“Good morning sophomores!” Several of the gathered students flinched involuntarily as the familiar voice rang through the classroom, and the cheerful Weapons Instructor strolled in. “Welcome to the last leg of the year! Now who’s ready for the REAL challenge to start?”
“Stop trying to scare the students, Dani.” Twenty-seven pairs of eyes snapped back to the front of the room at the sudden arrival of the Subtlety Instructor.
Dani responded to Elena’s order by sticking out her tongue and making a rude gesture as she moved to join her colleague.
“As Dani said, we are coming into the last stretch of training before your class final. Hopefully you’ve all managed to keep up with your individual class finals already, and hopefully this year’s final will be a little more… traditional than last year.” Professor Martinez paused for a moment and examined the reactions around the room, noting a few uncomfortable looks when she mentioned the ‘individual finals’ and a whole range of emotions at the reminder of how the previous year ended.
“I don’t know, I kind of enjoyed the surprise last year.” The Weapons Instructor interjected with her usual, cheerful tone. “I mean, hopefully no one gets their arms blown up this year, but other than th-…”
“We’ll be having our nice, NORMAL finals this year.” Elena interrupted her colleague, and the two exchanged a brief glare, before the Subtlety Instructor turned back to the students. “And so, for the next few weeks leading up to that, your team exercises will be modified to help get you prepared for that.”
The Weapons Instructor produced a heavy, metallic ball from one of the cabinets at the front of the room and placed it on a desk in the first row with a dramatic flourish. “So you’ll be carrying THESE!”
The nearest students leaned away from the mysterious sphere, and the rapt attention of the class found itself split between examining the object and looking to the Instructors for an explanation.
“I know it seems unusual, especially coming from Dani, but it really is just a plain metal ball.” Elena noted the mixture of relief and disappointment that spread at her announcement. “Each of your teams will be assigned one of these balls during your upcoming exercises. If the ball is taken from you by another team, your entire team is immediately eliminated from the exercise.”
Whispers broke out all over the room at this announcement, as teammates turned to each other to discuss this change, and Elena let the conversations continue for about a minute before turning and nodding towards her colleague.
“OKAY, LISTEN UP!” Silence immediately reigned as the Weapons Instructor shouted. “Match ups are posted at the simulation rooms! These will be three-team free-for-all matches! Your first matches start in ten minutes, so GET MOVING!”
The silence persisted for a couple seconds after Dani finished speaking, then it was broken by a virtual stampede as twenty-six of the sophomores bolted from the room. The last student stood and calmly walked towards the front of the classroom to collect the metal ball from the desk.
“I’m sure everyone else will be back for theirs before the matches start.” Dani giggled at the telepathic comment, and Elena smiled and returned the wave offered by the departing Catalina as the young woman went to join her teammates.
“DAMMIT, MOVE!” Gerard Finne punctuated his order to his teammates with a flurry of rapid force-barrier blasts.
The other two members of Team 3 dashed out from the building where they’d hidden in response to their captain’s command. Jon immediately added his own radiant barriers to Gerard’s barrage, but it was barely enough to slow down the approach of Team 1’s captain.
“We have more incoming!” The Team 4 healer’s shouted warning barely gave his teammates time to adjust their barriers to absorb a wave of energy blasts from the recently arrived Team 7 captain.
The three men found themselves back to back in the center of the simulated street, trapped between the pair of female powerhouses, when Gerard suddenly doubled over with laughter.
“What’s so funny?” The question came in almost perfect synchronous from the now confused girls bracketing the beleaguered men.
“I just suddenly found myself wishing that I hadn’t burned those ‘Team Blond’ jerseys that Jon had made. We had extras, we could have invited you two to join!” Gerard continued laughing, nearly hysterical, as his two teammates joined in with soft chuckles and the two women looked even more confused.
“Did we break him?” The plaintive question from the top ranked student drew more laughter from the three males.
“No, it’s a-…” Alexandra’s revelation was interrupted as the three boys were suddenly catapulted into the air by an invisible barrier, followed by them sliding off over the rooftops on a glowing, yellow-white slide of light.
“They’re going after my team, aren’t they?” Amelia asked the question with a resigned sigh.
“Looks like.” Alexandra nodded sagely in agreement as she watched Team 3 slide out of sight.
“And you’re going to stall me while they try to steal our ball, which will put me out of the game.”
“Nah, Eloise has your ball, they’ll never find her. I’m stalling you here so that Cat can track down the invisible girl and put you out of the game THAT way.”
The two blonde sophomores exchanged a smile before the fight started.
Eloise panted as she paused her sprint through the empty office building and scanned desperately around for her pursuer.
“You could just give me the ball, you know.”
The well-armed, white-haired girl spun in the direction opposite she ‘heard’ the voice coming from and fired a burst of Tara’s specialty mace down the hallway.
“Now that just isn’t nice. I think I’d rather get shot then hit with that stuff again.”
Eloise bit back the urge to scream in frustration as she scanned her surroundings. “You know it’s REALLY not fair when you can find me while I’m invisible, AND make it so I can’t see you!”
“You can see me just fine, you just don’t notice me.”
The white-haired girl tucked that tidbit of information away, then forced herself to go as close to intangible as she could manage as she resumed her sprint. A smile passed over her lips as she felt a brief surge of mental frustration and realized she had narrowly evaded her pursuer again.
“I’m going to catch you eventually you know!”
Eloise just continued to smile and changed direction. Eventually can be a long time, and you can’t beat EVERYONE on our team after all.
The invisible girl tried to focus on the grim satisfaction she felt as Catalina began shouting rude things into her mind. It helped stave off her own frustration, just a little bit, at how helpless she’d been against the telepath.
Tasha Johnson looked up in surprise as a flailing human form crashed through the window next to her and rolled across the floor. The heavily muscled woman leaned up far enough to see if any progress had yet been made in the three way battle, and sighed as the destructive standoff continued.
“They are REALLY going at it, aren’t they?”
Tasha let out a startled yelp and spun around to face the man she’d thought was unconscious, and saw Antoin sitting upright and waving at her. The large woman immediately shifted to a combat stance, but the blond man raised his hands in a surrendering gesture.
“What, you don’t want to fight?”
“Honestly? No. I mean the two of us could beat on each other for a LONG time without getting anywhere. Except you’re a lot stronger than I am, and you can enhance yourself, so I’d be getting the short end of the stick in that fight. Besides, neither of us has one of the damned balls, so there’s not much point.”
Tasha considered Antoin’s speech for a moment, then shrugged and motioned him to come up nearer the window where he could watch the fight from. “I have to admit, I didn’t realize Jon and Gerard could work together so well. It’s still not enough to STOP Ames, but they’re keeping up with both her AND Alex out there.”
“For now, anyways. They’re gonna wear out pretty quick without me out there keeping their stamina up.”
The large woman shot a suspicious glance at the grinning blond. “So you’re going to try and convince me to let you go back out and help, huh?”
“Well, yes and no. I mean, if that was all I wanted I would NOT have had Gerard toss me in here in the first place.” Antoin’s grin widened as a deeply shocked look bloomed on the muscular healer’s face in response. “They way I figure it, this is only a stalemate until Ames wears everyone down, or Tara builds a doomsday device and wipes the board. You can’t get out there on your own to boost Alex because El is out there somewhere to provide covering fire. Cat can’t get too close or she’ll get taken out by Ames even if she can keep everyone else from noticing her.”
“What’s your point?” Annoyance flared through Tasha’s tone at the matter-of-fact tone from her fellow healer describing the no-win scenario her team was stuck in.
“My point is that WE can’t win either. The current situation? Team 1 wins it all. But we can change that!”
“What, we work together to take out Ames and then square off with each other? Why would we trust you guys on that?”
“You have Cat on your team.”
Tasha looked about to argue again, but then stopped and cocked her head as if listening to someone. “Wait, you guys are going to lose to us on purpose?”
“You come out with me and boost Gerard and Jon, they can lock down Ames long enough for me to get that damned ball off her. Team 4 gets credit for beating Team 1. Then we surrender to you guys because, to be honest, this was a terrible draw for us. 1 and 7 are our worst matches, and we have BOTH of you at the same time. This way we get a partial win, and you guys get the full thing.”
“El is still gonna shoot me.”
“I make sure you don’t go down, you make sure I don’t go down, we both make it. Alex shifts focus to Ames long enough to get us a window, and Gerard and Jon can keep her down for a few seconds while I snatch the ball.”
Tasha considered the proposal for several long seconds, her lips actually starting to move a couple of times as if she were conversing with someone, before she finally nodded in agreement. “Okay, let’s do this.”
“That was totally NOT fair!” Tara Warren’s complaint was almost a screech as she joined the other eight sophomores exiting the simulation room. “I was one minute away from finishing the chem-bomb. ONE MINUTE! Maybe less!”
“That’s the way things go sometimes, Tara.” Eloise sounded more exhausted than dejected as she trudged along with the group.
“Yeah, you girls could totally have made a deal with us before the guys did! We would have taken it. Hell, we probably would have taken it even if we would have been the middle team and you got to come out on top!” Catalina’s tone was distinctly celebratory as she joined the conversation.
“The enemy of my enemy is, if not my friend, at least available as a temporary ally.” Alexandra nodded at her own amendment to the old saying as she looked down at the trio of metal orbs cradled in her arms.
“It still wasn’t fair.” Tara huffed and looked down at her feet. “If we weren’t ‘out’ as a team the second you took the ball off of Ames, I could have taken down everyone and picked up all three when it was over!”
“We’ll try to make sure you have enough time to finish your mega-weapon next time, Tara.” Team 1’s captain was in a surprisingly good mood for being at the head of the losing team. “We’ve got plenty more chances for you to really show off your stuff before the finals, so cheer up! We’ll get them next time!”
Tara muttered something that could have been agreement, but continued to stare at the floor as the group made their way up to report to their professors.
“Are you guys sure about this?” Teresa Montez looked questioningly at her two teammates, her expression a clear indicator of her desire to use the crazy plan the two had just presented against the knowledge that it was, frankly, insane.
“Don’t worry so much, my captain.” The heavily muscled hispanic youth smiled reassuringly at the petite teleporter. “We know it is not the most sane path we can take, but wishing to be a Hero is not the sanest path in the first place.”
“It’ll work.” Barry Jeung gripped his two handfuls of ball-bearings tightly as he spoke. “You may have gotten stuck with two of ‘the Doomed Five,’ but we’re not going to let our captain down on the road to the finals.”
“I still think that is a terrible nickname.” Ramón groused at the label automatically at this point, but his reassuring expression didn’t waver. “We can do this, but-…”
A loud beeping throughout the massive simulation room interrupted the tall sophomore, and he glanced up in annoyance. “But our time is up, and we must move immediately when the match begins or we will lose our advantage. Ready!” The last word was a command, not a question.
Teresa spared one more glance at Barry, who simply nodded confidently in response, then placed a hand on each of her teammates. The beeping ended with the loud buzzer indicating the start of the match, and the trio vanished, to reappear several hundred feet above their previous location.
“THERE!” It was Barry that spotted their quarry first, and Teresa followed his pointed gesture to locate their first targets; a rather surprised looking Team 2.
The heavily muscled, and much more durable, Ramón was sent in with all the extra momentum that Teresa could imbue him with, sending the physically powerful Super on a collision course with all three of their opponents. Barry arrived at a more manageable speed, but the immediate dispersal of suddenly soccer-ball sized metal bearings made his appearance the more destructive of the two. Michael and Sean were both laid out in less than a second, never getting a chance to properly recover from the deranged strategy. Ramón was badly injured as well, his course had ended in a collision with the incredibly durable crystalline form of Collin. The powerful shifter regained his balance and started to surge forward, only to stop as he realized it was already too late. Teresa stood over the prone form of Sean Tannen, holding aloft the metallic sphere that had been the exercise’s objective.
“Not bad, but I think it might be one of those ‘short-lived’ victories.” Collin spoke as he shifted back to his human form, looking pointedly at Ramón’s broken arm and Barry’s unsteady legs.
“Even if it is not a final victory,” Ramón pulled his mangled arm free of its sleeve and wrapped it tightly against his stomach with a grimace of pain as he spoke. “It will hardly be ‘short-lived,’ my friend.”
“Come on, let’s get airborne again before Beulah finds us, I’ve got one more of those in me.” Barry winced with each breath, his landing had been far more controlled, but his body was only human in its durability. “Although a horrifying thought occurs to me as we do this.”
“What’s that?” The question came from three mouths at almost the same time.
“Once she finds out how we did this, Louise is gonna make Beulah do it with her for the rest of the matches.”
Seven of the sophomores exited SR-2 quickly, pointedly ignoring the ongoing argument between the two girls lagging behind.
“But we HAVE to try it!”
“It’ll work great! It worked for them, and you can teleport faster than Teresa can!”
“I also have to teleport along WITH you in order to do this.”
“And? You can teleport away before anyone can do anything!”
“Tell you what, we’ll try it; on ONE condition.”
“If you electrocute me while I’m trying to drop you off, I get to drop you in the ocean afterwards.”
“Deal! That doesn’t sound bad at al-…”
“The ARCTIC Ocean.”
“Oh…” The tiny hispanic girl stopped walking for a moment as she seemed lost deep in contemplation. “Okay, still deal!”
Beulah Abbott sighed and blinked forward to catch up with the rest of her classmates, and tried to fight down the creeping sense of dread she felt as she contemplated what their next set of matches was going to be like.
“So, I think we all know how this goes by now. Progress reports everyone?” Dean Jilles leaned back in the conference room chair as she spoke, feeling far more relaxed than she had at the last several of these meetings.
“Nothing much to report on our front.” Mayhem stood and paced behind the group of Street Level Heroes that sat at one side of the table as she spoke. “Now that our foreign technopath is out of the picture, we have some leads to follow up on the actual bomber, but the man is seriously good at playing ghost. We’ve confirmed he has some sort of ability that makes him easily forgettable; possibly a limited Advanced Mind, or something similar.”
“What about the attempt at a purge?” There was a note of predatory anticipation in the Close Combat Instructor’s voice as he asked the question.
“That one is getting easier and easier to track down leads on. We still haven’t managed to trace the money all the way back to the top, but it’s definitely all coming from a single source. We’ve stopped picking up the little groups that are trickling in piecemeal in hopes that larger groups will get us larger leads, and it’s working so far.”
“When do we get to hit them?” If Rachd’s gravelly tone was predatory, the Weapons Instructor’s voice was bordering on feral.
“YOU don’t get to hit them.” Mayhem held up a hand before she even started speaking to forestall Dani’s objections. “This whole thing is scheduled to go down on the last day of the semester, and all of YOU have a job to do that day.”
“We know where they are, we know who they are, and we’ve called in all the backup we’ll ever need.” Brain’d stood and added her own voice to her leader’s. “Don’t forget, this is all tangled back in this bullshit attempt to screw over your program here.”
Dani growled, but forced herself to stay in her seat. “Fine, but I want details when it’s over, and I want to be in on taking down the man behind the curtain. Where the hell is my doppleganger, anyway? I thought I was finally going to meet her today.”
“Perfect Step had to head back to Chicago; she’s technically with the Windy City Sentinels, not Street Level. They just loaned her to us because we needed a relatively tall, female, Subtletly, speedster Hero.” Mayhem grinned as she listed off all the needed attributes. “Honestly, it was a minor miracle we only needed to borrow ONE Hero from another team, and a good thing that she wanted to come help out for some reason.”
“I didn’t hear any promises about getting to be there for the final takedown, Mayhem.”
“Yes, yes; Kitty Style can be the first one in once we’ve tracked him down.” A soft chuckle circled the room at the resigned, placating tone in Mayhem’s voice.
“Any news on our mystery watchers?” Kathryn attempted to guide the meeting back on track.
“They’re still around, though there’s a lot less of them than before. We’ve tracked a couple down, but they’re complete dead ends when we get to them. Someone is going to a LOT of trouble to keep a subtle eye on things around here.”
“No suspects at all?”
“None. No one knows anyone who operates like this. We’re pretty sure at this point that it’s just an interested third party, probably drawn out to watch because of the ‘purge’ rumors floating around. The numbers guy says that whoever it is, they probably don’t have any plans if the good guys win, they just want to take advantage of things if we lose. Opportunists.”
“Not reassuring.” The Focus Instructor spoke up for the first time. “If they are truly criminal opportunists, we must be doubly on our guard to insure they are not attempting to tip the scales further towards a loss, or significant setback, for the Heroes. If they are truly as subtle as they seem, it would not be hard for them to smuggle in a few powerful Supers close enough to unbalance things if the initial purge attempt even comes close.”
“We’re watching them, and we’ve got the Company interested in them now too. Letting things come to a head at all is a gamble, but if we don’t take that risk, we might never find the guy pulling the strings. And if they were willing to try this once…”
“They’ll do it again.” Dean Jilles leaned forward as she spoke again, resolve written on her features. “And next time, they’ll have had a chance to learn from their mistakes.”
“We should have more than enough backup coming in to make this a short battle. There’s a few of the real psychos that will probably have to be put down, permanently,” Mayhem sounded almost cheerful at the prospect. “And after that, the bulk will probably do what they normally do when they know our ‘surrender or die’ isn’t a bluff.”
“We’ll all be on alert, in case things go poorly. Oversight Committee or not, everyone but Laurence can be deployed in an emergency and there’s nothing we can be faulted for on that one. Dispatch will just get to listen in on all the classes’ final exams for a change.”
“I’m pretty sure she’s already listening in. To EVERYTHING.” The completely serious, and slightly afraid, tone of the Weapons Instructor drew another round of chuckles from the room. A bit more nervous sounding than the previous time though.