“Whoever it is, I’m going to whoop some major ass.” Anna Fletcher boasted loudly in the corner of the women’s locker room.
If it was anyone else making such outrageous statements the other women of the HCP sophomore class might take offense, but they all knew Anna, and they also knew she could cash the checks her mouth was writing.
“It will be interesting to see what the matchups are.” Erin answered from her corner in a rare moment of coherence.
Several of the other women around the room didn’t take that as a good sign. When Erin was sane, she was there to play. Angela and Kyoshi watched the friendly banter and minor trash talking from their lockers. The school had changed it so that people on the same team were stationed next to each other. It gave a small semblance of privacy to discuss strategy or any other team related business without the whole locker room overhearing you.
“We have contingency plans for dealing with each team.” Angela spoke softly to the three other women on her team. “But I’m sure we won’t have to wait long.” Her eyes were drawn to the entrance which had just swung open.
“Yep, it’s me again.” Coach Meyers stood in the entryway with an all too familiar grin pulling at her lips. “You’ve got two minutes to finished getting your shit together. Starting NOW.”
All idle chitchat ceased as the women rushed to get into their gray uniforms. It was harder for some woman than others, and Angela knew for a fact it was during time like these where several in her class wished they were a little smaller in the breast department. Sports bras could only do so much against the tight, durable, fire-resistant fabric of the standard HCP uniform.
“Are you ready?” Angela turned to Kyoshi, Fiona, and Natalia individually to gauge their mindsets.
All of them looked confident, determined, and ready to kick some ass.
“Let’s move!” Coach Meyers spun on her heel and marched off. Everyone scurried to follow. She took them on the same path toward the large underground city they’d done multiple scenarios in the previous year. The key difference being that last year was an every-man-for-themselves scenario. This year was all about teamwork.
“Keep your hands and feet inside the elevator.” She scolded when they reached the massive lift that would take everyone down to the subterranean levels. “I’d hate for someone to lose a hand before all the fun starts.”
No one lost an extremity, and the lift slowly descended down…and down…and down.
<We’re definitely below the city.> Angela thought as they finally came to a halt.
The lift opened into another waiting area with big screen TVs scattered around and a large wall sized projection that showed a rough map of several arenas. Angela only got a couple of seconds looking at it before it winked out of existence.
“About time, I thought you got lost.” Coach McMillian was standing with the boys in the center of the room.
They all looked determined, but Angela could see the extra sweat on their brows that had nothing to do with the air temperature.
“Everyone team up. You’ve got five minutes to make any last preparations. Once that time is up the scoreboard will show the matchups and where you need to run. You will have three minutes to get to your starting points. If you don’t make it to that stating point in time you lose. You win as a team and you lose as a team.” Coach McMillian’s eyes were serious. “That is how it works in the real world, and that’s how it works in here. Take care of each other, get the job done, and as always don’t kill your fellow HCP students. You guys have promise, and I’d hate to see you behind bars.”
The teams started to gather when he finished his remarks, and Angela got her full contingent together. “Anything?” She directed her question at Kyoshi.
“Everyone is wondering the same thing we are. Who are we facing? How do we beat them? How does this effect our rankings? What happens if we lose?” She could have gone on and on.
“We aren’t going to lose.” Angela declared, and as far as she was concerned her word was law. “We’re going to be smart, aggressive, and get the job done. Just like Coach McMillian instructed. We all know our roles for a multitude of scenarios. We are a talented and competent team. I have no doubts we’ll have a win under our belt in the next few hours.”
Angela’s pep talk had heads nodded around the group, and Alex Webb was even pounding his fist into his other hand. His body was already starting to swell with excitement. Angela did her best to keep the team focused over the next five minutes. She quizzed them on what their roles would be in difference scenarios they may face, but she’d been too on the nose before. Everyone answered her questions flawlessly. Everyone knew what they were supposed to do. Now, they just needed to know who they were going to be going up against and what role they would actually play in their first team challenge.
At five minutes on the dot the scoreboard illuminated and showed the matchup and where they needed to go. It didn’t give the team a lot of time to think. The starting points varied from a hundred yards to half a mile away.
Angela only needed a glance to get the information she needed. <Team two it is, and we need to go down C corridor for a quarter mile.>
“Plan A, everyone.” She let everyone know just before she took off down one of the four hallways that had just illuminated themselves.
She watched as Jason’s team went down D corridor. The two captain’s eyes met for a split second, and they nodded to each other. If this was going to be a fight, it only made sense for the class’ numbers one and two to go at it again, and it was a fight Angela was determined to win.
A quarter mile in three minutes wasn’t taxing for sophomore HCP students. They made it with a minute to spare, so they started to separate into their assigned roles. Jason’s team was tough, and he’d designed it in a similar way to Angela’s. She’d have her hands full just with Jason if they ever came across each other. Without her to back up the rest of her team they could be in some real trouble. Anika had the traits of Kyoshi and Webb. She could give advanced warning as well as put up one hell of fight. Angela would have to get in the mix, or detail two of her team to take down the multifaceted Super.
Teresa Shaw was also going to be a problem. Her shifting made her versatile, and Angela didn’t know if Webb would be able to take her alone. Liam Garrison and Emilia Scarborough would be a little easier to deal with. She knew Oliver had some surprise in store from the tech department, and if Natalia was able to get either of them in eye sight then it was game over.
Danny was the obvious counter to Natalia. His duplicates could be sacrifices to get close and take her out while the real Danny was nowhere nearby. It would be up to Kyoshi to find Danny and maybe even take him out.
Angela wasn’t overly concerned about Janet Ibsen and her light rope, but she didn’t want to dismiss the girl. That rope had a lot of strange properties that could come back to bite them in the ass.
No matter what the matchups, the linchpin in Angela’s plan was always Fiona. Having a teleporter who could take direction from a telepath and offer unparalleled movement around the battlefield was priceless. That was why Angela had jumped down the rankings to grab her. Knowing her father, and having fought against a monster like Wraith, Angela knew the true value in a good teleporter. Although, Fiona was limited to carrying two people at a time right now, those two people could make all the difference.
“Everyone ready?” Angela took a deep breath as the large steel door opened in front of them. It was ominous enough that she thought a swarm of bats was going to fly out any try to suck their blood.
Nothing did, so Angela took the first step into the waiting darkness. Once everyone was through the opening the doors closed behind them, and they closed a lot faster than they opened. It also swarmed them in total darkness.
<I can fix that.>
Angela reached with herself, grabbed the burning warmth of her power, and pulled. The whole room illuminated for a second as Angela vanished in the brilliant white light and was replaced by her angelic shifted form. Her form had a soft glow to it that helped, but it didn’t penetrate like the white burst of her transformation. Not that it mattered.
“We’re in a giant box.” Fiona sounded nervous at suddenly finding herself trapped.
Angela couldn’t hide her own confusion. It was humid in the confined space, and she thought it was some sort of tunnel leading to a tropical landscape where they’d have to fight dehydration as much as the other team. However, her transformation had clearly showed they were in a large steel box with no exit except the one that had already closed behind them.
<Is this a test?> She wondered.
“What’s that?” Blake was the first to notice the change in the room.
Angela had been so focused on trying to figure out the professors’ tricks that she didn’t even notice water gradually beginning to rise from the floor beneath them.
One of the scariest things her team could imagine was drowning to death in a dark underground chamber, and she didn’t blame them. They scrambled for the walls as the water level continued to rapidly rise. Fiona was screaming as the water reached knee height and it became more difficult to run. Webb and Angela were able to power through it, but when they reached the walls it didn’t offer any relief. They were smooth metal just like the door into this death chamber was.
Angela jumped up and flapped her wings to gain some altitude. The whole room was starting to fill like a giant bath tub, and her team had nowhere to go.
<What’s the point of this.> Angela summoned an energy mace and flew toward the door at the back of the room. She hit it a few times, but it was thick and made of solid steel. It didn’t budge, and she wouldn’t be able to make any headway before the water consumed them all.
“Fiona, can you get us out of here?” Angela asked, but got no response. “Fiona?!”
“She can’t swim.” Webb shouted back. He’d transformed into a creature of white bone and red muscle. It looked like something out of a horror movie, but Fiona was scrambling up onto his shoulder like he was her guardian angel. “What the fuck is going on, Angela?”
For the first time in a long time Angela had no clue what the hell was happening, and that didn’t help things as the water continued to climb.
<They won’t kill us.> Fiona might not have reached that mental point yet, but Angela knew it. <The worst thing that’ll happen is we fail something, but we’ll live.>
Of course, those words offered zero comfort when the water was high enough that they all needed to start treading water to keep their heads above it. Everyone except Angela.
<They’ve got to be feeding the water in from the lake.> It was the only thing she could think of that would allow this much water to be pumped in this quickly.
It only took a few minutes to completely fill the room, and soon even Angela wasn’t able to avoid it. The team huddled together at the center of the room with their faces pressed sideways against the steel top of the room. Angela was still waiting for it to stop before they ran out of breathable air, and they figured that out in the next ten seconds.
Everyone took a deep breath, and water completely filled the room. That was when Angela started to panic. Her energy weapon blazed brightly in the murky water as she bashed it against the ceiling. Like to door it didn’t give, and for a split-second Angela felt a hopelessness she’d only felt once before: when she thought her father died.
That momentary pang of incredible sadness vanished as Angela and the rest of her team were violently sucked through something by some unknown force. She tumbled head over ass against a hard surface for a few seconds. She tried to hold in her final breath, but her head was spinning and she was pretty sure she was about to puke.
Then she felt the greatest sensation in the world: air. She took a gasping breath as she flew through the air, and in that second and a half it took her to realize she wasn’t under her own power she splashed back into the water.
Her eyes adjusted and she looked around frantically to see where she was and if the rest of team had lived. Heads started to surface from the water and she counted off her whole team before she took a breath of relief.
“What the fuck was that?!” Fiona disappeared from the water and reappeared shaking on the shore lined with a small rock beach and beyond that thick coniferous trees.
It looked like the team had been deposited in a pond roughly the size of the room they’d been trapped in. <They refilled the pond and we were just along for the ride.> Angela had a strong urge to punch Coach McMillian in the face, but she’d knew she’d never tag him. The speedster was way too fast for her.
“It was a test. An underhanded and sadistic test, but still a test.” Angela kicked with her feet and took to the air. She stayed low, just above the pond’s surface, to avoid giving away their position.
“Correct Ms. Martin, but I’d hardly say it was sadistic.” Professor Willis’ voice spoke from all around them. “It was a test to see how you handled yourselves under pressure. You did fairly well, better than some but worse than others. Now it is time to focus on the game.”
“Game? What game?” Kyoshi had just reached the shore, and her normal serene face looked pissed.
“The best game ever.” They could practically see the Subtlety teacher’s smiling face. “Capture the flag.”
Out of the ground next to them rose a green flag, about the size of the American flag, but with a big black 1 on it.
“This is your flag. Team two has one just like it. Your objective is to defend your flag while capturing the enemy’s flag. You have three hours to complete the game. Any questions?”
“Yeah, what the hell is wrong with you?” Webb finally got to the shore carrying Natalia on his back. The woman was clearly shaken.
“Nothing, Mr. Webb. The real question is why are you busy asking me questions when the other team is already on the move.” There was no click of the line closing, but Angela was sure the old spy would want to end things on that note.
“Ok,” she controlled her tone to make it neutral and leader-like, but she fully agreed with Webb. “I’m going up to get a lay of the land. Fiona, climb on my back and start memorizing some locations. Everyone else, guard the flag. We’ll be right back.”
It took a little more coaxing to get Fiona onto Angela’s back, but when she did the shifter didn’t hesitate. She sprang into the air and rose above the tree before zipping away from the pond. The last thing she wanted to do was give the enemy team a location on their flag.
From their elevation, Angela was able to make out the boarders of the arena. The sky overhead was some type of screen that displayed blue skies and a slowly setting sun. There was even enough artificial light coming off of the golden ball to make it feel real. The rest of the arena was quite large, more than a mile long and just about as wide. It made a circle from what she could tell, and contained mostly trees. There were a few clearings here and there, along with another two ponds, but other than that it was all trees.
<So much for me being able to scout ahead.> Jason and his team weren’t stupid enough to sit in a clearing and wait to be seen, and it was more than likely that their flag was in the forest somewhere.
“I’m good.” Fiona still looked a little green from almost drowning, but she was quickly pulling it together. “I’ve got enough locations that I think we’ll be…”
A wave of pressure hit Angela light a freight train and tossed her backward. Miraculously, Fiona hung on as they were flipped through the air.
“Go!” Angela called over her shoulder. “Take Webb and Blake with you to the farthest point opposite our own. That’s the best place to start looking.”
Originally, Angela didn’t think much of the muscle mimic’s ability to contribute to a stand-up fight, but after a look at the environment she’d reconsidered. It was going to be tight quarters for this challenge, and although he might not be able to take out a heavy hitter, Blake was skilled at getting around. Angela knew the muscle mimic had thoroughly studied parkour and rock climbing, and she wouldn’t be surprised if tree climbing was in there too. The other Super might very well turn out to be a critical asset during this challenge.
<They’re testing us all in our own way.> She understood as she felt Fiona’s weight disappear from her back. <They take away some of our advantages and make us use our heads. My flight would be the key to this fight without all the foliage, and they want to see how I handle the change.> She was pretty sure she was doing the right thing, but only time would tell.
She regained control of herself and stopped the spin. She dove low to avoid any more blasts from Jason – there wasn’t anyone else who could have hit her that hard from that far away – and discretely make her way back to the flag. Her contribution to this challenge might very well be on the defensive side of the game.
“Oliver, do you have any type of advanced warning sensors on that thing?” She asked when she landed.
“Sure do,” he smiled and produced several camouflage balls from the weird contraption on top of his uniform.
“Take Natalia and set up a perimeter of them a few hundred meters out. I want as much advanced warning as possible.”
“I can do that.” Kyoshi stated as the two Supers rushed into the forest.
“I know you can, but when one Anika jumps us and Jason starts blasting away, I don’t want you to have to worry about keeping track of someone trying to sneak around behind us.” Angela’s request for Oliver wasn’t because she didn’t think Kyoshi was capable. It was because she didn’t want the class’ most powerful telepath have to split their attention six ways when the fighting started.
Kyoshi’s most powerful gift was still the ability to possess a person, and she needed complete concentration to pull that off.
<I just hope Fiona, Webb, and Blake find something.> She was putting a lot of faith in her scouting team.
Twenty minutes passed with nothing happening. Oliver completed his sensor perimeter and returned to watch it on a tablet built into the tech suit he was wearing. He had to get permission to wear it into the trial in the first place, and then they’d been dunked in pond water. Amazingly, everything still worked. It was metal, but not sleek and shiny. It looked like he’d raided a junk yard and cobbled together something. Angela saw hydraulics, pistons, and oddly placed pieces of metal all over his body. She knew better than to ask what all of it did and get dragged into a techie conversation she couldn’t understand. She knew all that she needed to know, and Oliver was no stranger to giving suggestions or showing off his tech; especially to the ladies.
“I’ve got…” Was all the heads-up Angela got before a woman-shaped blur put her shoulder into her stomach and launched her backward.
It didn’t quiet knock the wind out of her, but it certainly caught her by surprise. <Anika.>
Becca’s girlfriend skidded to a stop just short of the pond and rounded on Kyoshi, Oliver, and Natalia. She kept her eyes down to avoid the Natalia’s paralyzing power, which opened her up to an attack. Surprisingly, it was Oliver that ran up and punched her.
Angela instinctually flared her wings to stop her backward movement, and beat them furiously to get back into the fight; so she got to watch it all unfold.
Oliver reared back like they’d been taught countlessly in class. He put his weight behind the punch, rotated his core to maximum effect, and let loose. At the last second before his fist hit Anika’s face his suit reacted. The pistons fired, driving forward some of the mysterious bars on his forearm. By now Angela was close enough to see that Oliver’s fist was wrapped around a small perpendicular piece of metal welded to the bars, and on top of that were some of the most ghetto, badass looking brass knuckles Angela had ever seen; especially since they were probably made of steel instead of brass. With the power of the hydraulics he’d developed into his suit, Oliver hit Anika with machinery-enhanced strength. It caught the other Super by surprise, picked her up off her feet and tossed her a couple of yards into the trees.
“Fuck yeah!” Oliver pumped his other feet as Anika laid there stunned for a moment.
Unfortunately, the victory was short lived. A wave of gas floated over the area as Liam Garrison appeared at the tree line. Kyoshi knew what was coming and dove into the water to swim away, but Oliver, in his super suit wasn’t quick enough. The gas overtook him, and after a brief choking noise he collapsed.
Teresa Shaw stepped up next to Liam as he ended his gas attack. She looked like some type of bear-wolf hybrid. Her jaws dripped saliva as she sniffed the scene. Angela didn’t wait for anyone else to arrive, they were already down a man, and she had a feeling things were only going to get worse. She rocketed back toward the gathered enemy team, but pulled up short. A few flaps of her wings blasted the toxic fog back toward them. Liam was unaffected by his ability, but Teresa’s animal form whined and beat a hasty retreat. Angela made sure Liam did the same by throwing an energy spear at him.
She made sure to blunt the ends, but it would still hurt like a bitch and break bones if he got hit.
“They’ll regroup and be back soon.” She called out to her dispersed team.
Oliver was down and out for the count. There was no word from the scout team, Natalia was coughing like she might have gotten a small whiff of the fog, and Kyoshi…
<HELP!> Rang out in Angela’s head just as she felt a chill pass over her body.
She looked over her shoulder and saw a big chunk of the pond was frozen over, and a hand was stretched toward their flag. Emily Scarborough had snuck around to some side of the pond, out of the range of Oliver’s sensors, and taken a swim. Apparently, she’d run into Kyoshi at some point because the advanced mind was half frozen in ice. The pond was not the place to be facing a cryokinetic.
<I can’t hold her much longer.>
Angela took a look closer as she leapt toward the Super trying to steal their flag. Emilia was struggling to reach it, but shimmering air seemed to surround her arm. Kyoshi was holding the cryokinetic for as long as possible. Judging by the pain on Kyoshi’s face, and what Angela knew of how her telekinesis worked, it was a living hell for her friend.
So she put an end to it. A punch to the gut doubled Emilia over, and an arm wrapped around her neck choked her unconscious in a few seconds.
“Good work, Kyoshi.” Angela offered the visibly exhausted telepath a hand as she used an energy spear to break the ice.
“Th…th…th…thank y…y…you.” Kyoshi’s teeth chattered from the cold.
“Guy’s we’ve got incoming!” Natalia shouted before they could even catch a breath.
Angela heard it as much as she felt it. The ground was rumbling beneath them twice a second, and it was getting closer. Angela jumped into the air to get a better look and didn’t have to go far. The trees were parting about a fifty yards out and moving quickly toward their position.
“Everyone clear out!” She waved as she looped around and back over the pond.
<If somebody wants to try and charge us then let’s see what they’re made of.> She beat her wings furiously to gather speed and summoned a shield in front of her.
She guessed where the enemy would attack and shot toward it like a bullet. She was on target.
Theresa Shaw emerged from the tree line – actually it was more along the lines of destroying the tree line – as some type of elephant-dinosaur mix. She flung the final trees out of the way and charged into the small clearing around the lake. She was headed right toward the flag – with Liam ridding on her back – when Angela hit them.
The concussive blast tossed dirt, rocks, and broken tree limbs outward. Oliver’s prone body ever rolled a few feet from the shockwave.
Angela felt the hit reverberate through her body. She felt her shoulder break, and she lost the mental capacity to retain the shield. She was thrown to the side and ended up taking out a few trees of her own in the process.
Teresa didn’t fare much better. She staggered backward from the hit, shaking her head side to side, before collapsing in a heap. She quickly began to shift back to her normal state, but she was out cold.
Liam fared worst of all. He was thrown from Teresa’s back by the impact. He nearly cleared the whole pond, but landed just shy of the far bank. Professor Livingston appeared out of nowhere to grab him and drag him out of the water before he drowned. Angela wasn’t sure if that was going to count against them because she was seeing stars and having trouble concentrating much less moving.
She had enough wits about her to realize that the only combat capable person they had defending the flag was a frostbitten Kyoshi, and she was huddled in the fetal position of the flag’s base, as Anika advanced on her.
<I’ve got to get back there.> Angela thought, but no matter how much she wanted it her legs wouldn’t obey. She started to crawl, but it was a solid hundred feet, and more people appeared before she made it even halfway.
Thankfully, they were friendly and carrying a big flag with the number two on it.
“What the hell happened here?” Webb had a bit of a limp and looked like he’d been pummeled recently, but he was still up and moving.
“It doesn’t matter.” Fiona stated proudly as she took the other flag, teleported to the opposite side of Anika before she could react, and put it into a second slot. “We win.”
The professors confirmed it a few seconds later and white-clad medics descended on the scene. Angela just transformed back to her human form and walked over to the rest of the team. She wished she could have done more than to charge headfirst into some mythological beast, but it had given the scout team enough time to grab the flag and get back here. Just as she expected, the teleporter made all the difference.
A win for the team was a win for all of them, and that was something Angela could live with.