The End Begins
Hai Nguyen watched the line of sophomores as they filed into the classroom, and tried to ignore the bouncing exuberance of her colleague a few feet away. “Welcome everyone, to your Sophomore Final briefing.”
“This is going to be AWESOME!” A couple of students flinched when the Weapons Instructor chimed in with her usual level of enthusiasm, but a glance around the room noted that most of the sophomore class had become, at least somewhat, inured to the energetic redhead.
“As you all should know by now, this final will be team based, and it will occur within Overton’s labyrinth.” Hai suppressed the urge to smile as nearly all the gathered students were suddenly paying a great deal more attention. Of course we make it such a big mystery, and don’t let ANYONE tell the underclassmen about it, I guess that’s understandable. Right, Ms Blake?
The Control Instructor did smile at the sudden flush of embarrassment that briefly showed on the auburn-haired telepath’s face. “So, to get our briefing started, Dani will be explaining what, exactly, the labyrinth is.”
“It’s a maze.” Dani’s completely deadpan, and nearly monotone, statement drew a few shocked looks. Looks that gave way to barely suppressed laughter around the room as the Weapons Instructor maintained a completely solemn and serious expression for several seconds.
“Um, is there anything about the labyrinth that makes it more than a regular maze?” The question from Aaron Sexton came just before the laughter, and Dani’s silence, managed to shift from ‘absurd’ to ‘uncomfortable.’
“Quite a number of ways!” Dani’s exuberance was back in full force, with no trace of the completely serious mien she’d had a moment ago. “Each segment of the labyrinth is completely customizable from the control booth, so the terrain can be manipulated in some areas in real-time! Also, the labyrinth is composed of 27 ‘rooms’ that vary from industrial setting to small outdoors simulations. There are an additional 82 rooms that can be rotated in as active rooms are rotated out, either to keep things fresh or because repairs are needed. Also because we like to change to configurations around in the middle of the tests.”
Deeply shocked, and many outright disbelieving, looks were the majority response from the sophomore class at Dani’s claims, until Hai stepped forward with a nod. “Yes, it sounds completely impossible, even on the scale of what you’ve already seen in the HCP, but the labyrinth functions as Dani described. And no, I don’t know how much it cost, or how it was made, and all I know about how it works is ‘very well.'”
“So, continuing with your briefing!” Dani retook center stage and flicked on the room’s large projector. “As you can see, the labyrinth is VERY confusing!”
The Weapons Instructor had a genuine talent for understatement in this case. None of the assembled sophomores could make heads or tails of the chaotically mashed together blueprint, save for sixteen clearly labeled points. One set ran numbers one through nine, the other set was letters ‘A’ through ‘G.’
“So the numbered points are where your team will be deployed into the labyrinth, and the lettered points are the goal posts!” Dani didn’t wait for the confused look this time, instead moving to a cabinet at one side of the room and pulling it open.
“Gauge, Collin! Jameson, Scott! Shang, Lisa!” A metal ball was flung at each indicated student almost before the name was completely past Dani’s lips. The entire class was quickly scrambling to catch the hurled orbs, a process that was completed much more quickly than was probably safe.
“As you’ll probably all notice once your heart rates drop back down,” Hai didn’t bother trying to hide her grin anymore. “These balls are basically identical to the ones you’ve been carrying in the team exercises for the past few weeks. The most noticeable difference, of course, is that now EACH of you gets one, instead of one per team.”
“So, ultimate objective is to get the ball in the goal!” Dani’s look of disappointment when her latest declaration was met with understanding nods, instead of the confusion she was so used to, was quite comical. “Anyways, yeah. So, goals ‘B’ through ‘G’ will only open for a single ball at a time, and will only be open twice during the course of the final.” The deranged mockery of a blueprint on the screen was replaced by a picture of a sleek metal tube with an obvious sliding cap on the top. “And while many of you could force the goal open, that won’t count, so don’t do it!”
“Each of the rooms that contain a goal will also have a countdown timer. Don’t worry about seeing it, it will be projected in dozens of places across the walls, ceilings, and floors. The goals will only open for sixty seconds, or until a single ball is scored on them. The exception, of course, is goal ‘A.'”
The blueprint came back up, but this time it zoomed quickly onto a single room in the center. A room filled with terrain that made it look like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. “That total duration for this test will be four hours. Three hours and forty minutes in, goal ‘A’ will unlock until all balls are accounted for, or until the time limit is reached.”
“The objective is to have the highest score at the end!” Dani smiled at the suppressed groans she drew with her incredibly obvious statement. “In addition to scoring off the goals, you will be evaluated on your teamwork, tactics, problem solving, and, of course, overall combat effectiveness.
“This will differ from your other exercises in a couple of ways.” The class became instantly attentive as they caught the Weapons Instructor’s shift to ‘really serious’ mode. “First, disabled students will NOT be removed from the course unless their injuries require immediate stabilization. In this case, they will be transferred to the infirmary long enough to be stabilized and then returned to where they went down. Anything you can do to get back into the fight is allowable. Make dirty deals with the teams that have healers on them, get a stronger classmate to carry you to where you can still attack even if your legs are broken. Do. Whatever. It. Takes.”
Dani paused for a moment to let the sophomores take in the full depth of what she’d just told them, then spoke again. “Second, those of you who are trained and checked out on lethal-rated weaponry will be allowed to carry it in this exam. You will still be expelled from the program if you exceed the HCP force rules, but this will put a couple of you on even footing with your classmates for the first time this year. Don’t waste the opportunity, and don’t get yourself kicked out of the program.”
“A last detail, but an important one. Ms Montez, Ms Abbott, and Ms Andrews.” The Control Instructor waited to make sure she had the attention of all three girls she’d called out to. “The entire labyrinth will be reconfiguring throughout the exam. Teleporting outside of the room you’re currently in, without line of sight, will have no guarantee that where you are trying to go is where you’ll end up. You aren’t restricted from trying, but be aware that it’s a gamble that could result in serious injury, even death.”
The three sophomores nodded their acknowledgement of the Instructor’s warning, and Hai turned back to Dani again. “Anything else you can think of?”
“I think that’s everything. Everyone get to your designated starting rooms, you have one hour to strategize with your teams before the final begins. Good luck!”
“So, getting anyone else’s plans?” Collin turned to look at the class’s ‘second best’ telepath as he asked the question.
“Bits and pieces. Cat says hi, and we’re not allowed to know what they’re going to do, but their team is asking for a ‘ceasefire’ with any other team if they come up against Team 1 together.”
“We’ll keep it in mind, Cat.” The team captain wondered at how odd his life had become at the HCP that he no longer felt the least bit bothered talking to someone not in the room with him.
“Moving through the list, team 3 is planning to stay mobile and set up long-range ambushes if they come into a scoring room close to the goal opening time. Erin will make a run for the goal if it looks clear, otherwise they’re staying away since the things are basically traps.”
“I could probably set us up enough cover to get to any of the outdoor ones.” Sean entered the conversation for the first time, a note of almost desperate eagerness in his voice. Collin recalled that the plant-manipulator hadn’t posted the highest of scores in any of his discipline finals.
“I could see that working. Even Ames would be slowed down by the sheer bulk of some of the stuff you can throw in the way, and the teleporters can’t risk jumping in while it’s still growing.” Desperate sounding or not, Collin liked the idea his teammate had come up with. “Get anything useful off anyone else?”
“All the other teams are halfway across the complex. I can barely tell that they’re there at ALL, much less pick up any details.”
“Other ideas?” Collin looked back and forth between his two teammates, but both responded with shrugs. “We need something more than-…” A wicked grin lit up the muscular youth’s face as he let the sentence trail off.
“Oh, THAT is going to tick some people off.” Michael smiled as he picked up the train of thought from his captain.
“What? Don’t leave the non-telepath in the dark here!”
In response, Collin strode over to one of the room’s small lockers and snatched out his backpack, and the phone inside it. He chuckled as he began to send a text, hearing a frustrated protest in his head as he pushed the send button.
“Cat’s trying to form an impromptu alliance, everyone gangs up on Team 1 if more than one team runs into them.” Collin turned the screen towards his two friends as a reply to his text popped up on the screen. “We’re going to buck that trend.”
‘Cat trying to turn all teams against you guys. Team 1 and Team 2 alliance?’
“So we are TOTALLY doing the electro-tele-blitz attack!” Two thirds of Team 5 sighed deeply at the proposed tactic from their third member.
“Louise, we’re STILL not calling it that.” Beulah sounded more than a bit frazzled, having gone through this argument far more times than her captain at this point. “And second, only a couple of the rooms are even close to big enough for us to try Teresa’s trick. We’re better off staying together and moving in quick blinks, with Rorie throwing out blasts at range while you stay ready to handle anyone we pop in too close to.”
“I second Be’s plan.” Rorie sighed again at the hurt look the tiny girl threw at him in response. “An all out blitz like what Teresa caught us with isn’t going to work in a situation like this. We’re not up against two other teams, we’re up against EIGHT.”
“But Be can do better precision and faster teleports than Teresa can!”
“And we can exploit that advantage the most by staying low and in cover. We’ll draw a lot of fire if we try anything flashy, and we don’t have anyone more resilient than a normal human.”
“And Dani said that El is going to have full access to her arsenal.” Beulah interrupted with a point she hoped would finally tip the argument back towards logic. “No more riot gun with taser slugs, she’s going to be packing REAL firepower this time.”
“So? Scott was already doing the super-rail-gun-thingy with his powers, and Erin can shoot a freaking LASER beam out of herself. El finally gets her rifles and stuff. That just makes it fair!”
“We’re not doing the ‘teleport from above’ attack as a primary tactic. Captain’s decision.” Rorie raised a hand to forestall the next round of protests he could already see forming. “HOWEVER. If we find ourselves in one of the wide open rooms and are looking at a scoring opportunity, we will consider using that as a blitz tactic, trading risk for points.”
Louise looked about to object again, but closed her mouth and adopted a contemplative look instead. “Okay, deal. We only do the electro-tele-blitz when there’s points on the line!”
“We are STILL not calling it that.”
“So, our whole team is basically screwed going into this thing.” Susan Owens managed to maintain a remarkably cheerful tone as she made the rather bleak assessment.
“Sounds about right.” Ty Rodins nodded in agreement, his own voice quite a bit more neutral than his captain’s.
“I was set, I was COMPLETELY set, for Subtlety, and then I let Beulah steal the damned drive RIGHT out of my hands!” Aaron Sexton laid his head down on the table as he complained melodramatically.
“At least you FOUND one of the damned boxes. I only found the remains of a couple.”
“And I’ve already failed at this program, thanks to semantic bullshit!” Both males turned to their captain as she maintained a, seemingly genuine, cheerful demeanor.
“Are you just celebrating because you had nothing to do with your failure while Ty and I are both to blame for our own fates?” Aaron sounded truly curious as he asked the question.
“Nope. I’m celebrating because we, as a team, have literally nothing to lose from this final. We all know where we stand. For you two, it’s desperately dangling off the bottom rung. For me, I haven’t even been on the ladder for months.”
“I fail to see why this has you in such a good mood, oh captain my captain.” Ty sounded mostly annoyed, but there was a definite undercurrent of curiosity in his tone as well.
“We have nothing to lose. So there’s absolutely nothing holding us back. No reason to play it safe, and no reasons to pull a punch anymore than the minimum required to not kill our friends. We get to go in there, and go completely nuts.” Susan wore a manic grin by the time she finished her short speech.
“So our entire plan is, ‘Go Nuts!’?” The blond youth ran his hands through his hair in apparent exasperation, but couldn’t quite hide the grin on his own face.
“Team 9, we might be destined to go down in flames, but they will be some of the BRIGHTEST flames ever!” Ty found himself wearing a look almost as manic as his captain’s.
“See? Do you see now? THIS is how we should have done things from the beginning!” The unkempt man in a rather expensive suit paused his shouting to cackle wildly as he stabbed a finger towards the massive, wall mounted screen in his office. “You played your games, and then everyone ran and hid because we were all too afraid to do it RIGHT!”
Lee Brieten turned to smile hugely at the two empty chairs he had arranged to face the large monitor and the map it currently displayed. “You two didn’t have the vision, and now you don’t get to be here for the grand finale! These Heroes think they’re so great, this HCP thinks it’s so great, well they’ll all know better than that SOON!”
The obviously deranged man paused his tirade for a moment, and cocked his head to the side as if listening. “Well I don’t see how it should be MY fault that you weren’t listening earlier, Patrick. No, not being in the room is NOT a valid excuse! We are among the wealthiest, most powerful individuals in the world! Plebeian limitations such as ‘location’ and ‘time’ should be meaningless to us!”
Lee paused again, this time to look at the second chair. “Oh, well, I suppose the whole memory erasure thing IS a pretty good excuse. But you two had BETTER not forget this again. I HATE HATE HATE HATE to repeat myself!
“This plan is simple, brutal, and utterly FOOLPROOF! Look here!” The skinny man darted up to the screen and jabbed a finger at one of the large red dots with enough force to crack the outer cover. “Here is the first team, a full TEN of the most dangerous Supers money could buy! Directly from the Sinola Cartel, enforcers that have lived long lives of violence! They’re waiting here, for the time to start, and then they’ll launch a surprise attack on the Lone Star Rangers! What a stupid name for a Hero team anyways, they DESERVE to be wiped out for that alone!
“Now while the enforcers destroy the Rangers, THIS group!” This time it was a fingernail that cracked from the far-too-hard poke at another point on the screen. “They aren’t as disciplined as the cartel guys, but there’s more of them! A full dozen, they’ll outnumber the Apaches three to one! And that’s the only two ‘Hero teams’ that could possibly deploy to Overton in time to stop the REAL threat!”
Instead of stabbing at the third, and largest, red dot on the map; Lee scowled at it angrily. “There should be twice as many here as there are, but too many of them decided they could cheat me instead. Took their retainers and ran off. I’ll send the rest after them when we’re done though, oh yes I WILL! Still enough, still more than enough! Nineteen Supers, all of them career criminals who are willing to do ANY kind of violence for money! They’ll sweep into the HCP campus and wipe out EVERYTHING. The buildings, the students, the teachers, and eventually the Heroes and THEIR students as well!
“And, and and just in case there’s more Heroes around, you know the ones who are always moving and not staying in one city LIKE THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO? Well for them I-…”
Lee’s monologue was interrupted by a banging sound from the large, and boarded shut, double doors that served as the entrance to his office. The crazed man glared angrily at the doors. “Who could still be stupid enough to think I WANT them in here? Was it not clear enough when I had the doors sealed shut?” A harder bang was accompanied by a groaning sound as the hardwood started to give under the strength of whatever was beating against it.
“INCOMPETENTS!” Lee stormed over to his closet and yanked the door open. Out spilled the body of the maintenance workers he’d ordered to seal his door shut earlier that morning. “You’re both FIRED! Can’t anyone here do anything right?”
Having ‘dealt with’ his incompetent workers, the dark-haired man strode angrily back to his desk and ripped open one of the drawers.
“Lee Brieten! You are under arrest! Back away from the desk and put your hands on your head!” The insane executive looked up from his drawer to see that the door was nearly open, and several men in tactical gear were peering in. Down the barrels of automatic rifles, all leveled at the lone man in the office.
Lee’s lips twisted in a snarl, and one hand crashed down onto the keyboard on top of his desk. “All of you, GET OUT! Nothing you can do can stop me!”
“Hands up, NOW!”
Lee responded by pulling his other hand out of the drawer, bringing a heavy revolver up with it. He got off three shots before a fusillade of gunfire ripped through him. Lee managed to look up at the screen from where he’d fallen, no longer worried about the men who’d broken into his office. They were far too late, after all. The red dots were all moving now.
Well Ben, you did it. You are obviously among the most brilliant detectives in the world, and you’ve succeeded at a truly impossible task. The heavily muscled black youth looked around the bus he currently rode on as he mentally congratulated himself. A bus that was, ostensibly, headed to a surprise scheduled ‘Battle Royale’ in Longview, Texas. Ben was reasonably certain that was not, in fact, going to be his destination, for several reasons.
For starters, I’m pretty sure I recognized the guy who was recruiting for this ‘Battle Royale’ from the organization ban list. And I’m pretty sure there’s only two other guys on this bus who are ACTUALLY licensed for SFC matches. And there’s all the gang tats that the other eight guys are sporting openly. Ben paused in his mental assessment for a moment to grin at one of the probable gang members when the man looked back at him, most likely to smirk at Ben’s ridiculous luchador mask again. Make that tats and BRANDS on some of these guys. I guess that’s the cheap way to get around a Strongman’s tendency to be ink resistant.
Another gaze, far more vicious than the last one, swept back to examine Ben and his two SFC colleagues again. The muscular, masked youth forced himself to keep the dopey grin on his face, and continued a non-stop stream of analysis and self-congratulation in his head. Because if I stop, I’m going to have to think about how stupid it was to get on this bu-… Dammit. Keep smiling like the idiot you are Ben. Aaaannd he’s looking away again.
Ben could feel himself starting to sweat through the tracksuit he wore over his, somewhat minimal, fighting outfit. He also noticed that he wasn’t the only one, and offered a brief prayer of thanks to whomever was running the bad guys in this scenario; for being so cheap that they stuck a dozen Strongmen on a bus with no air conditioning in eastern Texas. A bus which suddenly jolted wildly as the zombie-like driver failed to miss ANOTHER pothole, jostling the eleven heavily built men in the back and drawing a stream of profanity and threats his way.
Ben cursed at the man just as loudly as the rest, while silently thanking him for the opportunity to get his phone into his hands and low enough that only one of the SFC fighters would be able to see it. I really wish Cat had given me a number OTHER than hers. Though I’m betting she can mobilize the cavalry pretty quickly. Why the hell am I doing this again? Ben’s thumbs moved quickly across the screen as he composed a short message. He cringed as the phone emitted its annoying chirp as he pressed the send button, and looked up.
Eight pairs of very unfriendly eyes were staring back at where he and the other two SFC fighters were sitting. A shift in his peripheral vision told him that at least ONE of his colleagues was also smart enough to realize something was wrong. Well, I guess we’re doing this now. It’s just eight dudes on a bus. Nothing compared to punching out an anti-tank missile. Or running a bomb out of a stadium.
Ben stood from his seat at the same time as the eight gang members, and offered one last dopey smile as he held the phone up clearly and tapped out one more quick message.