For a precog, the Gym Final briefing meant waiting forever.
Alley had risen early on the last day of classes and, after taking her morning meds in the privacy of the shop, had rustled up a good breakfast for everyone. One by one, they rose from the grave of finals week.
Jia had been the first one downstairs, no surprise from Sunrise there. Things were still awkward between them. Oh, the gorgeous Chinese girl thought she’d been all righteous and Christiany in ‘forgiving’ Alley. Jia hadn’t taken it very well when Alley pointed out she hadn’t actually wronged Jia, since Alley’s sex life was her own business and Jia had no actual relationship with Dani to begin with. At most Alley had arguably sinned against God but not believing in God meant she didn’t really care. Like a lot of religious people, Jia seemed to think Alley played by her rules. They still hadn’t quite worked out where to go from there.
At least things were good with everyone else. Mostly. Finn and Amara were their nauseatingly affectionate selves. Nate was glum but then as far as Alley knew, Julie hadn’t spoken to him since the revelation. She only lurked in the fringes, occasionally let her best friend Jia talk, and glared at Ginger. As if it was the redhead’s fault the Ringmaster had headwhammied her.
If things weren’t so nuts, Alley would have settled out these issues already. But she still hadn’t figured out what to do about her mother being the Fortune Teller, a ‘reformed’ Villain who was still loyal to the Ringmaster. Major Isaiah Diaz had taken the report of that news about the same as the surprise that the Ringmaster had influenced Julie. In other words, no reaction beyond ‘maintain your cover’.
And then there was Dani.
“I see you’re all here. Good. We’re ready to begin.”
The booming voice of Professor Paul Matthias filled the training gymnasium that the Freshman class had spent the last few months torturing themselves in. Paul was a big man, not hefty in the sense of fat but burly in the sense of being seemingly made of huge slabs of muscle. His blunt, heavy features suggested a professional wrestler or perhaps a professional thug. Looking at him was always a bit surreal, though, because he was unfailingly dressed in suits that could buy a car, silk ties, handsome vests and black shoes so polished she could check her makeup. Professor Matthias enunciated everything he said with a crisp, surprising clarity that made him sound slightly stuffy. That didn’t fit his looks either.
“I’m sure the Dean explained the rules,” Professor Glee added. She wore a black costume stripped with silver, complete with a cowl that left her mouth just barely visible. No effort at peering beneath the hood had ever succeeded thus far.
What did Glee look like, anyway?
Alley concentrated. 42 versions of herself tried at various intervals of seconds over the next five minutes to just walk up and look, all of whom failed. Alley 43-70 tried to sprint for it, with Alley’s 71-112 trying to use force. Alley 113 staged a fight with Finn and managed to get herself knocked back into Glee’s grasp at which point she reached up and shoved the Hero’s cowl off, exposing a woman in her forties with grey-streaked auburn hair, cutting grey eyes and a faint scar bisecting her left eyebrow.
At which point Glee 113 hauled Alley off to the Dean and was facing memory erasure by the time her window snapped shut.
Undeterred, Alley 114-472 each pulled out their smartphones and tried to guess usernames and passwords for various FBI Agents before Alley 473 finally found one. 474-490 spread out in searching through their permissions, with 490 finding software that allowed someone to input descriptions and pull images of just about everyone in the United States. Since she couldn’t actually get a picture (and survive the experience), Alley punched in ‘auburn hair’, ‘grey eyes’, ‘left eyebrow scar’ and found 9,072 possible matches. Allowing each future Alley thirty seconds to log in, with another minute written off with token eye contact to avoid constant interruptions by the professors, Alleys had about 210 seconds to work with. Taking a second per face, Alleys 474-518 subdivided the work, leaving Alley 519 to pull up Erica Ritter’s scanty, nondescript information like her home address, her public transcript from Lander and pictures of the housewife outside her husband Thomas’ real estate business with their two teenage kids, John and Alice.
“Huh,” the real Alley murmured to herself. Then, smirking slightly, she tuned back into what the real Professor said.
“I mentioned a few months ago that the top five ranked students of each gender automatically go into Combat Training, while the bottom five join me in Alternative Training. This Final provides a last chance to escape those automatic placements; exceptional performance…or exceptionally underwhelming performance may give you the option of moving from one to the other. …Alley?”
Alley put her hand down and indulged in a single check on what would happen if she called Glee by her real name. Yep, memory erasure. Bitch. “Can we choose?”
“No. Wait, what?” Alley couldn’t see Glee’s eyes beneath the cowl but she could practically feel the glare. “You’re the first ranked…you want Alternative Training?”
The two Professors exchanged looks. So did the rest of the Freshman class. Finn jabbed her in the ribs and said quietly “Someone’s gone off her trolley today, haven’t they?”
“I’m keeping my options open, English.”
“Just complete the Final,” Professor Matthias rumbled at last. “Successfully. We will be monitoring all individual performance. If there’s any evidence of deliberate underperformance…”
“Oh, I always perform,” Alley interrupted. “Fine, we’ll talk later.”
Wary of future interruptions, Matthias just reached into his pocket and produced a thin black rectangle, much like a remote. With the press of a button, a hole about the diameter of a person opened up in the exact middle of the gymnasium. Stepping away from it, the big man seemed distinctly like a butler admitting them into the secret entrance to Batman’s cave. Or the guy about to fight James Bond.
“Remember,” Professor Matthias said, straightening his tie. “Capture the flag. A touch primes the disc but you need sixty seconds to claim an unclaimed flag. Taking someone else’s flag will take a second for every second they touched it. Capture as many as you can, hold one as long as you can or eliminate as many other students as you can, they’re all legitimate tactics. But no lethal tactics. Other than that, these are the only rules. Let’s go!”
“Team,” Alley said, low enough that the others didn’t hear her but loud enough for the Lambert Acres crew alone. Heads swiveled towards her. “It’s capture the flag. Let’s team up. English, Amara, you’re on flag capture since you both have ranged powers for fending people off while you commit. Ginger, let’s see if you can’t get top camper by picking the first one you see and holding it. Sunrise, you and me, we’re Close Combat and wasted just taking flags. Let’s focus on kicking ass and eliminating everyone else. You guys game?”
Looks were exchanged. Finally Amara said “…Can we do that?”
“You heard the Professor. Those were the only rules. No rule says we can’t team up.”
“And when we’re the only ones left?” Finn said, his voice quiet, sensitive to the nearness of the rest of the Freshman class.
“Anyone who isn’t a shoe-in for Combat Training want in?” she asked, looking around the circle. “Hands?” Slowly, Amara raised hers. “Great. She gets to cap all of us then.”
“What about our rank?” Jia hissed.
“C’mon, Sunrise, you really think our rank is going into our permanent transcript? You think four years from now whoever we intern under is going to look at our first year performance and say ‘Oh you weren’t second, you were third, nope, not going to take you’? Seriously? It’s Amara. She’s one of us. Take the hit. It’s not like you’re not going to kick all our asses during the end of the year final.”
Amara let out a high-pitched squeal of excitement. Finn grinned. Nate scratched the back of his head but came up smiling. At last, Jia nodded once. “Alright I’m in.”
“Not yet you’re not.”
The five students turned as one, only now realizing they were the last ones left to go. Alley probed the future and swore under her breath. The drop would take three minutes in utter blackness and at least two minutes of standing in a small square featureless cell. No way of getting intelligence on the arena in advance.
Excitement flared. Or maybe it was the drugs. Either way. “E tan e epi tas!” Alley yelled. She laughed in the faces of her startled teammates and charged the circular hole in the gym before diving headfirst down it. It looked spectacular but she tucked into a ball and rolled so she was feet down immediately once she was out of sight, using future Alleys to tell her when the walls of the chute closed in.
The free-fall was exhilarating. Alley hit the bottom of the chute at last as it sloped into a slide. Unlike the sane students, she promptly spun herself up and around the circular sides until it deposited her in the blank holding cell. Hitting the wall with an audible thump, Alley fell backwards on the floor of the dark holding area and just laughed.
Then she sighed and rolled back to her feet as she concentrated, probing the future for outcomes. A major complication had just cropped up, one that would definitely get in the way of her thoroughly vetting the arena futures. Eh. What the hell, it was only capture the flag. Sizemore Tech was twice as hardcore as West Private anyway and, with the Lambert Acres Crew in her corner, this was a shut in.
So she just waited. After another half minute, she stuck out her foot. And seconds later, Danielle Wyngarde phased out of the wall and tripped over her foot, sprawling against the opposite wall.
Alley instantly pinned the other girl with her knee. Then she chuckled as Dani shifted insubstantially and stood up through her body.
“Good try. Great tactical thinking. How many have you eliminated?”
“Two,” Dani said, seething with rage at the sight of her. “Why?”
“It’s a fair question,” Alley said, not bothering to squelch the reluctance to talk about this with the silver-haired girl. “Let me save us the time and hit everything you’re going to ask. I was upset for reasons I can’t explain and I needed comfort and you were there. Despite you being a bitch to Jia, you’ve really stepped up your game this semester and I’m a sucker for a gorgeous face, those white eyes and that beautiful ass.”
Dani flushed hotly even in the dim lighting of the cell. “W-”
“I know,” Alley cut her off. “We fucked and Jia caught us and I was a bitch to you and I’m sorry for that. I can lie six ways to Sunday and spin you any direction I wanted but we’re about to hit our first final so let me level with you. I don’t love you. You’re nice and I like you, even respect you on top of the lust. But that’s not what you’re looking for and you know it. You don’t know how you feel given I’m a girl but what you’re feeling is heading in a direction I can’t follow. I lost the love of my life a couple years ago and I’m not nearly healed enough to be any kind of a girlfriend to you, not for a long time. So I’ll tell you what…”
Alley stuck her hand out. “Friends? I mean, I expect you to try beating the shit out of me and my peeps right now but, after, friends?”
“Argh!” Dani wiped tears from her eyes and glared furiously. “You are a girl, why am I so upset over this?”
“Because you’re awesome and you know we’d be awesome together,” Alley said, grinning. “Don’t worry. You have more awesome coming in your future. Better awesome. I promise.”
“You’d better,” Dani said and at last took Alley’s hand, shaking it.
“I do. Now-”
Alley froze then as she finally had enough breathing space to concentrate on the future. What she saw took her breath away, literally locked her up for several seconds as a hundred, as a thousand Alleys experienced a thousand permutations with a singular theme. It was impossible.
No. Not impossible. Impossible if the future was coincidence but it wasn’t. It was a setup. They were set up. And God help them all, Alley had no idea if she could see them through it.
Dani had just enough time to tilt her head quizzically and open her mouth to ask a question. As expected, something suddenly changed in the other girl’s expression. And a hundred Alleys punched a hundred Danis, giving the real Alley the chance to pick the one with the surest knockout and the least damage. She drove a fist right under the other girl’s chin so hard the silver-haired girl’s brain shut off. Dani dropped hard, thumping gracelessly to the floor.
Thirty seconds later, the cell door popped open. Alley charged the arena full-tilt, a yell already in her throat.
It was an endless expanse of darkness, five stories in height with intermittent panels one could use to climb, jump or fly to higher levels. The only light in the night, not including a dozen hypothetical Amara’s lighting the landscape up in the next minute, came from dozens of discs, illuminating small blue symbols of flags. All of the cells opened on the floor level but in seconds half a dozen would-be Heroes would be claiming the high ground.
“It’s a trap!” Alley’s scream cleared the cell and she sprinted for the middle. Nate was directly ahead, Jia on the right, Finn on the left. Before the noise of impending battle washed everything else out, Alley yelled for all she was worth. “It’s the Ringmaster! Lambert Acres, meet in the middle, on me!”
As the four of them raced for the heart of the Gym Final’s jungle-gym of panels, Alley prayed to a God she didn’t believe in that she could save them. There were thirty six remaining Freshmen not hired by the Major. And for at least the next five minutes, every last one of them were going to do their damndest to murder, not incapacitate but kill the four of them.
Unless she could save them. Somehow.