Chapter 38

Monday morning found the sophomore students gathered in the gym, working hard to downplay their nerves and project auras of confidence. It worked about as well as a pigeon pretending to be a peacock, but since everyone was so inwardly focused, few took notice of the others. All of their professors, along with Dean Blaine, were gathered at one side of the room, speaking quietly. Soon they would break apart and the match would begin. Until that time, all that was left for the students to do was sweat.

Nick adjusted the knapsack on his shoulder. It was so heavy that the strap kept digging into him. He doubted he would be allowed to bring all of his supplies into the test; however, it hardly made sense to have a Weapons course and disallow the use of all of them in combat possible situations.

The others prepared in their own ways. Mary was quietly listening to all of those around her, Vince was stretching, Roy was downing additional whiskey, Alex was doing some weird breathing thing, Camille was glancing around nervously, and Alice was twisting her hair around her finger. At least the other teams were showing similar tells of fear and uncertainty. Nick noted that, predictably, Chad’s team seemed the most secure. He was glad they weren’t facing the blonde boy’s battalion today; it would have been such a swift loss he doubted it would even qualify as a match.

“Listen up!” Professor Fletcher said, stepping forward as the administrative crowd parted. “In a few minutes, we’re going to take you down to the levels where you will be facing each other. The events will occur simultaneously on different floors, and we will be monitoring both closely. Before we depart, I’m going to go over the rules.”

If one were so inclined, they could have listened closely and actually heard tensing of muscles and crackling of bones as the students leaned forward to hang on Professor Fletcher’s every word.

“Today’s match will test both your combat and strategic skills. As such, we’ve opted for an activity that allows the use of both, depending on one’s technique. You’ll be playing a simple game of Capture the Flag.”

Not one student was so stupid as to believe there was anything simple about the game they were about to play.

“Now, obviously you won’t be eliminating one another with flags or paintballs as that would be too easy. No, if you want to take a player out of the game, you’ll have to physically incapacitate them. Be careful; while broken bones and concussions are easily mended, anyone using intentionally lethal force will automatically be disqualified. Not only does your team lose, but I can assure you we will be taking a hard look at whether or not any violators of that rule belong in the program. Beyond that, the rules are simple: all you have to do is grab the other team’s flag and you win. I know that normally there is a component of returning it to your own base area; however this game is a bit more sudden-death style.”

The students looked at their teammates, eyes silently trying to convey ideas and tactics before such communication was feasible to transmit covertly. Every second counted; that lesson they’d already learned from their time at Lander.

“As to how you obtain the flag, that is entirely up to you. Fight the other team, sneak past them, trick them, do whatever you like. The team can defend the flag however they see fit, but they aren’t allowed to intentionally move or touch it in any way, so the flag’s location is a constant. If you win, all that matters is the results. If you lose, well, then we’ll examine the mistakes you made and who was responsible for them. Something to keep in mind. So, any questions?” Professor Fletcher asked in closing.

A myriad of hands flew into the air, each stretched as far as the muscles and bone would allow.

“Good. Hopefully you find your answers in the thick of the action,” Professor Fletcher said with a grin. “All right, everyone, follow me.”

*    *    *

“You have got to be kidding me,” Nick said, his eyes taking in the lush landscape spread out before them. If they hadn’t just taken the lifts down several levels he would have sworn they were back outside. Rolling hills, thick clusters of trees, even a brook that could be heard in the distance. Someone had even gone to the effort of painting the ceiling varying shades of blue to give the effect of a genuine sky.

“It is very impressive,” Mary agreed, her own amazement more subdued.

“I am seriously beginning to wonder just how many floors down this whole complex really goes,” Alice speculated. “And how it can possibly be structurally sound.”

“Given that they have access to some of the most powerful Heroes in the world as alumni, I’m guessing they may have pulled a few fast ones on physics to make this happen,” Nick said.

“No matter how they did it, it’s amazing,” Vince said in awe.

“Yeah, super nice. You do remember we need to get to our flag before the match starts, right?” Roy asked pointedly. He had never been much  for appreciating the beauty of the world around him, unless of course said beauty involved long legs and an amply curved chest.

“Roy is right,” Mary said. “We need to do less gawking and more hustling. Once the starting bell sounds if we aren’t in location we can’t very well protect our flag.”

“I can fly up and scout ahead,” Alice offered. “I’m sure that will be easier than using the map.” Professor Fletcher had dropped the teams off in different areas, giving both team captains a small slip of paper that contained instructions on how to get to their flag then had headed off with the other two teams to another floor. Mary had taken one glance at the parchment and immediately plotted their course.

“I’m actually pretty good with wilderness navigation,” Mary replied. “Besides, right now we don’t know where the other team is, only the direction they left in. Depending on how close they are, it’s possible they could see you in the air and get an idea of our location.”

“Oh yeah,” Alice said, a smattering of dejection in her voice.

“Of course, that’s only while we find our own spot. You’ll be absolutely essential in helping us track down their flag,” Mary continued.

“Right,” Alice said, perking up. “No worries, you can count on me.”

“So glad you two could have this heart to heart; now, unless my eyes deceive me, I think I see a red strip of fabric waving at us through the trees,” Nick pointed out.

Mary saw the flag too and paused briefly before heading forward. She turned back and took a hard look at her team. They were nervous, excited, scared, and unwavering all at once. There was also one trait that shone through in all of them, and that was determination. They knew odds weren’t exactly stacked in their favor and that no one was rooting for them to come out on top, yet staring into their eyes, Mary could tell they’d do everything they could to win, odds be damned. Despite what Nick might think about their capabilities compared to other ensembles, at that moment Mary wouldn’t have traded any one of them, not even for Chad.

“All right, team, stick to the plan, follow instructions, remember the flag is the primary objective, and do your best,” Mary encouraged.

“That, and make sure you kick the ass of anyone you come up against,” Roy tacked on.

Mary gave a gentle smile. “Yes, that, too.”