama: the single left leg / left hand punch used to start every grading. Grant repeated it in a clearly enunciated manner Jason had heard used in every grading from red stripe upwards and which he suspected was universal, and spat out, "Hagime." Jason suspected it was also universal that every black belt the world over made it sound like a sneeze.
One simple, trivial move, and Mark’s demeanour had changed completely. He must have been worried about understanding Grant, Jason decided. Karate Japanese pronunciation wasn’t exactly real Japanese pronunciation, and it would be hell to start a grading by having to confess to the chief examiner that you had no idea which moves he was asking for.
Everyone else on the judging panel sat forward intently, pens in hand, as Grant called for some entirely trivial basic move and snapped hagime again. Jason didn't see the point; if he couldn't see something from twenty feet away, he was hardly likely to spot it from nineteen. And he didn't expect to have to write anything down. Certainly not for a while. Maybe when Mark reached the random combinations, which might, might, challenge him. His basics were perfect. They'd probably been perfect for the past decade.
He did cast a surreptitious glance at the notebook which the man next to him was scrawling in. Sadly, the handwriting defeated him. He'd have loved to know what was worth making notes about. 'Perfect. Perfect again. Is this guy for real?'
Up and down, once for each move, and the basics were done. Mark stood relaxed, not bothering to sit down while waiting for the next section.
Combinations, random, any as requested. Grant had asked Jason to provide one. Jason had declined. He knew Mark too well, and there was no way he could do it objectively. Anything he picked, other than a string of moves so long Mark couldn't remember them cold, Mark would be able to execute as if he'd practiced it beforehand. Neither of them needed that sort of rumour spreading round ISO. So, unless Sensei Hajimoto had provided one, all of Mark's combinations would have been set by people who had no idea what his specific strengths and weaknesses were. Just as it should be.
And they were difficult, too. Had it been a less formal setting, Jason would have been strongly tempted to query whether a couple of them were supposed to be a combination or a kata. The examiner next to him started off writing them down, in kanji, but as the number of moves went on, his eyebrows went up, his pen went down, and he just listened and then watched.
Mark, just as he'd expected, executed each one smoothly, immaculately, and as if he'd rehearsed it instead of having heard it read out twice. Even the one involving that damned left-footed flying kick straight into a defensive stance, which defied all laws of momentum. Jason hated that move; he didn't know anyone who didn't. Even Mark disliked it. It didn't show.
Pairs combinations were next. Jason didn't know what Grant had told the rest of the judging panel, and had no plans to do any explaining himself. He slipped quietly from his seat, round the end of the table, and joined Mark on the mat.
"You defend first," Mark muttered, taking a sip from his waterbottle. "Remember the order?"
Jason masked a smile. Like he wouldn't have remembered how they'd practiced them. Mark must be more nervous than he looked.
There was a quiet conversation going on at the judging table between the three senior members. Quiet, and rather forceful, and involving a fair number of glances at Jason. Sensei Hajimoto appeared not entirely happy with the situation. Jason was quietly amused that Grant hadn't cleared it with him beforehand but had chosen to put him on the spot. It was certainly less than usual for one of the judging panel to get up and participate in the grading at this point.
At the table, Sensei Hajimoto finally nodded slowly and sat back, face impassive. Grant stood up, and Mark abandoned his drink on the bench and came to stand alongside Jason, face deadly serious. A glance sideways and he led the usual ritual bows: the formal one to the examiners, and the wary, head-up variant to one another. Out of sight of the examiners, his fingers tapped out the cadence against his thigh. Absolutely steady, the exact same speed they'd practiced at. Not that either of them needed it. Timing was everything for many of their combat moves. They were expected to be able to repeat things perfectly, with or without cues, hitting their marks precisely on time. He'd have been shocked if Mark hadn't been indicating a standard, textbook-ideal rhythm.
The fingers stopped. Just a glance to indicate the start, and they were into the first combination. Jason kept it steady and even. Mark was being graded, not him. No need to flaunt his extra height or reach, his additional flexibility, or the fact he was just that fraction quicker than his commander. No, today he'd take the edge off the areas he stood out in and let Mark's precision and timing stand out. Not to mention that Mark had designed these things knowing who his partner would be. It was remarkably clever, the way that being shorter was an advantage for both attacker and defender.
Cool, calm, steady rhythm, play the foil, let Mark show off. Five separate combinations, attacker and defender for each. Ten move sets in all.
It was over far too soon. Mark's eyes held confidence and relaxation as they bowed to one another, then to the examiners' table. All was very professional over there - not a flicker of approval from any of the faces. It didn't matter. Jason knew just how good that had been, and he was quite sure Mark did, too.
He slipped quietly back into his seat behind the table, avoiding looking for any reaction from his fellow examiners. Hopefully now they'd just quietly forget that one of their number had been involved in the pairs combinations. It wasn't forbidden by any of the rules...just rather unorthodox.
"Kata," called Grant after a minute or so. "Three from the list of required black belt kata, plus any previous kata as required."
Jason had never been the world's biggest kata fan. Practicing the dozen or so from the lower grades had been tedious rather than educational, since he had no problems actually remembering the things. Mark, on the other hand, was a kata fanatic. Thinking about it now, Jason wondered why he'd never found Mark's attitude to the more formal karate sessions at ISO odd before. Being implanted gave you extra speed and strength, but wouldn't make your kata better – kata were all about control. Logically, Mark should have been practicing those kata in a gi all this time, and going out and winning internal ISO competitions. There was no reason for him not to... except embarrassment at not having a black belt around his waist.
He snorted quietly to himself and sat forward, amused at what he assumed was Grant's attempts to add tension to the session by delaying every announcement just slightly more than normal. If Grant thought Mark was a combat monster with no time for choreographed routine, he was in for a shock. He did finally appear to be ready, though.
"Name of kata?"
Mark stood ready. "Seipei."
"Seipei first?" Jason's neighbour muttered.
Jason grinned to himself. Everyone else might pick the first three on the list because they were considered easier. Mark would pick the fun ones. The showy ones. The competition favourites. Not what you'd expect from someone doing a makeup grading for administrative purposes.
It was foot perfect. So was Niseishi. So was the difficult and showy Gojushiho. And it was lottery time. He could now be asked to do any of the kata from previous levels. Could in principle be asked to do all of them, though that would have been slow, bizarre, and beyond dull for all concerned. Or none of them, though that seemed unlikely.
Grant glanced along to the end of the table. "Jason, do you wish to see any previous kata?"
No thanks, I saw them all last night. Jason simply shook his head. "Not required."
His neighbour nodded, however. "Pinan Yodan, please."
A basic kata, but not one of the very easiest two. And, thankfully, not one of those with bizarre moves highly open to interpretation. Mark performed it fluently and strongly, and stood ready again.
There was then a sequence of "not required"s in response to the question, until the last examiner on the far side of the table asked for Bassai Dai - probably, Jason suspected, because he wanted to see Mark show off again rather than from any uncertainty as to whether he could do it to standard. Mark obliged. Not a wobble, not a waver, not a break in the smooth rhythm. Textbook stuff.
Mark made his final bow with a broad smile on his face and returned to his seat with more than a hint of the Eagle's arrogant stride in his step. Sparring was next, and there was a shuffle of moved seats as the array of sparring partners got to their feet and moved to the mat for a brief warmup.
"Man, I want him on the ISO kata team," came from Jason's left, still at a muttered level. "Think he'd give up G-Force for it?"
"Nope," said Jason cheerfully and equally quietly.
The man was looking at him, slightly uncertainly. "If I say 'and I thought your kata were good', will you take offence?"
"Mark's the precision machine. I just hit people a lot."
"And perform Kusanku without flinching. You should have seen the look of relief on the other candidates' faces when you were asked for it so they knew they wouldn't be."
Jason just grinned. He'd expected something sneaky from his judging panel, and his current neighbour had obliged. Kusanku, all seventy-two moves of it, was the one most people dreaded. It wasn't an issue when you had a photographic memory.
There was the sound of a cleared throat from further down the table, and Grant leaned across. "Jason, do you remember our conversation?" His voice was low, but not so low that Mark wouldn't have been able to hear it if he was listening.
"Of course." Jason resisted the urge to repeat it word for word. "He knows he's not to use the implant. If he does, I'll tell you."
"Good." Grant sat back and continued to watch the warmup in silence. He left them for just a couple of minutes - they had doubtless warmed up before the session, but had now been sitting for about an hour. Jason was slightly surprised they'd had a second formal warmup at all. Clearly Grant wanted his people to put up a good show against the Eagle.
"Kumite," Grant said finally, and all but one of the black belts rapidly retreated to their seats. "Thirty minutes, with a fresh black belt opponent every two minutes. For the last two minutes, two opponents. Are you ready?"
Mark gave his face a last wipe with the towel and nodded as he stood up, adjusting his belt. He wore the same calm expression he always did when he fought, whether sparring or for real. Jason always found it maddening - especially when, as happened all too often, it was accompanied with him ending up flat on his back.
Mark stepped back onto the mat, inclining his head towards the judges, and waited, hands by his sides. His eyes were on the fifteen seated men at the other side of the room, and the one standing by the side of the mat. All sixteen were taller and heavier than he was, and none of them had to worry about not using the advantages he took for granted every time he fought for real. If he even touched on the implant, he'd fail.
Jason tried to have faith. Mark wouldn't fail.
He'd wondered if he'd be asked to referee the sparring, as the junior panel member, but instead his neighbour stood up and went out onto the mat. Mark's first opponent also approached, eyes wary, tense and ready. He had two minutes to make his name.
"Remember, they aren't goons," Jason had said to Mark last night. "They know what they're doing. They'll be trying to tire you out. And there's a huge amount of kudos going for anyone who can put you on the floor."
And Mark had grinned. "Then I'd best make sure nobody does."
The first couple of opponents did exactly what Jason would have done, had he been up against someone he knew he couldn't beat technically. High-intensity stuff. Nothing particularly taxing to defend against, but a lot of movement required. Mark, ever light on his feet, was dancing and swaying out of the way with zero difficulty, but doing that burned energy fast. His opponents knew they only had to keep it up for two minutes. And the changeover between partners was lightning fast. They'd decided to give him no respite at all. This really was going to be thirty minutes straight.
Opponent two bowed and stepped out, opponent three bowed and stepped in. Five seconds tops, and Mark was dodging and blocking backwards again. And the referee stepped in.
"Warning. Passivity," he said to Mark, who bowed to acknowledge it. His opponent - tall, strong and fresh - came straight at him on the offensive again, and this time Mark followed his textbook attack with an equally perfect counterattack, dumped the man on the floor with a sweep, and demonstrated an immaculate scoring punch.
"That's more like it," Grant muttered.
Jason contemplated pointing out that Mark wouldn't want to hurt anyone, and decided against it. Maybe Grant wanted his people to get a serious workout. Maybe he just wanted to be sure there weren't any rumours of favouritism. Either way, Mark had figuratively taken the gloves off.
This opponent had drawn the short straw. Mark drove him back, scoring points at will, easily blocking his attempts to counterstrike. Textbook stuff - but hard work. Jason knew he couldn't have kept it up for half an hour, or anywhere close, without leaning on the implant. That meant Mark probably couldn't either. He'd need another solution.
Jason was sure Mark wouldn't cheat and lean on the implant, but he leaned forward anyway, making it obvious that he was watching. Nobody was going to say that this hadn't been conducted fairly.
Partner three left the mat with a visible sigh of relief. Four didn't hesitate. He was fast and on the attack immediately. Very fast. Mark almost missed the first block, did miss the second, and immediately shifted from left to right stance. Change something, Jason could hear their sensei saying. If someone finds a move that works, take it away from them.
Mark did just that. Four appeared to not like a right-stance opponent at all, and promptly went on the defensive sufficiently to earn a passivity warning of his own. Five and six followed suit. Jason could almost see Grant writing next week's training schedule for his security details in his head. The man's glare was impressive.
Opponent seven was more than happy with right stance, and completely ignored Mark's switch back to left with a broad grin, which doubled in size when he switched back himself a few moves later and almost caught Mark by surprise. This man wasn't intimidated by sparring with the Eagle, that was for sure. Not in the slightest. He had one hell of a front kick, a great roundhouse on both sides...and a weakness to the sweep. Mark put him on the floor three times in quick succession, finished him off with three identical punches which he appeared to have no answer to, and he backed off and became more conservative.
In a combat situation, that was where Mark would have finished him for real. All-out attack, dispose of the threat. As it was, he glanced at the referee and kept the pace up.
He'll pay for that later. Jason would have taken a breather. He suspected that passivity warning was stinging.
Seven left, with a rueful shake of his head. Eight came in hard and fast. Nothing spectacular, just blazing speed. Experience might be the best counter to speed, but you still had to be fast enough to block or get out of the way. The attacker only had to keep it up for two minutes. Mark had fourteen minutes behind him and another fourteen after this bout. He stuck with it, but Jason suspected he was beginning to tire.
Nine did the same. Ten did the same. For the first time, Jason felt a tinge of genuine concern. Grant's security officers had planned this. He'd warned Mark that they would all be out to put him on the floor. He didn't think that was true, now. The first few had tested him, pushed him to demonstrate technique. The next few were out to tire him. One, maybe two more, and the big guns would be out, trying to take down a tired opponent who they'd studied closely.
Eleven carried on with the 'tire him' tactics. Speed and pressure, using size and weight to force Mark into putting full effort into every block. It was always hard work fighting someone taller and heavier than you were. Every one of Mark's opponents had that advantage over him.
Opponent twelve had three white tabs on his belt, another one so worn that it was more white than black, and the glance he gave to his fellow black belts as he stood up said quite clearly: job well done. He was waiting at the edge of the mat even as the previous bout finished, on it as eleven left. Mark had maybe three seconds from the end of one bout to the start of the next.
This guy was good. Not that the others had been anything else...but he was slick and smooth, every move a part of him, and he had combinations to die for. No telegraphing at all, moves from nowhere. And Mark was struggling. Sure, dancing backwards lightfooted throwing perfect blocks probably didn't look much like anyone else's definition of struggling, but then Mark never showed how close he was to his limits.
Jason glanced at his watch as surreptitiously as he could, at a point when twelve's back was to him. Just over a minute gone of this bout. Mark hadn't thrown a punch or kick yet - that passivity warning was surely coming his way.
He knew it. Duck, in fast, two jabs, one of which probably scored...and twelve executed a perfect sweep and landed him on the floor in return, to a murmur of appreciation from the peanut gallery. Mark rolled and came up with a defensive sweep that almost looked as if it had been deliberate. He landed a back kick - maybe - and then was on the retreat again. He was starting to sweat, wisps of hair sticking to his forehead. Six minutes to go.
Another lightning fast change of opponent, and this time Mark went on the offensive. Fast and efficient. Nothing much was landing, though. Nothing much was coming the other way either. Maybe Mark was tired of getting hit. He was certainly tired; breathing hard, sweat starting to run down his face. And his opponent wised quickly to the tactic. He didn't attempt to stop the flood, just waited his time and countered with a series of hard jabs to the ribs.
And Mark staggered, tried to duck, and took what would have been a knockout blow to the head if his opponent hadn't been skilled enough to pull it.
"Yame!" the referee called. The watching black belts looked unimpressed, but Jason agreed with the ref. A competition fight would have paused there, possibly significantly, while they determined the level of score and whether contact had been made. No scoring here, but even in a grading, you didn't leave someone wide open and vulnerable. You gave them a chance to gather themselves. Standard practice was that they adjusted their gi and retied their belt. Mark did that now. He must have had all of eight seconds of respite.
They'd joked about being able to fight when they were exhausted. It wasn't a joke any more. But it was something they knew how to do. Mark wasn't about to panic. He knew where that place was, deep inside him, where you dig for the energy you save for the absolute last resort. At least Jason sincerely hoped he did, without going via his implant. Jason sat forward again, trying to telegraph his intentions. Four minutes, Mark. You can do without the implant for that long. Go back to basics.
He survived the final twenty seconds of this bout, at least. Probably only didn't get called for passivity because it would have taken up all the remaining time. Thirteen bowed to him with a distinct smile of success, and fourteen stepped onto the mat as Mark gasped for breath.
This one had to be their star solo karateka saved for last, no question. Raw confidence in every movement. Younger than most of Grant's men - probably barely into his twenties. Only two tabs on his belt, but at his age, that was no surprise. Dark hair worn long enough to be tied back rather than the standard security officer's buzzcut, sharp grey eyes. Taller than Mark, not as tall as Jason. Judging by the arrogant swagger - and the hairstyle - probably got mistaken for the Eagle on a regular basis and wasn't too distressed about it. Jason made a mental note to beat him all round the dojo, first chance he got.
And Mark was playing the game now, too. Another belt retie and gi adjustment before he stepped up for the start of the bout. Cool, icy determination on his face, apparently utterly relaxed, though the way he was sweating gave that the lie. A very wary set of bows from both of them.
And then a completely different level of sparring. Attack after attack from Mark's opponent, just about every different move Jason could name involved somewhere. Pure class. Pure class on the other side, too. Mark might not have a great deal of energy left, but he had skill and instinct and muscle memory, and it was amazing what your muscles would do when they knew they were supposed to, even if you didn't have any strength to tell them to do it. Absolutely textbook defence...and textbook countering, too. And Mark's textbook was the G-Force eyes only manual, not available to Grant's security teams, and the combinations in it were anything but common.
The referee kept it going between pauses rather more than would have happened in a competition. Probably more than Jason would have - but then the ref presumably knew this guy and what he was capable of. Jason was more than a little worried that Mark was tired enough to take the man's head off if he made a mistake pulling a kick. Sure, Mark didn't normally make mistakes, but then he didn't normally have to worry about not using his implant.
It went on for the solid two minutes. High level competition sparring, full variety of styles, both stances. It wouldn't have been a points-fest, but only because both were so good defensively as well as offensively. It looked like tremendously hard work. Mark was far too professional to ever let his guard down at all, but a fair bit of his normal lightness was gone, and he was well into using delaying tactics. Another passivity warning came his way, and out of the corner of his eye Jason could see Grant shaking his head. The man really did have unbelievably high standards. Jason tried not to be pleased that, just for once, it wasn't him failing to live up to them.
Two minutes came after about ten. Opponent fourteen bowed and left the mat, and Mark stood, visibly gasping, sweat running down his face, as his last two opponents approached. Final two minutes, sparring against two fresh black belts simultaneously.
Sometimes the enemy will exhaust you, their sensei had said. Sometimes they will be fresh and you will be tired. You have to find solutions to all these situations.
The problem was that the recommended solution to this particular situation was to take out opponents one at a time. Reduce their numbers. Get back to a one-on-one fight. Doing that here, in a non-contact bout, would mean instant disqualification.
So, what else did Mark have left? Anything at all? If he'd looked this exhausted in the field, Jason would have got between him and the enemy, and to hell with his commander's pride.
Mark's last two opponents took up position, just a glance at one another. Jason's heart sank. No hope of an easy last two minutes here, the two opponents taking it in turns and getting on each another's way. These two were clearly an established team, and had been for some time, if he was any judge.
Move so that one of your opponents obstructs the other. That was the theory. These two knew it, and knew how to counter it. Mark was left needing to use speed to get out of the middle, blocking what he could. And his speed was near gone.
Around a minute in, he managed a minor success, sweeping one and using the opportunity to launch a full-on assault on the other. He scored three, maybe four hits before his downed opponent came back with a sweep of his own and landed Mark on the floor hard enough to make him bounce.
Shake of the head. Back on his feet. Touch of gloves, and straight back in. Jason could see the effort required to keep his guard up now. See how it still wasn't quite where it should be, and how his blocks had slowed. See the reluctance to expend the energy required to kick.
He was dumped on the floor again anyway, twice in quick succession. The second time, Jason wasn't at all sure he was going to get up again, not without a surreptitious lean on the implant. He watched closely. If Mark did use it, it was beyond his ability to tell. He didn't think he had. Mark might be one heck of a good actor, but he wasn't faking his exhaustion.
As the two black belts closed at high speed from either side, Jason stole a glimpse at the clock. Thirty seconds to go. He remembered the last thirty seconds of his own black belt grading vividly. Only sheer bloody-mindedness had kept him on his feet and fighting. And that had been against opponents who were out purely to test him and already knew they were more skilled than he was, not opponents who would get serious kudos if they could beat him.
Mark was backing off with more than a hint of desperation now. Ducking, trying to use one as a shield from the other. It wasn't working. Jason fought with Mark as a pair often enough to recognise a team which knew exactly what it was doing. Mark simply didn't have enough limbs to block everything that was coming in.
Ten seconds left. One of them took him down hard, the other went for a faked killer blow. Mark threw himself sideways and came to his feet, pads up just barely enough to defend himself, visibly gasping. He didn't have enough left to do it again, that was for sure, and his opponents weren't letting up --
"Yame!" The referee stepped between them. Mark's opponents stopped instantly, bouncing on the balls of their feet, ready to go again.
And the referee glanced at the clock and nodded to himself. "Yoi!" signalled the end of the half hour. Mark was still on his feet - barely. Enough to bow to his opponents, the referee, and the table of judges, to walk off the mat and bow to it immaculately. Then, as applause rippled from the watching black belts, he sat down hard on the floor, reached for water bottle and towel, and sprawled on his back.
"He'll be fine," said Grant dismissively. He waited briefly for the referee to join them before continuing. "Comments? Jason?"
"He didn't use the implant," Jason said bluntly – watching for that was, after all, the only reason he'd been put on the panel. However, since he was on it... "He's the best karateka out there. Either he deserves a black belt or none of them do. Me included."
"I think that was the most impressive half-hour's sparring I've ever seen," the referee said. "I'd like it noted that I wouldn't normally allow sparring partners to push a grading candidate that far."
"Slight loss of form at the end," someone from the other end of the row said. Jason didn't know his name, but recognised him as one of Grant's senior staff. "I agree, he was pushed harder than a standard grading, and dealt with it admirably. Not that I'd expect anything else from him. Earlier sections were perfect."
There were nods from the other judges. "Superb technique," one of them said.
"Indeed," said Sensei Hajimoto. "It is somewhat ridiculous for him not to have graded already. Not entirely respectful."
"He's been busy." Jason kept the sarcasm out of his voice as much as possible.
Hajimoto inclined his head. "Indeed, G-2. As the senior belt in the team, I trust you will ensure he finds the time to progress to a more appropriate level."
Jason opened his mouth, and stopped. The man's eyes were twinkling.
"It is unfortunate that grading at this level is a simple pass or fail, as what we have seen here is far more than is required for a first dan pass. I do not believe it is appropriate to skip grades at this level, plus we have not examined Commander Jarrald on the required kata for second dan. However, G-2, if you wish to stay senior to him, you will have to work at it."
Jason grinned. "Yes, Sensei."
"Any more comments?" Grant asked. "Anyone disagree?"
There were assorted snorts, and a couple of judges displayed empty comment pages in their notebooks.
"In that case..." He raised his voice. "Mark, if you would join us, please?"
Mark, consummate professional that he was, didn't groan, and did manage to stand up under his own power. He straightened his gi and walked slowly over to stand before the table, hands behind his back in model student posture.
"Your examiners are satisfied with what they've seen," said Grant bluntly. "Pass." And he held out his hand.
Formalities were completed. Paperwork was signed - to Jason's complete lack of surprise, Mark casually wrote his name in kanji and followed it up with a scrawled signature in Cyrillic.
Grant left, along with most of his examiners, and with the senior officers gone, abruptly there was chatter and a crowd of enthusiastic black belts all wanting to shake Mark by the hand and offer congratulations before leaving.
"I wasn't entirely joking," the last remaining examiner said, the young man who'd refereed the sparring. "I run the ISO USA karate team. Any time you two fancy getting involved in competition, or just competition level training, you let me know. That's my current first pair. They’re ISO global two-on-two champions. I'd dearly love to see them up against you two."
He was the last out, the door closed behind him, and Mark sagged to sit on the floor again.
"Oh, man," he said. "How do fifteen year olds get through that?"
"By not being the Eagle. There's no kudos attached to beating up on a kid who's grading. You, though..."
Mark grimaced, looking up from where his head rested on folded arms on his knees. "I didn't exactly beat all of them."
"You survived, and that’s what they were looking for." Jason put a hand out to pull the other to his feet. "Come on. You need a hot shower right now, since you're too knackered to warm down."
Mark didn't argue, which said it all, and the two of them headed at an extremely gentle pace back towards their quarters.
"I guess I'll be needing to buy a belt," Mark said as the elevator rose.
Well, duh. Jason didn't feel that needed an answer.
There was a pause. "Yours isn't like the others."
Ah. Three years ago he'd have been devastatingly embarrassed. Now, he just shrugged. "You mean how every other black belt in existence has silk with their names embroidered on it and mine's plain generic cotton like the kids wear? 'Penniless orphan' wasn't just a cliché - I could barely afford the grading fee. I could have a fancy one now, but this one fits my Team Seven image. Goes with the car and the trailer." He abruptly realised what Mark was getting at.
"Ivanov's ward, the spoiled brat on Team Seven as a favour? Like you have a choice, Mark. What would the rest of them think if you didn't show up looking like you'd thrown stupid amounts of money at it?"
The elevator stopped, and Mark grinned ruefully as they started walking again. "That just maybe I'm not a total waste of space?"
"You're too competent for it to be safe for them to even consider it. Go order your fancy belt. I'm not going to be offended. Like you said, every other black belt has one. And...Mark?"
Halfway through unlocking his door, the other turned back. "Yes?"
"You looked damn good out there. Now, about that job Nykinnen asked us to do?"And Mark's face broke into a slow smile. "Grading Academy kids? Yes, I think I might be available after all."