Chapter 68

                It was the same city where they’d taken their first exam, yet things were different. New prop buildings were constructed of various heights, altering the view, and roads that had once branched off in certain directions now went entirely different ones. In some ways, this was worse than going somewhere utterly foreign, as the desire to lean on memory caused the students to mistrust their locations. Ultimately, this resulted in no more than a few seconds of hesitation for every team, but all of them were well-trained enough to know how precious those moments might turn out to be.

                “We’ve got a group up ahead,” Alex said, waving for the others to follow him. Given the spread out situation, the class had agreed on a divide and conquer method. Each team would make its way around, suppressing whatever rogue Sims they could find. The scenario was too volatile to risk working as one massive unit, even if it did make things more dangerous for individual teams. Luckily, between Alex’s ability to sense objects and Amber’s echolocation, information was relayed across the comms and teams were sent toward their nearest targets. So far, no one had engaged yet, or at least not mentioned it if they had. Sooner or later though, that would change.

                “Can you tell which ones are civilians?” Vince whispered. He was keeping close to Alex, as was Roy, in case anything took him by surprise. Mary and Alice hung back, ready to unleash hell on whatever attacker didn’t have the sense to bring them down first.

                Alex shook his head. “There are some huddled up in nearby buildings, I can’t get a read on the group though. Some of them are destroying stuff, but they all feel about the same size. Maybe these are new models.”

                “Well, no one has been nearly killed in a while, fresh robots seem par for the course,” Alice muttered.

                With no warning, Alex came to a stop, holding up his hand. “I don’t know if they heard us or not, but they’re coming in this direction. We’ve got maybe thirty seconds before they get here and we lose what little chance of surprise we might still have.”

                “Attention team.” This was a new voice, one they’d never encountered before. It was crisp, female, and with a slight accent that none of them could place. Before they could ask who was talking, it continued. “I am serving as your DVA relay for this exam; you may refer to me as Dispatch if you need to communicate directly. Right now, I’m here to alert you that the units approaching are all confirmed to be escapees from the prison transfer truck, ones with multiple murders on their records. In this engagement, you are to neutralize the targets as fast as possible. Lethal force is authorized, and recommended.”

                “Don’t suppose you’d care to tell us what powers they have,” Roy asked, not actually expecting an answer.

                “Two strongmen types, one energy blaster, one obfuscator, and one acid manipulator.” Dispatch didn’t even hesitate, reading off the abilities at a pace so brisk it was like she’d already had the information in her hand, just waiting for a chance to use it.

                “Wow. I could get used to that,” Roy said.

                “Don’t. Knowledge of enemy abilities is usually limited, and full run-downs are rare,” Dispatch cautioned.

                “Guys, they’re getting close.” Alex pointed to the corner of a nearby building, evidently the only thing keeping the Sims out of view.

                “Given that grouping, and no civilians in sight, we’re probably best off going in hot,” Vince said. “Roy and I will lead the charge around, and I’ll drop an electric blast to knock out the three without enhanced endurance. Alice and Mary can swing around to mop up anyone who survives the first charge, while Alex leads aid to anyone who’s having issues. Objections?”

                Even if they had some, there was no time to voice them, as now even those without Alex’s senses could hear the approaching footsteps. Waiting only a moment for anyone to pitch new ideas, Vince took silence as agreement and tore off running toward the building’s corner. Roy was behind him by only a few steps, trying to keep a little distance between himself and the impending blast. After years of training together, Vince knew that he couldn’t take down Roy without concentrated effort, but an attack was still an attack, and with Camille elsewhere in the city they needed to minimize damage as much as possible. Especially given that Vince was going to try and drop all five with the first strike. They’d been given the clearance, and if he could bring the Sims down fast it would minimize chances of civilian involvement, plus allow them to move on to the next group and help the other teams.

                All of that was on Vince’s mind as he rounded the corner, electricity already sparking from his hands, yet it was washed away the moment he laid eyes on his opponents. These were not the big, bulky Sims with the faceless heads, exaggerated appendages, and intimidating design. No, what stared back at Vince, blinking in what had to be simulated surprise, looked like a group of people. People wearing tattered white prison jumpsuits, sure, and one with his hand pressing against a wall, dripping green liquid that burned through the fake building’s exterior, but still… people.

                The electricity faded as Vince’s resolve faltered. He’d run in ready to destroy a group of robots with no second thought, because he’d allowed himself to forget one of the basic truths of what they were learning: the robots were just stand-ins. When it came time to do the real work, it wouldn’t be Sims he was “neutralizing”. It would be living, breathing people.

                Behind him, Roy pulled up short as well, caught off-guard by the unexpected opponents greeting him. All told, they probably only lost a few seconds due to shock. But it was long enough. A man near the back of the group, with dark hair and impossibly realistic facial scars, took a deep breath and then blew. From his mouth poured a tidal wave of fog, washing over Vince and Roy first, then spreading over the rest of the team and nearby landscape before anyone could react. It swallowed the whole terrain, leaving them functionally blind as neither could see more than an inch or two in front of their face.

                It was only in that moment, suddenly cut off from their sight, that they realized perhaps they should have asked Dispatch for some clarification on exactly what an “obfuscator” was.