Chapter 29

                Unlike the usual system of elevators that calmly dropped them off into training fields as a group, this time the seniors were shown to a room with five metal tubes that all sported heavy latching doors. One by one they were put in, and no sooner had the door closed than the ground under them began to fall, not so fast that they were left hanging, but with a steady speed that whipped them further down into the facility, taking corners and turns that occasionally let them see the edges of tubes branching into other paths, before finally coming to a halt. There was no sudden burst of light, only more cold metal wrapped around them. Some of the students might have broken their way free, out of fear that things had gone wrong, if not for the soothing voice of Dean Blaine whispering through the comms in their ears.

                “Please remain calm and wait until all other students are in place. Once everyone is positioned, your tube will open. At that point, please consider the exam to have officially begun.”

                The wait was worse for some than others, those who’d been first in the tubes had to wait as four more loads were scattered out across the unseen battlefield, left with nothing to do but stare at the metal walls and wonder what was going on outside. Time seemed to stretch as anxiety and excitement battled in each Super’s heart, the desire to prove themselves mixed with the fear of falling short. Finally, new words came in Dean Blaine’s calm voice.

                “All students are in place. The exam begins now.”

                And with that, an nearly invisible seam in every tube parted, giving the students their first glimpses of the stunning scene that awaited them.

*             *             *

                Vince’s eyes were wide as he took in the battlefield, more struck with awe than fear. He’d seen lots of impressive artificial landscapes in the world beneath Lander: forests, warehouses, even miles of sprawling outdoors, but this somehow trumped all of them. This wasn’t merely buildings clustered together to replicate what combat inside a town would be like.

                No, this was an actual city, or at least several blocks of one. Streets, bike lanes, newspaper stands, postal boxes, all of it was present, right down the bright stars twinkling above them in the artificial sky. It was like Lander had vanished, suddenly plunking him down in the real world. The sound of movement to his left snapped Vince from his appreciation of the surroundings, and he whirled around with lightning already dancing in his fingers.

                Roy held up his hands and waved them, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Just me, Vince. My tube let out nearby and I heard someone moving around.”

                “Sorry about that, still getting my-”

                “Comms system test. This is Will Murray. Does anyone have eyes on the Sims yet?”

                Vince jumped a bit at the voice, this one was a lot less soothing than Dean Blaine’s, but quickly scanned the area to see if he could spot any Sims. None were in the range of his eyes, so he was about to search for their energy signature when more noise came busting through the comms.

                “Alice here, and I can make out three behind a red building. No civilians nearby, but they’re a little suspicious. Not fighting, just hanging out. I think it might be a trap.”

                “I’ve got six pummeling each other over around… um… I guess there’s a pet shop. Oh, this is Allen.”

                More reports came in, and with each one Vince realized they had a serious issue. No one knew the terrain, and the few who could offer street signs as markers couldn’t tell anyone how to reach them. It was a serious hurdle, but one they’d doubtlessly be facing if they made it past graduation. Heroes were sent where they were needed, teleported in to stop crimes all over the country. There were bound to be countless instances of having to navigate an unfamiliar town, and that was assuming they even had the luxury of street signs. The class needed to find a way to pass along actual coordinates, or they’d spend the whole exam fumbling about, hoping to find a situation where they were needed. Vince racked his brain, but came up empty. Luckily, at least one member of the class had spent most of her life navigating without the luxury of roads or signs.

                “Everyone, look up to the sky,” Mary’s voice ordered. “Those stars aren’t just here for ambiance, they’re tools for us to use. There’s a bright star toward one end of the sky with three lesser ones framing it. Find it now.”

                Vince scoured the heavens and quickly located the cluster Mary was talking about. It stood out a bit more than the others, though he wasn’t sure he’d have noticed it if he weren’t looking. Slapping Roy on the shoulder, Vince pointed up, and the larger man gave a nod. He saw it too.

                “As of right now, that star is north,” Mary continued. “Build a mental compass centered on that fact, and give all your instructions in terms of directions. Alice, what’s the location of the three Sims that you think are lying in wait?”

                “Uhhh. One sec. Okay, they’re to the southwest, near the edge of the city,” Alice said.

                “This is Shane, I’m pretty close to that area, I can back you up.”

                Checking his location, Vince realized that he and Roy were to the northwest, probably not to far from Alice. He was about to offer to head over as well, but Roy beat him too it.

                “Hang on, Shane. We can’t just pick them off as we find them. This one spot at a time shit is going to take forever,” Roy said. “It’s a gang war scenario; they’re going to be clustered up or in hiding. We need to know where the biggest chunks of their forces are so we can properly deploy. Chad, you have that listening skill that lets you find people, and Vince can…” Roy trailed off, shaking his head and blinking quickly. “Sorry, lost my train of thought.”

                “That’s okay, I was about to hi-jack it anyway. This is Amber, and while you boys might be good at listening and locating, you got nothing on me. Listen and learn, because some of us spent our summer fine-tuning the lost art of echolocation.”

                For a moment, Vince thought he heard a high-pitched whistle, but when he tried to focus it was gone. Evidently it had been enough to do the job, and Amber’s voice came back on the comms, so smug it nearly was dripping through the earpiece.

                “We’ve got a lot of Sims, folks, so I hope everyone came to play. In the direct south seems to be where most of the fighting is concentrated, with around eighteen of them battling it out. To the northeast is another cluster, this one under a dozen, and south of them is the third fight, the one Allen was reporting on. There’s also Sims spread across the city at random intervals, probably meant to charge in if they spot us. Also, every place I’ve mentioned so far has civilians, most of which are cowering near the fights, so nobody go in dropping area attacks.”

                “The scattered ones are a problem, but those fighting pose the biggest immediate threat,” Chad said. “We need to neutralize those as soon as possible. Heavy damage and endurance go to the biggest fight. Those who are purely damage, handle the second smallest one north of Allen, and put it down quickly, then sweep downward to the one with only six. Anyone near that fight, jump in and keep it contained until the damage dealers show up. Everyone with abilities that can move civilians, pick a fight and go start evacuating. Let’s move, now.”

                Vince and Roy both began to run, though the latter seemed to still be a bit removed.

                “You okay?” Vince asked.

                “Yeah… I’m good. Just sort of distracted, for some reason. Like, do you think this is actually the best way to take on the Sims?” Roy asked.

                “I think it’s better than arguing, and we all know I don’t have a head for strategy in the first place,” Vince admitted.

                “I guess me either.” Roy shook his head one more time, then doubled down on the pace. “Come on; let’s go focus on what you and I are actually good at: kicking ass.”