Free For All
The dark haired youth almost missed the tiny slip of paper taped to the outside of the locker room door as he hurried in to get changed for Wednesday's Close Combat class. The non-descript card was hand written and held only the words: 'All 7, Sat 9am.'
After spending the next two hours discovering how poorly his own shifted form stacked up against the truly Combat inclined students in the class, Kyle had nearly forgotten the tiny card until his attention was grabbed on the way out of the locker room; the card was no longer on the door. Great, did one of the concussions just make me imagine it, or am I going crazy?
Unable to stop thinking about the oddly out of place paper, the asian youth barely managed to make it to the topside Overton campus long enough to grab a snack before heading back down into the HCP for his Control class. A hesitant idea to discuss the phantom paper with his teammates, all of whom shared the Control course with him, hardened into a definite plan as he noted an identical card taped unobtrusively to the entry door for the Control students.
Kyle found the Control exercises much more useful to his skillset than the daily beatings in his Close Combat course. Professor Nguyen's teaching style managed to focus almost entirely on practical drills instead of the purely mental exercises that comprised most of the Focus curriculum so far, yet she accomplished it without the constant beatings from Rachd's Combat course. Or from Ranged and Weapons, if the way those classes drag themselves out after their two hours are up is any indication.
With the existence of the mysterious paper definitely confirmed for the young man, he found himself much better able to concentrate on the Control exercise for the day. A fortunate things, as the maze of small hazards and traps that the Instructor was running her students through was not forgiving to those appearing distracted.
“Ms Blake, you are falling behind your classmates again.” The emotionless tone of the professor brought the class's attention to the student struggling the most with the discipline.
”I'll get it, don't worry.” Catalina's mental voice echoed out to the entire class from her place inside the maze, though Kyle was fairly certain that underneath the confidence the telepath was trying to project he could detect the girl's fatigue.
He sympathized with the auburn haired girl's difficulties, finding himself unable to imagine even TRYING to run a course like this while deaf. It was impossible to even attempt to help Catalina out, as to keep the field level the Instructor made sure that none of the monitors displayed any information on the maze for the telepath to glean from her classmates, and since only a single student ran any given portion of the various courses Professor Nguyen created each day, she couldn't gain insight from another student in the same section.
“You're up, Mr Sawara.” Kyle smiled slightly at the still barely present hesitation when the petite Control Instructor referred to him as 'mister.' Many people found it difficult to remember that the shifter was male while he occupied his alternate form.
“A question, professor.” The dark haired woman's eyes registered only the tiniest flash of surprise when Kyle spoke instead of simply heading into the course again. “I'm an illusionist. I get the need to memorize my surroundings and keep a running reference for spatial awareness, but I need a chance to actually use my ability. When are we going to start drills that involve our power more directly?” Say something about Saturday...
“You will have plenty of opportunities to use your full suite of abilities throughout the year, Mr Sawara. For now learning the basics is what we most focus on, and even moreso for a student like you. You may think of yourself as an illusionist first, but with a shifted form that grants even limited flight you must ALSO think of your mobility at all times. Every aspect of your ability, personality, and intellect will have a role in determining what kind of Hero you one day come to be. Don't limit yourself by labeling this early in your training.”
Kyle nodded slowly as he digested the surprisingly long speech from the petite Control Instructor, noting as he did so that she had expertly avoided giving any sort of detail regarding his actual question. As the shifter moved onto the course, he shrugged and attempted to put such reflections out of his mind. I'll just remember to round the team up at the end of class and see what everyone else thinks about those mystery notes.
“So, oh captain my captain, we've decided that it's an announcement for some kind of team exercise.” The lanky dark haired youth leaned back on from the table as he spoke, a note of irritation and something else heavy in his voice. “Have we figured out anything useful yet, like WHERE this mystery exercise will be taking place?”
“Of course we did Barry! We just all got together to discuss that very matter because we felt that we don't see enough of your smiling face.” The sarcastic response from the tall blond male at the table drew a glare from the Korean youth, a long suffering look from the muscular team captain, and a smothered giggle from the blonde girl.
“Sniping at each other is not going to get us anywhere.” Collin looked about at his team and began to wonder if his efforts as a captain were going to be doomed by personality conflict before the tests had even begun.
“Aaron and I promise to stop taking potshots at Barry as soon as he promises to stop pouting.” The speedster gave a serious look to the other blond head at the table, and received a grudging nod in response.
“I AM NOT POU-...”
“YES, YOU ARE!” Aaron managed to interrupt his roommate with enough volume that the shorter boy nearly fell back out of his chair in response. “Seriously Barry, you have been sulking over something since you got picked. In the interest of being able to fucking FUNCTION you need to lay it out on the table so we can all deal with it.”
“Team vote! All in favor of Barry spilling whatever the hell it is that's bothering him say Aye. AYE!” Iris' affirmative exclamation was echoed almost immediately by Aaron.
“We have team votes now?” Collinsaw the two blond members of his team glaring at him in response to the question and immediately added; “Aye.”
“Three Ayes have it, now tell us what the fuck, Barry.”
The shorter boy looked at the attentive expressions all fixated on him, and sighed. “I'm pissed about getting picked last, alright?”
“You didn't g-...” Collin's rebuttal was interrupted by angry shushing from Aaron and Iris.
“Yeah, technically I was picked second to last. You're exact words were; 'I'll take Barry.' Amelia, on the other hand, started fucking celebrating on stage that she got Tara, so it kinda feels like I'M the one nobody wanted. It's fucking stupid, and I'll get over it, so just ignore my whiny crap or have Iris slap me when I start up or something.”
“I am completely in favor of this pl-...”
“Iris isn't slapping you.” Collin interrupted the speedster, and drew a threatening gaze in response before reconsidering his answer. “Iris isn't going to be slapping you FOR THIS. You're on your own with the other stuff.” The blonde seemed much more satisfied with the addendum, and all attention turned back to Barry.
“Look, I don't know what else to do, okay? I can't exactly take this to a therapist, ya know?”
“There's several staff therapists, psychologists, and counselors in the HCP.” Aaron's quick response drew some startled looks from his teammates, as no one else at the table seemed to realize those resources were available. “You guys seriously need to read the intro pamphlet. This stuff isn't exactly a guarded secret.”
“Well now that we've made our way back to the subject of guarded secrets, does anyone have an actual plan on how to figure ours out?” Iris looked around the table and saw no positive signs from either Barry or Aaron. The team captain, however, wore a suddenly enlightened expression.
“Okay, simple plan in two parts: First, we've still got two days of class before this Saturday thing. Who's to say that they won't put up another batch of little cards telling us where to go?” The 'wait and see' approach didn't seem to be gaining much enthusiasm from his team, but Collin pushed on unfazed. “Second, Iris can cover every testing area we're authorized to enter in about ten minutes. If we don't find anything before Saturday we all show up 20 minutes early, Iris scouts, and we all converge wherever the highest concentration of Sophomores is.”
“What if each team is being sent to a different location?” The completely reasonable objection brought up by Aaron seemed to derail Collin momentarily, before he simply shook his head.
“Then we'd better hope there's some clue we'll be able to find before then, or we're screwed.”
“We could bribe Cat to tell us.” The suggestion from Barry was met with shocked looks, followed by laughter. “No, seriously, we cou-...”
“We're not laughing at you because it's a bad idea, Barry.” The speedster was the first to control herself and respond. “It's just such a simple solution and none of us thought of it. It's funny.”
“Anyone know what she'd take as a bribe?” Aaron looked contemplative as he stopped laughing and started really looking at the plan.
“Iris, since she's in a women's dorm you're nominated. Go find out what Cat would except as a bribe in order to help us out.”
“That's a bullshit reason to make me go do it.” The blonde woman gave a mock pout as she leaned back in her chair.
“Team vote, all those in favor?” The three man sounded off quickly in response. “Motion is carried, you've been nominated, Iris.”
“Okay, so maybe 'team vote' was NOT the best idea I've ever had...”
“Good morning, students. Glad to see you all here and eager to go!” The bald man standing on stage of the Ethics lecture hall gazed across the assembled sophomores with a predatory look. “Welcome to your first team exercise, the Free For All.”
The class grew quiet as various groups quickly began assessing the other teams in light of this new information. Team versus team matchups had all been exhaustively analyzed by most of the students, but very few had thought to consider how the dynamics changed when ALL the teams were involved at once.
“That's right! Some variation on the Free For All is Overton's traditional first team exercise for the sophomores! And this year we're using one of my variations!” The cheerful tone accompanied by the red haired Weapons Instructor entering the room caused most of the students to shudder in involuntary dread. All those assembled remembered Dani's 'exercises' from the one week they'd been at the woman's mercy the previous year.
“The name of today's exercise is 'King of the Flag.' As you may have surmised from the name, it involves taking and holding a flag.” The gravely tone of the Close Combat Instructor resumed as the smaller woman made her way to stand beside him.
“We'll be using the main Simulation Room for this one, that's the one you took your freshman midterms in. The layout is just a little bit different than you might remember, some of the buildings needed to be repaired between the damage done during the midterms and the finals.” The highly animated woman skipped over to the wall and pressed a button, causing the overhead projector to display a rough map on the wall. “Each of your teams has a zone, as you can see here. The zones are about two blocks by two blocks, and what's in them varies quite a bit for each team.” There was an audible groan from the audience as Sean Tannen noted that team six was not assigned a zone anywhere NEAR the fully wooded park area.
“The flag will start right here.” Rachd took the explanation back over as he gestured at the map and a red dot appeared in the dead center. "It's out in the open, on top of the same building where your objectives were located last year.”
“Points will be awarded for successfully taking out opposing teams or stealing the flag from an opponent. Additionally you'll get more and more points the longer you can keep the flag in your area! Questions?” Dani looked out eagerly at the assembled sophomores.
“If we're taken out, do we get to come back in?” The calmly asked question came from the team three captain.
“Not quite correct, Dani.” Rachd turned his attention out towards Erin as he continued. “Unless an injury is immediately life threatening you will be left where you land after being disabled. If your team can get you back on your feet, or you come around on your own, you're back in the game. Teams with healers, take note.” The Instructor wore a very serious look as he locked his gaze on Antoin, Tasha, and Kaori in turn. “You will only have a couple seconds to stabilize any critically injured team member if you want to keep them in the exercise. You can complain about someone getting pulled before you can get to them all you want, but it will change nothing. Clear?” The three healers and their team captains all nodded in response.
“Any other questions?” The Weapons Instructor looked bit embarrassed by her earlier incomplete answer.
“Ummm, don't take this as a challenge or anything.” The heavily built Samoan captain of team five stood as he spoke. “But this seems like a really straightforward and non-harmful exercise to have come from Professor Reyes. What's the catch?”
Rachd let out a deep laugh as the red head glared at Rorie. “First, it's Dani. Second, why would there need to be a catch? You just have to get the flag, get it to your zone, and take out twenty four other highly skilled and motivated supers who will be trying to take you down as well!” The Weapons Instructor started to turn and head back towards the projector controls when she stopped herself and looked back at the class again. “Oh, and I almost forgot. The flag will randomly emit a high pitched whistle so that people can find it. It will also occasionally zap nearby people, and sometimes emit a very powerful cloud of tear gas. But not more than once every minute or so.”
The sigh that swept across the assembled students sounded nearly relieved as the Instructor finished her statement. One last hand went up.
“Oh, question! Go ahead Ms Todd.”
“This is a bad idea, Rorie.” The dark haired teleporter looked nervously at her team captain and then ahead to the barely visible red object atop the building they were approaching.
“Probably, but there's also probably a bonus for striking first. Ramón and Louise should be in position to defend our zone. Let's do this.”
Beulah sighed in response to the less than encouraging response from her captain, and the world around the two shattered and reformed. The distant red object now sat directly in front of the pair, and looked nothing like a flag. “Alright, so I guess we-...”
The teleporter was interrupted when her teammate shoved her to the side and threw a glowing ball of energy past her face. The detonation came less than a second later, as the dark haired girl turned just in time to see a tall blond man and a petite Latina disappear in the explosive flash.
“Hi Gerard!” The Samoan called in the direction of the quickly settling dust cloud, the distortion of the other man's barrier already visible. “Looks like great minds think alike!” A rapid flurry of smaller blasts followed the banter as Rorie moved to stand close enough to the nearly six foot red pillar that was apparently the 'flag' for Beulah to be easily able to touch both at the same time. The dark haired girl wasted no time in doing so, and the world around the pair once again shattered.
“Welcome my friends! Good to see you were successful, I saw the blasts and-...” Ramón paused his speech as he noted the thin hazy mist hanging around the red pillar as his two teammates staggered away from it, coughing. “Ah, so the tear gas seems not so bad as it was made out to be.”
“It went off right when we took it, I don't think we brought the whole cloud with us.” Rorie's response was barely comprehensible through the wracking coughs. “I'm gonna be down for a minute.” Behind the team captain, the teleporter had collapsed to her knees, though she was still surveying her surroundings between coughing fits.
“Oh good, we guessed right.” The confident female voice quickly drew the attention of the three present members of team five as a tall, skinny blonde stepped around the corner with a smile. “We figured you guys would be just a little faster than Gerard and Teresa, and we were right.”
The muscular hispanic man had just a moment to realize that Amelia showing herself so dramatically was not quite in character, before the world around him suddenly darkened with a loud *FWUMP*, accompanied by a great deal of cursing from his still coughing teammates.
“You guys will be out in twenty minutes or so, don't worry, it doesn't block you from breathing or anything.” The deep voice of the Tech Brilliance Super who had ambushed the team while they'd been distracted by the appearance of the top ranked student came from behind the group. “You want to get this thing, Ames? I don't want to get zapped.”
The skinny blonde moved forward, and the red pillar obligingly shot out a visible bolt of electricity in response, along with emitting an extremely shrill whistle for a solid two seconds.
“Tingly.” Amelia seemed completely unaffected by the electricity, though she did wince in response to the whistle. Picking up the pillar easily with one hand, she turned to jog away, pausing for just a moment to blow a kiss to the trapped Mexican behind her.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” The extremely loud cry came from just in front of the blonde as the final member of team five leapt from hiding and barreled full force into the seemingly immovable girl carrying the flag. Standing behind his captain, Ty winced and cursed at the incredibly bright flash from in front of him as Louise unleashed her full force in an attempt to drop the top ranked student.
Amelia actually staggered back from the assault, but before the tiny girl could follow up her opponent recovered and gave a swift, short kick that sent the petite Latina spinning away with a wet *crack*.
“Sorry about the leg, Louise. That was a hell of a shot though.” Amelia sounded winded as she turned to motion Ty to follow again, and began to run off through the simulated city towards her own zone. “Hell of a shot.”
“What are we waiting for again?” Teresa peered down from the vantage she shared with her team captain in time to see the top ranked student scoop up another huge piece of wreckage and set it as a barricade against a rain of high powered shots that had all four members of team one pinned down.
“We're waiting for three to make its move.” Gerard calmly scanned the battlefield below them, and rubbed at a large bruise on his arm from where part of Rorie's earlier barrage had made it through his barrier.
“This isn't them making a move?”
“This is Eloise and Scott keeping the most powerful student in the class pinned down to protect her teammates. I'm betting they're trying to move Zach in close enough to take out the blocks that Ames is putting up, and Erin will move in about the same time to sweep the team.”
“And they score points for every second we're sitting here?”
The neatly groomed blond man considered this point. “You think you can get us in and out down there without catching a stray round? I know Scott and Eloise are supposed to be in 'non-lethal' mode, but...”
“Get your field going and we'll have the cover we need.” The complete confidence in the hispanic teleporter's voice seemed to convince her captain.
“Alright, ready when you are.” The distortion of Gerard's barrier swam into existence behind the pair, and Teresa looked to see exactly where it was positioned and then back to the flag before nodding.
With a sudden rush of air, the two members of team four were now inches from the flag, as a pair of shots ricocheted off the shield to announce their arrival.
“FLAG!” The voice of the dark haired Advanced Mind finally grew loud enough to be heard over the din as Michael had apparently been attempting to direct his team's attention to the incoming threat unsuccessfully over the sounds of fighting.
Teresa smiled as she felt the telekinetic grasp wrap around her leg. “Too late Mike!” Gripping her captain tightly with one hand and grasping the strangely pliable surface of the 'flag' with her other, the teleporter closed her eyes in concentration even as she felt herself being spun off the ground. With another rush of air, the pair and their prize were somewhere else.
“Oof!” The dark haired girl landed with a thud as the momentum from the telekinetic attack left her off her feet in her new location. From her new position on the ground, Teresa had just enough time to recognize the prone body several feet away as Susan's shifted form before a concussive blast directly above her detonated with disorienting force.
Rolling over dizzily the teleporter noted the downed form of her blond captain, and a second blond male propped against a wall some distance away. Finishing her turn the dark haired girl looked up into a grinning face beneath a rainbow hued messy hairstyle. “Oh, that is so not fair.” The words barely made it out before a shadow loomed over her and Teresa saw the rapidly approaching, and very large, fist of one Tasha Johnson.
“Dammit, what the hell is he made out of?” The petite blonde fell back a step as she saw her massive crystalline opponent regain his feet and begin rushing towards her once more. It was possible that Amelia's power hadn't been the BEST choice for the mimic in this confrontation, but Alexandra didn't feel confident enough in her control of Teresa's ability to try teleporting Collin away, and the incredibly durable shifter would likely roll right over any other abilities she tried. Kinda like he's almost doing anyways...
The small girl felt her train of though cut off as another breeze whipped past her, a stinging welt was felt on her neck, and Catalina attempted to direct Lisa in another fruitless attempt to stop the team two speedster's hit and run harassment. Already Collin had closed with the blonde mimic again, and Alexandra found her full attention once again focused by the powerful opponent directly in front of her. Approximately three quarters of Amelia's incredible power was proving to be enough to hold the shifter at bay, but Alexandra couldn't figure out how to tap the incredible reserve the top ranked student had dipped into when she defeated Collin the first weekend.
Alexandra cursed as she once again sent Collin flying away, only to be knocked off balance herself by the impact from a massive metal bar that retracted before she could respond to it. Team two had descended on the current flag holders as they were trying to fortify against an impending attack from the ranged-heavy team three, and it seemed their chosen tactic of using Collin as a blunt instrument while Barry and Iris made hit and run attacks was extremely difficult to counter. Tasha had been knocked out on Iris' first pass, and the mimic hadn't had an opportunity to try and bring her team's secret weapon back into the fight yet. There was also no sign of Aaron, though given the lack of arrival of team three as well the petite girl was assuming that he was delaying them.
Deciding on a course of action, Alexandra lunged forward to meet Collin's next assault. Putting the large shifter slightly off balance at the unexpected charge away from her teammates, the tiny girl latched onto her much larger opponent and hurled him away as far as her borrowed strength could manage. Alright, that buys us MAYBE two minutes. Cat, give me a direction!
Instead of words, the blonde girl saw a section of terrain in front of her flash into better focus for a moment. Trusting that it was her teammate at work, and that her plan had been fully digested by the powerful telepath, Alexandra drew both her fists over her head and slammed them down in the direction indicated with all the might she could muster and no hesitation.
The incredible reaction time of Iris nearly allowed her to completely avoid the suddenly destroyed terrain in front of her, but the concussive blast from the massive impact disoriented her slightly. The speedster clipped the edge of the loose rocks and went tumbling, though not badly injured as she quickly began rolling to her feet.
Another flash in Alexandra's field of vision and a large piece of rubble was flung as the petite girl rushed back towards her teammates. Cursing came from Barry as he managed to deflect the heavy projectile, leaving the mimic just enough clear time to seize hold of the power right in front of her and turn it on its owner.
Tasha came awake almost immediately, offering an apologetic smile as she realized she had been taken out, before turning her power back on the mimic that had just healed her. Alexandra smiled widely as she felt the surging boost to her ability rushing in from her amazonian teammate, and reached out to grasp the familiar power of her roommate in an attempt to relocate her entire team AND the flag in one moment. Just before she could attempt her grand exit, the bright red pillar in question launched itself into the air and away from the battle, drawing shocked looks from all present. Standing just behind where the 'flag' had been a moment ago, a short sandy-haired youth waved before raising a hand holding a metal ring in it and flying off into the distance himself.
“Holy shit, Scott can fly?” The shocked mental voice that echoed through the entire Simulation Room drew laughter from nearly all the remaining students. Apparently it was possibly to surprise the telepath.
The bone weary students dragged themselves through the upper levels of the HCP facility in search of the elevators, food, and sleep. Only a few of the most resilient still seemed to have any energy left at all, as the exercise had been allowed to run for nearly eight hours. The exodus paused for a moment, as one of the students at the front stopped upon seeing a large poster situated just to the left of the elevators.
Team 1 – 898 points
Team 3 – 890 points
Team 7 – 840 points
Team 2 – 820 points
Team 6 – 774 points
Team 4 – 772 points
Team 5 – 750 points
“I told you it was a bad idea, Rorie.”
“Yes. Yes you did.”
“Joyce, so lovely of you to drop by.” The large man seated behind the massive desk swiveled to face the extremely angry looking woman that has just slammed the oversized door open. “Won't you come and take a seat?”
The middle aged woman paused for a moment as she realized how close she was coming to playing out an exact reversal of her previous meeting with Patrick, and forced a relaxed expression as she strode into the office and took the indicated seat. “You have some explaining to do, Patrick.” Though she had mastered her expression somewhat, there was still a thick note of rage bleeding through the woman's tone.
“Please be specific, my dear,” Joyce ground her teeth slightly at the teasing familiarity, but held her silence as she was now certain the much larger man was trying to bait her. “It is always best to be specific when demanding an explanation.”
“As specific as you were when you came to my office, I suppose.” The condescending smile the dark haired woman wore to accompany the barb seemed to break through the seemingly serene look on her colleague's face. “Very well then, why are you moving ahead of schedule? We all agreed that there would be no pressure applied to the program until they've relaxed their guard.”
“Ah, so your people finally noticed my little information distribution? I do have to thank you for the idea Joyce. It wouldn't have been possible without you.”
“Please, take all the credit yourself when you explain why you've fucked everything up to Edward. What the hell are you doing, Patrick?”
“Relax, Joyce. I'm not actually doing anything yet. As you demonstrated with your rather incredible data mining operation, the way to get around the flags and alerts built into the system is to operate on an incredibly large scale, at a slow pace, and to make sure there is so much junk data buried in the results that there are dozens of more plausible false positives for anyone sifting through it.”
“You aren't data mining, Patrick.” The woman leaned forward as the earlier rage crept back into her voice. “You are seeding the information that I provided for this endeavor amongst common CRIMINALS. What do you think is going to happen?”
“Well, I would hope that those common criminals decide to act on the information coming through their regular, well used channels.”
“What?” The statement of acceptance apparently caught Joyce completely off guard. “Why would you want that to happen you IDIOT. You think their guard went up when they figured out Roger was taking out hits on active Heroes? You're targeting FAMILIES. They will burn the world down searching for us.”
“Why would they do that, Joyce? Criminals are criminals. Terrible things happen every day, and sometimes through sheer coincidence it happens to the families of, say, students attending a University and participating in the Hero Certification Program.”
“And you think, somehow, they will be stupid enough not to put it together?”
“Joyce, we aren't creating any new criminals. We aren't creating any new data channels. We are simply seeding, amongst THOUSANDS of other bits of data, information that will lead violent criminals to places where their natural proclivities will do us some good. Trust me when I say I have some extremely 'gifted' people doing the math here. They assure me that there's nothing to trace back. Hell, we aren't even creating an increase in criminal activity, just nudging the existing pattern slightly. In the long run we'll probably be making some places safer because when those horrible, terrible criminals DO strike the families of certain people, odds are they'll be taken off the street a hell of a lot faster than they would have with only local law enforcement searching for them.”
“My God, that's insane. The amount of collateral damage you're talking about doi-...”
The large man behind the desk cut his colleague off angrily. “The only collateral damage being done is to the targets WE want it done to. Everything else was all going to happen anyways. There was going to be several areas with a marked increase in crime over the next few months. All I'm doing is aiming it a tiny bit to our advantage. Because all those kids, and their professors, and whoever the fuck else is helping them out? All their attention is going to move away from that little campus, because they'll all be looking for why their families are suddenly vulnerable. And performance will slip, and their guard will be down, and then it will be YOUR turn, Joyce.”
“Edward's already gotten his hands dirty. I've proven more than once that I don't mind a little blood under the nails. Even Lee and Harvin have proven they're in this all the way. All you've done is throw some money around and set up a, admittedly impressive, data mining op. So once my plan bears fruit, it's your turn Joyce. You don't get to stand on that pedestal and look down at the rest of us anymore.”
The dark haired woman met the condescending look from the large man across the desk with an intense expression of hatred that forced him to blink in surprise. “Very well Patrick. Assuming your insane scheme doesn't blow up in your face and see you joining Roger in the ground, I'll take care of the next step.”