Chapter 131

              Sasha put on a solid early performance, her speed allowing her to tackle many of the Sims before any of them could raise alarm. Unfortunately, when she had to fight her cluster, which was four Sims two of which had red lights, she was hit by an area attack of energy and sent sprawling. She eventually recovered, but loss of momentum, both literal and metaphorical, cost her dearly. By the time she cleared the final Sim the room was almost entirely rubble and a back wall had been blown out. It was the most destructive result since Roy.

                After Sasha was Jill, who refused to be slowed down by the lack of ability to remotely shut-down her opponents. She accessed the lighting system and the cameras, targeting her opponents one by one, turning out the lights on them, then striking in the confusion. Will had clearly been making upgrades to her suit, seen in the strength of her punches and the power of her weapons. It seemed he’d also added optic abilities, as she had no issue maneuvering in the dark rooms she created. When Jill came into the cluster room, she promptly offered them the chance to surrender, which one accepted, then turned on the same sonic taser Will had used against Alex in the prior year’s matches. It didn’t work on all of them, but enough were incapacitated to allow her to handle the rest.

                No one wanted to follow such an impressive display, but someone had to. The fates chose Terrance Matthews, who headed into the trial with a solemn expression. If not viewed in comparison to Jill’s previous performance, it would have been a decent display up until the end. His shrinking and expanding projectiles worked well on all of the Sims filling guard roles, and he even managed to take out several in the cluster room. When one of the red-light Sims got away from him, sneaking around to the back, Terrance took a seriously blow to the spine that sent him crashing to the ground. The exam was halted as soon as it was determined he was unconscious, and for the first time that day one of the students failed to finish.

                Terrance’s defeat put a pallor over the faces of those still remaining. Thus far the trial had been filled with varying levels of success. He reminded them that failure was a very real, and horrifying, possibility. The room was silent as the jar made its way to Professor Hill, who broke into a grin wider than any administrator should have as he saw the name written on his slip of paper.

                “Alice Adair. You’re up.”

                Alice let out a breath she hadn’t even noticed she was holding and gave a nod of understanding. It would be inaccurate to say she was nervous, with all her training she felt more than confident that she could handle the challenges she’d seen so far. No, what Alice felt was a sort of pre-battle jitters, the kind that come when one knows something should be doable, but is still wise enough to understand victory is never assured. Her brain was running in overdrive, trying to anticipate what unseen alleyway defeat might try to spring from.

                As she and Dean Blaine descended the stairs, she listened attentively to his explanation of the instructions, even though she’d seen over ten people go already. She was hoping for some explanation of how the code word she’d found would play into shutting down the Sims, but none came. That part, evidently, was also for her to figure out. It was okay, she knew there was a way, at least. Will had jumped up to be first on the chopping block without even that much assurance.

                “Do you have any questions before you start?” Dean Blaine asked, standing outside the pair of doors with her.

                A short, harsh bark of laughter slipped free from Alice’s lips before she could stop it. “I’m so sorry; I wasn’t trying to be rude. It just struck me as funny that you’d ask me that, because honest to God my life seems to be nothing but questions these days.”

                Dean Blaine looked at her with more compassion than she’d expected. For the briefest of moments, his professional, detached mask of HCP overseer slipped away, and she could see how deeply he cared for her, for all of the students in his charge. Very gently, he reached over and patted her on the shoulder. She expected a line about just doing her best, or maybe something about trusting in her training. What he actually was quite different.

                “Your mother would have been unspeakably proud of you.”

                Alice jerked her head up, words already trying to rush across her tongue, but Dean Blaine continued right on speaking.

                “Yes, I knew her. She was a wonderful woman who you greatly resemble, and not just in your appearance. I realize that things are confusing for you right now, and I deeply wish I had the power to alleviate that confusion with answers. Sadly, I don’t have them to give, so you’ll have to settle for some advice instead. Never let the uncertainties about your life overshadow the things you do truly know. Your power is incredible, as is your devotion. Your friends would die for you without hesitation, and I suspect you feel the same toward them. Your mother loved you more than anything else in the world, and that’s saying a lot. Shelby was never one who was short on love. In times like this, when you need mental strength, focus on the truths instead of the mysteries; that’s the best advice I can give.”

                “Thank you,” Alice said, pushing back the sudden swell of emotion that had tried to overtake her. “I think I needed to hear that.”

                “It’s what I’m here for. Now go forth and win. The class could use a morale boost after that last unfortunate showing.”

                “It will be my pleasure.” Alice stepped through the door and saw the message on the screen prompting her to wait. That was fine by her, after that little talk she could use a minutes to gather herself.

                Alice forced her heart to stop beating so fast and her nerves to calm down. She brushed away the nagging worries and doubts that had plagued her since last year: Nick, her mother’s mystery, her father’s deceit, the secret man in her dreams. None of those things existed anymore. Not here, not now. Those were another Alice’s problems; Alice the girl, Alice the rich debutante, Alice the Powered. Today, she needed to become a new Alice, one that would be able to bear the burden of idiotic odds and do impossible things. It was time for Alice the warrior to take over, Alice the Super.

                One day, perhaps, Alice the Hero. She opened her eyes and saw and new message on the screen.

                Your course is now ready. You may proceed forward at any time. If you have anything to declare, please do so before exiting this room.

                “Cumulonimbus.” Her voice rang out, loud and strong. For a moment, it confused her; she nearly didn’t recognize it as her own.

                First code accepted. Enter next?

                “No, I think that’s enough. I’ll handle the rest of these the old fashioned way.”