“Your final exercise begins today.” Coach Achala said.
Kelly could practically hear the capitals. She was used to her instructor’s ways by now, or so she’d thought, and didn’t like the impression she was getting.
“The premise is much like your simulation exercises.”
The class had met first thing in the morning at the Sparring Field. Rather than rows of combat domes, there was a single enormous one. Kelly wasn’t certain but she thought it was at least a mile high and much, much wider. Well, not really a perfect dome then, but still…
“This will be your city. For the next three days, you will be its Citadel. Your duty is to protect it. Please make every effort to treat this exercise as if it were real.”
Coach Achala hadn’t smiled during his short speech. Rather than serene, he seemed controlled. The difference wasn’t huge but it seemed really important to Kelly. Her classmates were moving as a group, slowly entering the dome. As she joined them, she couldn’t help but wonder. Making a bunch of kids strip naked and beat the hell out of each other had been enough to give Coach Achala’s ever present aura of peace a mildly sad undertone. What did it take to remove that peace altogether?
Under the Dome
The first day was kind of fun.
It might have been their first cooperative exercise on such a large scale, but the trainees had enough experience at this point to know how they should start out. Scouts were sent to explore their new environment while the rest of them concentrated on the immediate area.
No one felt like arguing when Jenny described the dome’s interior as ‘Awesome.’ At the center, there was a four story replica of the Tower. South of it, the same area that the trainees had entered from, there was a mock-up of a suburban neighborhood. None of the houses had more than a single story. To the mini-Tower’s west, there was a commercial center filled with buildings that were clearly meant to be stores and shops. Most of them were only one story but a few had a second.
To the north and east there was scrubland and a heavy metro area. The scrub was mostly sand and loose dirt with a few scattered patches of grass and the occasional small hill or bush to break up the monotony. The metro area was… odd. It was filled with skyscrapers and office buildings that were only two, sometimes three, stories tall.
It was the level of detail that was the most impressive. The trainees were used to simulated environments that were clearly… well, simulated. Usually, they were primarily made of stone with a few scattered plants. Windows and doors would be absent and any bystanders would be played by Hector. He’d probably show up in that role before too long, since he wasn’t among the trainees and no one thought he’d been held back for ‘further development’ like Duncan.
This simulation was almost perfect. The suburban residences had neatly trimmed lawns with an average of one tree each and a car in every driveway or parked at the curb. A few houses even had bikes or children’s toys on their porches. The other regions were every bit as complete.
The incredible level of detail in their surroundings meant that the trainees found the lack of civilians a little unsettling. The exercise environment felt like a ghost town. Maybe that was why they didn’t have much of a discussion before the group headed for the central tower? It could also have been that it was tall enough to provide a useful view and, even without its resemblance to the Citadel Hub’s famous Tower, it was the obvious focal point of the exercise area.
Of course, even more importantly, Anna Insight reported that there was a group of five people inside, each wearing the traditional Healer greys and facemasks.
“Hi. Rick- I mean, I’m Rick Regrowth.”
Kelly couldn’t hold back a grin as she looked up at the nervous young healer. He had sandy blond hair, green eyes that weren’t quite the same shade as each other and a little scar under his left lip. She didn’t know why but, for some reason, the little imperfections stood out on him. Well, that and the fact that she didn’t have to look up very far, that was pretty rare with guys.
“Kelly. Nice to meet you.” she said, as friendly as she could. This guy seemed to be the spokesman for the group of healer trainees they’d met and he’d been going around, introducing himself to the operative trainees for a while now. She reached out to shake his hand and the guy’s eyes went wide as a soon as he touched her.
“What the-” he said.
Kelly pulled the hand back, confused.
“Sorry, sorry, I…” Rick stammered. “It’s my power. I, uh, I kinda have this sense? When I touch someone I can see inside them and… you’re sort of weird.”
“Am I?” Kelly almost growled. She wasn’t going to change to her combat form just to slap the guy but even her walking around bodies were pretty heavily modified. She’d have to be careful not to- Oh. “You mean my Empowerment.”
Rick swallowed, visibly nervous. “Um… yeah? What else would I…?”
Kelly sighed. “Sorry, everyone here’s been pretty cool but, really, I just have some leftover issues. Not your problem though. Like I said, sorry.” She could tell he was still curious, maybe too nervous to ask, and she felt bad about almost taking off his head, so…
“I’m a shapeshifter, popped when I was really young. Shifting’s pretty much instinctive for me, or at least it was back then. I didn’t really think about it, just did it, y’know?”
The healer nodded.
“Well, that led to some bad habits. For one thing, I tended to start looking like anyone I liked. Not like-like, just anyone I thought was cool or whatever. That… didn’t always go over so well.”
“They thought… what? You were pretending to be them?” he asked.
“Yeah, or their friends or their favorite celebrity or… you get the idea. Between that and the fact that I didn’t really get the idea of genders… Like I said, it didn’t go so well. A lot of people gave me a hard time. My cousin was pretty much my only friend. He stuck up for me and we played in his backyard, that sort of thing. Eventually, I realized I could do more than just human forms and then I started looking into the Citadel. I wanted to do something important, make all that crap I went through mean something.”
“More than human forms is right.” Rick said. “Don’t, uh, don’t take this the wrong way? But, like I said, your body is really weird.”
This time, Kelly decided to take it as a compliment. “Oh, well, that all started when my friend Hector gave me a really cool idea. See, I got a little too enthusiastic and, through a totally understandable mistake, my head… kinda… exploded.”
Kelly spent quite some time talking to the young healer after that. It was nice. Not romantic in any way since she still hadn’t started puberty, but it was enough to make her think the process might be worth all the nasty side effects. She was just wondering whether she’d end up liking girls or boys, or maybe both, when they were interrupted by a flash of red light.
“What the heck was that?” asked Gerard Healer, staring at the red glow that was clinging to everyone on the roof.
“I’m pretty sure it was the signal that things are about to get started for real.” Drew said.
Kerry sighed, not bothering to hide the irritation. “Retcon. That was Retcon’s power. It means that whatever they’re about to throw at us, the instructors won’t be holding back.”
“Retcon? But… but isn’t she attached to Prime? Why would she be part of a graduation exercise?”
Drew carried on the conversation with Gerard but Kerry was too distracted to pay any attention. There was movement down on the street. Actually, it was on all of the streets.
“I’m going to go see what’s happening down there.” Kerry told the other two.
Keridwyn closed her eyes. When she opened them, she wasn’t a twenty year old woman that looked like a little girl anymore. She was something else, something great, something strong.
She leapt off the tower’s roof, careful not to damage it with her claws. Wings spread wide, flapping every now and then to adjust her course, Kerry stretched her serpentine neck so she could get a good look at the ground below. Apparently, their fake city was now filled with fake citizens.
At first, Kerry thought they were all being produced by a single Empowered. She changed her mind when she got a closer look. There were people sitting in cars and at the tables of cafes. They looked real, except for being slightly transparent. Even more were- not walking, maybe sort of gliding?- down the sidewalks. Those were just an inch thick, stone silhouettes of men and women. They reminded Kerry of those signs on a restroom door, only life-sized.
The ones that were most important right now were a bunch of wire frame mannequin style ones, sort of like overly elaborate metal stick figures. They were gathered around what she thought was supposed to be a two story apartment building. She was also pretty sure it was on fire, based on all the smoke and flames coming out of its windows.
Kerry made sure to land a few blocks away and approach on foot. As fast as she’d been moving and as much wind as she made landing, the fire would’ve gotten a lot worse if she’d come down too close to it. Careful not to step on any of the ‘civilians’ as she got closer, Kerry took a moment to consider the problem.
The fire itself was no threat to her, not in this form. But she was too big, way too big, to enter the building and search for trapped victims. If she made a hole in the wall to reach through, that’d just let in more air and, again, that would just make the fire worse. She couldn’t call for someone better suited to this. Her power seemed to literally make a new, and different, body every time she used it. There was no way to get a custom headset or communicator for it.
Kerry was considering the possibility of just dismissing her dragon body. That would put her back at the tower, maybe next to Drew, and he could spread the word or come help himself. That idea was cut off by the arrival of the super hero. He had a bright red cape, boots and facemask, with a tight fitting yellow body suit. The guy was hovering just above and between Kerry and the burning building.
She didn’t know why she hadn’t seen him arrive, teleportation, speed or just angle of approach. Kerry didn’t know why someone would put a big blue ‘T’ on their own chest or pose with their hands on their hips in mid-air like something out of a cartoon or a kid’s comic either.
Then she heard him announce, “Never fear, the incredible Todd is here!” and saw him dart forward through the air. He started ripping out chunks of the wall, presumably to help any trapped residents escape.
“STOP THAT YOU IDIOT!” Kerry yelled, lunging forward at the same time that the extra oxygen caused flame to billow out of the new opening.
There wasn’t any real sunlight in what some of the trainees had begun to call Fake City. Even so, the class and their attached Healers gave a sigh of relief when the sourceless light started to dim. Kerry’s fire had turned into a fiasco and it was far from unique. No real combat, it was just one stupid incident after another and each one of them had involved at least one flesh and blood person who was obviously Empowered.
Now that it was night time, everyone was hoping to get some rest. Still, a little over three months at the Citadel was enough to give them a good idea of how it worked. No one was really surprised when they didn’t get that rest.
“I… um, I think they’re dead.” Anna Insight announced.
“Who?” Kelly asked.
The two were currently the only uninjured operative trainees in the tower. It was the middle of the night and everyone else was either out dealing with the ‘Battlegrounds invasion’ or recovering from injuries taken doing the same thing.
“A couple of civilians on the east side. They’re… um, the cutout style ones.”
“Wait, east?” Kelly asked. “I thought all the fighting was on the north side?”
“It is. That’s why I thought this was weird. They don’t look like they were taken out in a fight or anything, just murdered.”
Kelly thought about it for a moment. Her head had been frozen by some guy in black leather and a bunch of chains. The last thing she’d seen was the same guy trying to set Isaac on fire. Her friend had been really angry. She felt fine now though. Healers always seemed to freak out when she ‘died’ for a little bit. They’d insisted she stay here to recover for a while.
“Okay, I’m going crazy in here. Let’s go take a look.” Kelly said.
“Um, I think maybe you should go by yourself.” Anna replied. “Most of Fake City is in range from here, but if we both go, I’ll lose sight of something like half the training area.”
Kelly shrugged. “Okay, I guess it’s not like you’ll see anything up close that you can’t from here.” She started to leave and realized the remaining problem. “How do I find them?” she asked.
Anna just smiled, then tapped the communicator in her ear. Kelly blushed as she turned and headed for the door.
Kelly laughed as she ran. Flying would have been faster, true, but she hadn’t refined her running form since Coach Achala stopped making them do those marathons. Besides, the mock civilians were already dead, sort of, and she’d really wanted to stretch her legs.
Anna’s ongoing directions led Kelly to a two story high rise. Man, that really sounded funny but she didn’t know what else to call the building. It was like someone had taken one of those too-expensive-to-be-apartments buildings and cut out everything between the overly elaborate first floor and the heavily sculpted top floor. She kind of liked the eagle-gargoyle things around the roof though.
She went up to the unit Anna described and found… something weird. Kelly didn’t know how else to describe it. Just inside the door there was a male civilian. Like Anna had said, it was one of the stone silhouette types. This one was lying on the ground and had a hole in its face, more or less where one of its eyes would have been.
Kelly bent over and examined the wound, shifting back to her reinforced social form as she went. After a moment, she added the changes that were meant to increase her senses of smell and hearing. Once she had them perfected, she’d be more or less on par with a bloodhound and a bat. Interpreting all that extra info was the real stumbling block, so for now, she was just a little above a normal human’s maximum.
Narrow and just a little longer than two finger widths, it was probably a stab wound. Kelly thought it might have been a hunting knife or maybe one of those ones the military used, the ones that could double as a bayonet blade. Kelly took a deep breath through her nose and tried to figure out what she was smelling as she went further into the apartment. Or condo. Whatever.
Blood was easy. Everyone knew what that smelled like. Kelly had no idea why she was smelling it, but she was. There was a female silhouette, lying face down in the living room. Kelly knew they didn’t have faces, much less a recognizable front or back, but still… There was a ragged cut along her stomach and, on the opposite side, two more low down on the legs. It was… it was like someone had eviscerated her and then cut her hamstrings.
This was sick. She knew it wasn’t real, these were just dummies, but Kelly had to suppress nausea anyway. She sniffed the air, picked up a new scent, and followed it into the kitchen. Tomatoes, vinegar, congealing fat and- oh.
There was a can of baked beans, with barbecue sauce, on the kitchen table. From the ragged look of the can and the mess on the table around it, someone had used a knife to force it open then eaten the beans with their hands.
Kelly had no idea what the last smell was. Bitter, sharp, kind of familiar… but… no, it wasn’t coming to her. She couldn’t help contrasting the precise, almost surgical murders with the sloppy remains of the food, as if the… intruder, was more familiar with killing than eating. She heard something move in the corner of the room. Kelly left the table behind and took a closer look.
It was… a dog? She was pretty sure that was what the little stone silhouette was supposed to be anyway, one of those tiny ones with the short curly hair and a poufy tail. The… the dog’s body was covered by hairline cracks, centered around a… a footprint. Whoever did this, they hadn’t just kicked the dog. They’d stomped on it.
As she knelt there, absently stroking the damaged simulacrum that she was pretty sure couldn’t feel pain, Kelly realized what that last scent was. Kelly was smelling her own fear. Someone who would do this… what did you call someone like that?
The morning of the second day was awful. The trainees were physically exhausted, had pushed their powers to the limit, were hungry, lacking in sleep and it just didn’t stop. Not every incident was on the same scale as the Battlegrounds invasion, most were fairly petty, but there were enough of them and they came frequently enough that no one could really rest. In short, they were tired, exhausted, and they were starting to make mistakes.
Drew Stasis had all the time in the world. Somewhere in the last few years, or the last twenty four hours, he’d learned to hate that phrase. It was true enough but it was also damned slippery. He had all the time in the world, but that was all he had: the time in the world.
Drew stood in the street, the only source of movement in the frozen world he’d become so used to, and he looked up at the boy hanging in mid-air. He looked like a fairly average twelve year old, give or take a year or so. Short blond hair, jeans and loose T-shirt with a band logo Drew had never heard of, he even had that bit of leftover baby fat on his cheeks that usually disappeared once the growth spurts kicked in.
He was also obviously Empowered, the third eye and greyish skin were a dead give-away, probably pretty recently. Drew was sure that was the reason the boy was a little short of three stories up and a few feet away from the building’s roof. Drew wanted to believe that the kid was a flier but the look on his face said otherwise. It added up to a child that didn’t like his new Empowerment and decided to jump. The question now was, with just ‘all the time in the world’, could Drew save him?
He couldn’t call for help. The kid would hit the ground before Drew could explain the problem, much less before anyone else could get here. Catching him obviously wasn’t an option. Maybe he could pull the jumper back onto the roof?
Drew circled the building, as well as several others in the area, looking for a way up onto the roof. All the ground floor windows and doors in the area were closed, so the easy way was out. Then again, he’d have to come out of stasis long enough to open at least a few doors if he tried to use a stairwell. He might not have enough time for that.
The adjacent building had a fire escape, though its ladder was up and he’d still have to figure out a way to get across the gap between the two buildings. Drew sat down to think about the problem. That was one thing he always had time for.
Eventually, Drew had an idea. Anything he was carrying in real time came with him when he went into stasis. Well, anything that was small enough and light enough that he could really carry it. He wasn’t sure if it was the weight that stopped him from bringing another person over or if that was its own rule.
He’d never been curious enough to risk it with a baby, though it had worked with his neighbor’s dog. When Canis Lupus Minimus- and yes, that was a terrible name for a Chihuahua- had squirmed out of Drew’s arms, the little guy had frozen in mid-air. The same thing had happened when he fired a pistol. It worked fine when he pulled the trigger but the bullet and the shell froze as soon as they left the gun.
Drew spent a little while looking for some garbage cans. Eventually, he found a cluster of four with their lids either propped to the side or sitting loosely on top. If he was doing it deliberately, rather than as his reflex response to an injury, Drew could enter stasis in about the time it took to blink. So, in roughly the time it took to blink three times, he soon had four aluminum garbage can lids tucked under his arms.
He arrived back at the building, and the falling boy, to see that the situation had changed. His plan had been to use one of the lids to get up on the fire escape. One, maybe two, would have gotten him across the gap between buildings. After that he should’ve been able to use the other as a platform to reach the kid. He hadn’t really thought out the next step yet, probably just tying his shirt around the teenager’s ankle and using that to pull him back up or something, but it didn’t matter now.
Three blinks had been enough time for the boy to fall a little further. Drew couldn’t see it but he would’ve gained momentum and he was too far from the roof. If he tried the plan now he was pretty sure the kid would just yank him along for the ride. The fear might be enough to pop Drew into stasis before he hit but… he didn’t know how that would work.
He’d never been injured in still time. This was where he came to recover from the real world. He didn’t get hungry or tired or sleepy here. No matter how bad he was hurt, he always recovered, eventually. Drew didn’t have a clue how old he was. He didn’t age in stasis. The only changes he’d ever noticed had been healing, from a wound or simple exhaustion, and losing weight when he exercised. It was like his power had a set idea of his how his body should be and wouldn’t let him get worse than that while the world was frozen.
What if… what if injuries he got here didn’t get better? He could actually die if he hit the ground while the world was frozen. He was so freaked out by that idea that he didn’t notice the change quickly enough. Extreme emotion, especially fear or pain, was enough to send him from real time to still time. He’d never been scared in frozen time before. It was just too… comforting. Apparently, being scared in stasis, or maybe being scared of stasis, was enough to send him back to the real world.
Drew had had all the time in the world to save the boy, two seconds or nineteen hours depending on how you looked at it. He’d have all the time in the world to think about the sound of a body hitting the pavement.
It was early in the afternoon of the second day when everything changed.
Isaac could barely keep his grip. He was riding on Kerry’s back, along with Jenny and Jason. His forcefield was giving him problems. Without it, he was sure the wind would rip him right off. With it… well, his field was good at a lot of things but maintaining traction on the back of a dragon in flight wasn’t one of them.
Moments later, it became irrelevant. He saw a blur of motion from the corner of his eye and Kerry gave a cry of pain that cut off abruptly. She vanished and now Isaac was falling through the air with Jenny and Jason instead of barely coping with the ride. He wasn’t worried about himself. A few hundred miles might be enough of a fall to hurt him but they’d only been flying along at a few hundred feet. The other two passengers were much more fragile.
Luckily, Jenny was a quick thinker. She grabbed Jason by the arm and spun in mid-air, sending the boy towards Isaac and herself off at an angle. In an incredible display of acrobatics and timing, she caught the upper edge of one building and pushed off with her feet, rebounding across an alleyway to the side of another building where she did the same thing.
Even as he pulled Jason as close to himself as possible, burling around the boy to protect him, Isaac watched in awe as Jenny bounced back and forth between the two buildings, each impact reducing the speed of her fall. Isaac and Jason hit the ground first.
Anna cried out in pain. She could see the knife sticking out of her back but she couldn’t get to it. She couldn’t stop herself from frantically reaching for it even as her legs gave out and she fell to the floor.
“How?” she asked the man standing over her. “I didn’t see-”
She closed her eyes.
The man, clad in black leather with several metal plates crudely attached and a heavy helmet, retrieved his knife then turned and continued his task. If he answered her, no one heard it.
It had worked. Isaac’s forcefield absorbed the impact, transmitting little or nothing to Jason. Even so, the boy was pretty out of it. The combination of hunger and exhaustion apparently ate through his reserves as effectively as fire. Isaac set him down carefully and approached the newly formed crater in the street. Whatever it was that had struck Kerry should be inside.
It was a man. He wore a black spandex bodysuit and full facemask as well as a white cape and gloves. The stranger knelt in a three point stance at the crater’s center, one knee and two fists touching the ground. He slowly rose, revealing a stylized white ‘T’ on his chest.
“Kneel before Todd.” he commanded. Isaac was fully convinced that the line, and the pose, had been rehearsed.
“What?” Isaac asked, having a hard time taking the ridiculous figure seriously.
Then the other man rushed through the air, moving towards him so fast that he was barely visible.
Kerry opened her eyes and she was back on the tower’s roof, back in her weak, human body. At least that meant she could use her communicator now.
“This is Keridwyn Dragon. Someone just attacked me in the East section and took out my dragon body. I’m back at the tower now but Jenny, Jason and Isaac were left stranded with whoever it was. They might be hurt. Anyone nearby?” she asked over the com.
There was a moment of silence, finally broken by a voice she didn’t recognize. “Yeah, I’m in the same part of town but I’m not very fast. Anna, can you tell if they need help? I mean, we’re talking about the two top ranked fighters and Isaac Dauntless here.”
That was a good point. Kerry should’ve just asked the Insight girl first. She’d always resented the girl, irritated by what she’d thought of as her unearned rank. However, Anna’s power had proven incredibly useful over the last few days.
No one answered. “Anna?” Kerry tried the com again. “I’m on the tower roof. I’ll head down and check on her.” She had a bad feeling about this.
Isaac was strong. More than that, he was also skilled and determined. He knew there were people that could overwhelm him. Jason had burned out his forcefield with a single blow. There were powers and abilities that could simply bypass his defense. Jessica Healer, his therapist, had been able to reach out and ‘adjust’ his emotional state regardless of his field.
Todd was different. With his field up and a bit of concentration to increase its intensity, Isaac was stronger and tougher. Maybe not by a lot but it was enough to make a clear difference. Todd’s blows got through but it was like being hit by a child, annoying and a little painful but not dangerous.
His own blows did a disproportionate amount of damage to Todd. When the other man blocked a straight punch, Isaac had sent him hurtling across the street. Grazing blows tore off pieces of his costume and showed heavy bruising on the other man’s pale skin.
Despite the difference in their strength and toughness, Isaac was losing. He could see Todd’s bruises heal within moments. Alone, that probably wouldn’t have done more than put them on even footing. However, Todd could fly and, worst of all, he was good.
Isaac lashed out with a series of quick jabs. If a single one of them landed cleanly, he was sure it would do real damage. Todd dodged the first by leaning to the side, the second by leaning back and the third, the one he should’ve been too off balance to avoid, by rapidly flying about a foot backwards. He then darted forward to land a series of quick blows on Isaac.
By this point, the trainee wasn’t even bothering to try and stop the other man’s blows, simply letting his shield absorb most of the impact. Todd’s fighting style wasn’t as polished as Isaac’s but it was clearly well practiced and it incorporated the man’s powers like nothing he’d ever seen.
Todd didn’t just use his flight for simple mobility. It was clearly aiding even his most basic movements. A quick burst of forward momentum to make his blows hit harder, sudden changes in elevation and positioning that made them almost impossible to block or avoid, much less counter. It all added up to make the most incredible display of skill that Isaac had ever seen. That, even more than the familiar power set, told Isaac exactly who he was fighting.
Isaac shot a quick glance at the alleyway where Jenny had landed. The fact that she had even survived a fall from that height was impressive, let alone that she’d done it while saving Jason and without any obvious injuries. Still, it had obviously taken a lot out of her. While he’d been fighting Todd, she’d just been standing there, more or less where she’d landed.
He’d seen her make a few false starts, like she’d begun to move towards the fight then stopped, unsure of what to do. The look on her face was one that Isaac had never seen there before, confusion, or maybe hesitation. He hoped she could recover soon because he really needed her help.
Kerry had seen a pulse of red light at least once an hour since they’d started. As she understood it, those flashes served as a marker for Retcon. They let her reset someone to the exact state they had been in when the light hit, physically, mentally, everything. You had to be alive when the flash went off or it just ignored you.
Kerry figured that when the exercise was over, everyone who had ‘died’ would wake up in perfect health and missing nothing but the last hour or less of their memories. She’d also figured that meant the instructors wouldn’t be holding back much and the trainees would be dropping like flies.
Her class had made it to halfway through the second day without losing anyone. Plenty of people had been hurt, some badly enough that their Healers hadn’t been able to get them back up to full, but no one was dead. Before Kerry was halfway down the stairs, she knew that wasn’t the case anymore.
“Fuck.” she swore when she got to the main floor.
Anna Insight was the first one she saw. The girl was laying in a small pool of her own blood, her arms and legs weirdly contorted. Rick and the other Healers were near the door. Their ‘patients,’ about a dozen trainees that had been hurt bad enough that the Healers had made them stay in the tower rather than just patching them up and sending them on their way.
Everyone was dead. Throats cut, stabbed in the chest or back, they all had two things in common. They’d been killed with a knife and their faces were locked in a rictus of pain and fear. More than a quarter of their combat force, all five of their Healers and Anna, the one that had been coordinating everything.
“What do we do now?” Kerry asked, barely aware that her communicator was still active.
Jenny stood up.
Isaac could barely see. He wasn’t sure if Todd was hitting harder or if his forcefield was failing as he tired and his concentration slipped. Either way, his face was a bloody, swollen wreck. He wasn’t fighting with any kind of skill any more, just struggling to keep his field up and swing his fists while Todd seemed to strike him at will. Isaac was barely aware of anything else.
Even so, he saw Jenny stand up. He saw every sign of hesitation, of confusion, vanish like it had never been there at all. Isaac couldn’t hear the rest of what she said then but he heard what she said to him just fine.
“Just hang on, Isaac.”
And all of a sudden, keeping his field up wasn’t a struggle at all. Silver-white light came forth, so bright that it seemed to outshine the sun. He swung his fists, a simple overhand hammer blow, and felt the impact as they connected and Todd slammed into the ground. Isaac followed him to the ground, hit him again and again, not letting the other man recover.
All across the city, the trainees heard Jenny speaking to them over their coms. In some cases, it was a few words of encouragement. Most received simple advice or orders. The effect was immediate. Where there had once been a scattered collection of trainees, tired, hungry and- in more than a few cases- scared, there was now an organized group of operatives.
Ana had been the one more or less in charge. It made sense, she could see problems as they came up and direct the nearest person to them. She’d filled the same role in more than one training exercise and it worked… in an exercise. But this wasn’t an exercise, or at least, they’d been told not to treat it like one.
No one had eaten or gotten any real rest since entering Fake City. Almost as bad, the nearest person was rarely the best suited to handle a given problem. In the field, reacting like this would’ve gotten most of them killed.
In minutes, Jenny had them split into three shifts. One was resting, another active. The third group protected the first. They couldn’t afford to let their guard down again.
Soon, everyone had at least a little food, taken from a supermarket with a note left behind to explain that real operatives had access to expense accounts.
Anna’s vision couldn’t be replaced but each shift had a scout, someone that could come close. Samantha Soar had an extreme level of situation awareness and almost ridiculous speed. Benjamin Stone could detect vibrations in the ground, as well as concrete buildings, for several hundred feet around himself and travel through the earth at a surprising rate. Drew Stasis was more than capable of making a thorough patrol of the city every five minutes.
Each shift also had a designated first responder for combat, someone who could reliably end most fights in a moment without collateral damage. Jason Grim and Greg Warp both needed transportation to make a timely arrival but that was simple enough. No one liked that Drew was filling a slot as both scout and first responder but at least he was also the only one who had never had an issue with rest or hunger.
If one of those three couldn’t win on their own, the heavy combatants were sent in: Donald Dust, Isaac Dauntless and Kerry Dragon, the ones with truly devastating power and a commensurate risk of damaging public property, not to mention the public itself. If numbers or a bad power combo meant that wasn’t enough, the rest of the shift was available as backup. Mostly though, the other guys were dealing with the non-combat stuff. Fires, building collapses and minor crimes, they were the sort of thing where an operative could make a big difference but outright combat power wasn’t really needed.
For the rest of the day and throughout the night, the incidents just kept coming. None were quite as big as the Battlegrounds invasion and nobody was as tough as Todd had turned out. Isaac had beaten him to a literal pulp while Kerry held her flamebreath on him for a solid five minutes. The street where they’d fought was basically destroyed and still, after all that, he’d managed to break loose and flee on his own.
With a little rest, food and better organization, the trainees felt like the exercise was finally under control. Despite using less than a quarter of their original numbers at a time, keeping up with the incident rate was… well, it was almost easy. Maybe that was why the dawn of the third day seemed so strange.
It went on for an hour. No attacks, no disasters, not even any simulated traffic accidents. The ‘civilians were just standing around or laying on the ground, unmoving.
“Maybe… maybe it’s like a reward for doing so well last night so we don’t get all tired out before graduation? They want us to rest or something?” Samantha suggested.
No one bothered to answer that.
After another hour of silence, Jenny sent Fred Ghost to see what was happening. He couldn’t phase his entire body at a time but, so long as it wasn’t too thick, he could make it through a wall by making everything intangible but one foot, stepping through and then shifting which foot was solid.
The rest of the active shift gathered to watch him go, quiet and restless with nerves. His communicator shut off as soon as he was through, which was totally expected and not at all a reason for anyone to get more freaked out. The next hour, during which he didn’t come back and they still didn’t hear anything, was a much better reason.
They gathered everyone, woke up the sleepers and brought up the guards. The only ones not involved were Samantha on over-watch and Drew on city wide patrol. They talked it over and decided that caution was pretty much done with at this point. Ben opened up the wall and Isaac led the charge out, accompanied by the rest of the class’s straightforward Strong types. Kerry went through next, with Greg and Jason on her back, while the more maneuverable members spread out to the sides and the heavy hitters waited for a shot. Most of the trainees were at least half expecting to find themselves facing a small army.
There was one man.
Isaac was on him in an instant. The guy ducked beneath his first blow and Isaac saw a spray of red. Before he could understand what was happening, he’d fallen to the ground, too dizzy to stand. The last thing he saw before the world went dark was Rich and Steph Strong, staring at him in horror.
The man was already moving past him. He wore heavy black leather with metal plates scattered here and there, seemingly at random, and a helmet hiding his face. Half the Strong types were down before anyone knew what was happening, their blood caked the heavy knife he was holding.
“Fuck!! It’s Monster!” someone screamed.
The panic and confusion set in immediately. Donald Dust and Ben Stone cut loose, holding nothing back and uncaring that the stone spikes and skin stripping Dust storms did more damage to their classmates than their opponent. He ducked and dodged with ridiculous ease, putting nearby trainees in the line of fire more often than not. Others ran or froze or just started screaming.
“Calm down. Stop fighting and run. Carry someone if you can.” Jenny’s voice cut through the confusion. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. The panic ended as quickly as it had come. The trainees withdrew, quickly and efficiently.
He didn’t pursue but they each heard his voice. “Why? Why run?” Hoarse and strained, it still seemed like he was standing right behind them. “Operatives defend. Why not stay and fight me?”
One of the last to run, not out of hesitation but to make sure no one was left behind, Jenny answered him. “You don’t fight Monster. Everyone knows that. Just take what you want, we won’t interfere.” It should have sounded craven, cowardly, but there was no fear in her voice. Everyone who heard was absolutely certain that it was simply a decision she had made, every bit as calculated as her shift assignments or combat strategies.
The voice came again, no longer strained but with a touch of a familiar accent instead. “Well then, the exercise is over.”