On Friday, we were informed that school would continue on Saturday.
“You will report in at ten in the morning, this Saturday and every Saturday” Said Siri at lunch, standing at the head table, her sapphire blue eyes moving across each of us, “We have graciously permitted you the hours of extra sleep. Ensure you are not late, and ensure that you are prepared. Saturdays will be the culmination of every week and you will be given Sundays for recovery and chores. Though some of you will receive more of one than the other.”
Speculation grew that night as we readied for bed, with several of my bunkmates speaking up.
“They said that weekends were when we would be given a chance to strive for Upper!” said Josh the flamethrower, rolling a small ball across his knuckles absentmindedly, the flame jumping an inch every time it crossed a ridge, “Makes you wonder what we have to do.”
“Hopefully not hit a small target!” smirked Lucio, a toothbrush hanging out of his mouth as he passed by the door.
“Nobody asked you!” retorted Josh, the flame skipping an entire knuckle as it doubled in size. “Or invited you in here!”
“You’re just jealous because I got the good room first!” said Lucio. “A lot nicer when you only have two! So roomy. You wouldn’t know. SC, though- the invitation still stands.”
“No thanks,” I answered. If Josh was right, I’d be moving to the far nicer Upper dorms soon when I could prove I was worthy in the morning. There would be no point to changing bunks now.
“Suit yourself, SC,” said Lucio, and I rubbed my back, remembering how bad the last few nights had been from the lumps in my mattress, “Are you sure though?”
“I’m sure.” I answered. One more night wouldn’t be that bad. And when I did climb into bed, the lumps I had remembered must have been smoothed out.
That next morning we met in the auditorium, the typical yawning reduced from the extra few hours of sleep, and the instructors leading us into the smaller practice gym, the one next to the daily Average practice with instructor Peregrine. We lined up, the Averages along the long wall, and the Bottoms and Uppers facing each other from opposite ends of the rectangle.
The center of the gym was raised on a flat mound of dirt two feet high piled atop the floor, chalk lines creating a segmented oval with two circles on both ends. Obstacles were erected between the two circles- a car door was embedded into the dirt, a large wooden wiring spool was tilted in the middle, a low ridge of granite stones ran diagonal, and a long knee deep puddle ran in an arc just inside the chalk line.
Perpendicular to the edge of the mound stood a table with two flip boards on it, one green and the other red, with numbers between zero and three. The two guards who had dragged me inside the first day sat behind each of the boards, their eyes on us as we entered, and their palms flat on the table.
“Welcome!” exclaimed Siri, climbing to the center of the mound and standing atop the wiring spool. “Welcome to Saturday activities! As promised, this is where you will have the ability to control your future positions in Upper, Average, and Bottom. Each week, Bottoms will be given the opportunity to challenge Averages and Averages the opportunity to challenge Uppers. Uppers, it is upon you to defend your position! Should more than one person challenge the same contestant a rank above them, they must fight each other for the opportunity to advance.”
Siri spread her arms wide, pointing to the two edges of the oval where the circles waited.
“Contestants will start on both sides, with the more senior choosing their preferred circle. The winner will be determined when the first contestant scores three points- each point signifying a death stroke, or an action that either incapacitates or has the potential to kill an opponent. Now, applications will come one week in advance, and may be submitted at any point prior to the end of today. Simply fill out a form with your own name as well as the name of the person you wish to challenge, and drop it inside the box located at the entrance of this gym. By the next morning, brackets will be on display in the auditorium of the coming week’s matches.
“This means each of you will have one week to prepare, one week to gauge the other’s weaknesses, to determine how to best defeat the other power. Obviously, this does not reflect an accurate fight, so as we progress through the year, this time will shorten and brackets will be displayed later and later into the week. Seven days will be reduced to six, then five, then all the way down to the minute before the competition. Accordingly, the points to win will also be diminished from three to one. Bear in mind that this places the advantage upon the challenger, as they will still have a full week to prepare.”
She smiled, turning from Upper to Average to Bottom.
“So, students, take a close look at your peers. Who among you will be changing their position next week? Who among you will become an Upper? It’s up to you! That’s all for today, but prepare for next week. And don’t forget your submissions!”
The submission box was closest to the Bottoms, and every single one of them rushed into the front of the line, their eyes flickering from Average to Average as they considered their options. After a few moments, they shoved their slips into the box and the first of the Averages arrived, their own hungry gazes already shifting across the Uppers. Several Averages had already left the gym, particularly those who did not stay overnight at the school, Arial among them. But of those in the dorms, nearly all remained.
I considered my options among the Uppers. Should I choose someone too easy there would be too much competition to reach them, and I’d be exhausted before the fight that actually mattered. And should I choose someone too difficult, I’d waste my opportunity to jump a rank and have to wait another full week.
But after a few moments of thought, I wrote a name upon my slip, and jammed it into the box.
Then I waited for the next day, when the brackets would be displayed.
“Oh ho ho, SC, I hope you’re ready for a fun week!” shouted Josh as the door to our room slammed shut and I sat up in my bed, still groggy from sleep.
“What- what’s going on?” I asked, blinking, and seeing that outside the sun had just started to rise.
“Woke up and I had to pee like nobody’s business, so I figured I’d check if the brackets were posted. And they are! A few Bottoms beat me to it!”
Blankets flew into the air as the rest of the students jumped to their feet, scurrying down the hall in bare feet, rushing forward to see the brackets. Of those in my room, every one of us had challenged an Upper. And every one of us was excited to win.
Three brackets were painted onto a banner the size of a van and hung from the auditorium wall, high enough that even the shorter students in the back of the growing crowd could see them clearly. First, there was the largest banner, the Average versus Average. Here, those that had put the same name down to challenge an upper were dueling each other first in order to move to the Upper vs Average bracket. The largest sub-bracket was filled with ten names, all fighting for the opportunity to duel Roger, the Upper who was largely believed to have his position due to his father’s large donation to the school the prior year. Though his power was strong as an Electorspark, Roger rarely looked others in the eye, and during initial testing here were whispers that the instructor spent twenty minutes trying to coax his power out of him.
Relief flooded over me as I saw that I had bypassed the Averages bracket entirely and moved to the Uppers vs Averages, no one else stepping forward to challenge my opponent- Blake, the Diamond Exterior, whose power relied upon direct contact with me. And since the contest was scored by striking your opponent, as long as I could keep my distance and use my power at a distance I would have a chance. Better than simply becoming an Upper, it would be my opportunity to retaliate against his earlier comments. And when I did become an Upper, it meant I wouldn’t have to share a classroom with him.
But then I saw an footnote next to my name, and the smile froze on my face. There, on the Bottoms vs Averages bracket, I had a challenger. Someone who I would have to defeat before facing Blake.
The student who has stood next to me during the assembly on the first day, whose shoes and clothes had smoldered before Siri turned her attention on him. Who now watched me from the other side of the gym, his hand on the wall, his eyes meeting mine. Then he turned to go, an ash handprint left behind, and a poster on the wall curling away from heat as he passed.
I swallowed and turned back to the bracket, making sure no one else had challenged me. A few were bracketed against Arial, another had chosen Lucio, and a third against Darian. The other names were not so familiar to me, though I knew in the majority of cases the Bottoms would have trouble- with powers like theirs, they stood little chance of making their way into the Average ranks.
Except for my opponent, who should have been placed among the most powerful had he not misbehaved.
Which meant this coming Sunday, I had to fight not just one Upper, but two.
Late Sunday night I made my way to the training gym, the steps along the dark hallways now familiar as part of my routine. The singing had just finished, and I felt the usual rush of motivation flood through me, spurring me forward, pushing me to train. To become an upper, and defeat both Blake and Fino.
But halfway down the main hallway of the school, I stopped cold, seeing a door creak open in a dozen yards front of me. With a single side step I darted into a dark classroom, holding my breath as I strained my ears, my heart seizing as a tree branch scraped against the side of the building and the wind whistled. I craned my neck, my eyes trying to discern shapes but finding nothing that moved, wondering if it had only been my imagination.
Slowly, I crept out from the classroom, my eyes on the door that had opened, my feet making no sound on the cold floor. Still there was no movement, but I frowned, knowing that if I crossed the door’s threshold anyone inside could see me. And pretty sure that the door had moved, but not one hundred percent sure.
So I backed away down the main corridor, keeping my eyes pinned ahead until I turned the corner. There, along a slightly longer route, was a side corridor that I could take instead. One that looped along the sleeping quarters, then passed behind the cafeteria, but would still bring me to the gym.
I darted like a shadow, ducking under each of the incremental windows set into the wall, resisting the temptation to break into a run. The confines of this smaller hallway made the hairs on my neck stand up, the tight turns concealing each new length, the moonlight shining through the windows keeping my pupils just small enough to hide the darker shadows.
Which was why I never saw the small meeting, I only heard it.
“Every minute she spends here is increased risk!” Hissed a voice from ahead on my right, and I froze, dropping to a crouch inside a broom filled maintenance closet. Just ahead I could see the dim light around the edges of an ajar door, the teacher’s lounge, and I swallowed as I recognized the speaker.
“He picks her up each day while the rest of the students are cleaning. I’ve watched them- every time he drives by it’s slow as he peers through the gates, searching for something. He's suspicious. And I’m sure she provides him with a highlight reel each night.”
“If you’re acting accordingly, you should have nothing to worry about,” came the second voice, and my eyes widened as I recognized it too as Siri. “I’ve been running rehabilitation centers for ten years, Peregrine, with hardly a hiccup after the first center. We’re far cleaner now than back then, and we’ve closed the records on those students- the ones that entered the mental wards are there for PTSD from the front lines of the wars, and the ones who haven’t are so loyal to the state that they died for it. Besides, the police know we are the hand that feeds them- if they were going to bite us, they would have done so long ago, and if they want trained Specials to populate their ranks then they have no choice but to comply.”
“Yes, the police might not try anything, but he’s an independent contractor with a knack for looking in places he shouldn’t,” Peregrine protested. “Technically, he’s not bound by their rules- he can act rogue, or at least claim that, whether or not he is colluding. They can deny any sort of interference on their part.”
“But your project is well hidden, is it not? Just three weeks ago you assured me that no one would ever find it, even with a map,” responded Siri, then her voice turned low and hard. “Or do I have reason to be concerned, Peregrine?”
“I didn’t expect a damn Hunter to be on my tracks.”
“You’ve dealt with them before, deal with them again.” she said, her voice drawling. "You're being paranoid, Peregrine."
“It’s not strategic. Let’s remove her before she causes trouble, expel her or cause an accident, or facilitate her entry into a new school,” he demanded. "I might be paranoid, but you're reckless."
“It is strategic, Peregrine. If her father suspects something, he’ll find a way to keep investigating. However, there’s only one way to hold him at bay,” she answered. “Do you know why my singing power works? It creates a desire so strong that everything else is eroded away. Once you have a person controlled by their desire, you can steer them any way you wish. And desire comes from something you can’t have, something that is taken from you. Do you follow me, Peregrine? Why give him back his daughter?”
“It’s risky,” he answered slowly. “But I agree that it does make sense. While we have her during the day, he can’t make an advance. He has to be cautious, so we only have to watch for him in the hours she isn’t here.”
“Of course, but you misunderstand me. If she is always here,” hissed Siri, “Then you shouldn’t have to worry about him ever. I think it’s time Arial realized that the rehabilitation facility is where she belongs.”
I smiled as I awakened the morning after overhearing Siri and Peregrine, jumping out of bed to to prepare for physical exercise. Even in the short time that I had been in the facility, my muscles had already started to firm from the morning sessions- I could feel it in my back when I climbed up to my bunk, or my legs when taking three stairs at a time was easier than just one. And in the mornings, my joints and limbs no longer groaned from the previous day- rather, there was a permanent soreness in them that was almost satisfying, a deep sensation deep under the skin that thirsted to be stretched.
After becoming accommodated to regular meals and a having a mattress under me each night, my physical scores reflected my growing muscles as well- now I started placing in the upper fifth of the class, completing the exercises quicker to afford longer breaks, and watching as the other students improved as well. Even Connor could now keep up with the remainder of the class- though his times were poor, he actually completed the routine instead of stopping midway.
When I arrived in instructor Linns’ class later that day, I couldn’t help but feel happy for Arial as she sat next to me- she would be receiving special attention from Siri, and soon she would not have to be around her father as often. I laughed, remembering how I had wanted to help him before Siri’s comments about him the night before- obviously, he was someone to be avoided. Plus, this meant Arial wouldn’t be leaving me for a new school. Besides Darian and Lucio, she was one of the only students I spoke to on a regular basis.
And even though the sides of my mouth raised when I waved at her, my heart twinged just for an instant, my face struggling to hide jealousy. Hopefully it wouldn’t be long before I, too, had some individual time with Siri.
“What are you so happy about?” Arial asked after class, as I walked with her towards lunch.
“Oh, nothing in particular,” I lied, not wanting to spoil the surprise. “Just ready for the brackets this Saturday!”
“You realize it’s ridiculous, right?” she huffed, shaking her head. “Them turning us against each other to try to become Uppers. Life is perfectly fine as an Average, without everyone staring at you like they want to stab you in the back.”
“It’s an excellent opportunity to advance, Arial,” I lectured, and she rolled her eyes. “I have a feeling you’ll change your mind eventually.”
Then it was onto Peregrine’s class, where we continued to hone our abilities. I frowned, realizing halfway through that Arial had not come with us- hopefully she hadn’t already left for home. Since seeing the brackets, everyone was practicing with increased ferocity, particularly in areas that they thought would expose a weakness in their enemy.
No one wanted to volunteer to help Lucio and take time from their own routine, so Peregrine selected a student at random every few minutes. And next to me, Darian practiced with Miles since no one else could muster the strength to hold the dummies that Miles slammed with punches that would dent the side of bank vaults, or spot him as he lifted several thousand pounds in lead weights. But for Darian, once he mimicked Miles’ power, the task was easy.
I rushed through chores after dinner, hoping for a chance at a nap to recover from the night before and revive me for the chance to go to the gym while the others slept. Today, I had been assigned yard maintenance, one of the quicker tasks, in particular to rake leaves scattered around the physical training ground.
“Create piles, bag them, and dispose of them behind the dumpster, at the back of the school,” one of the instructors directed me, his voice a drawl. “Once you’re finished with that, you’re free for the night.”
But the dumpster was at the far end of the school, and each of the trips would take just as long as the raking itself. Holding a hand over my eyes to shield from the sun, I scanned the yard as I finished my first pile, looking for where else I could dispose of them. Then I turned around, and nodded as I saw the fence behind me.
There was the rhododendron tree I used to climb, which had a perpetual mound of leaves at its base, one that no one would notice if they were to become slightly larger. All I had to do was throw the bags over the wall, empty them after by scaling the fence, and return back to the yard. Overall, it would be far quicker than the dumpster.
I looked left and right as I turned the first bag into a pendulum, swinging it from my right shoulder until I was sure no one was watching. Then I heaved it upwards, releasing it in a long arc, and watching as the bag started to sail over the wall in a trajectory aimed for the tree.
And just as it cleared the lip of the wall, it exploded.
Leaves showered down in trailing arcs as my mouth opened, watching as the bag ruptured against the air, splitting open and toppling down half full on top of my head. Shaking it off, I squinted, trying to see if anything had collided with it. Then I picked up a rock from the ground and lobbed it upwards, watching as bounced away off of nothing and back into the school yard. Curious, I climbed, my hands finding little nooks in the bricks, and placed my palm against where only air should be.
And instead, I felt a cold, smooth continuation of the wall. An invisible object that extended as far as I could reach, and that shimmered just slightly on contact with my palm, barely enough that I could see a disruption.
Strange, I thought, my eyebrows coming together. This part of the city wasn’t that dangerous, and certainly did not warrant extra security to protect us from outside. And everyone loved the facility, so surely it was not meant to keep us in- who would ever try to leave?
Collecting the rest of the leaves, I hauled them to the dumpster, biting my lip as I walked. Just thinking about the invisible wall made my stomach feel unsettled, though I wasn’t sure why. Surely it meant me no harm.
And after I finished, I rushed back to the dorm, eager to take a quick nap. Most students were still completing their chores so I would have plenty of quiet, a luxury that was near nonexistent at the facility. Settling into bed, I closed my eyes, then cursed as I realized I had left my shoes in the bathroom next door. With I sigh I sat back up, rising to fetch them, and walking barefoot onto the cold bathroom floor.
But my shoes weren’t by the door, like I thought they had been. Actually, now I couldn't remember using the bathroom at all. And my forehead wrinkled as I tried to remember why I even would have left my shoes here, just as I heard someone step forward from behind me.
Before I could move, I was shoved against the wall, my hands pinned behind me with fingers clenched around my wrists like vice grips, my shoulders nearly ripped out of the sockets, and a pressure applied to the small of my back that expelled my breath in a gasp.
“This has gone on long enough SC, it’s time we set you straight,” whispered Lucio’s voice as I struggled to turn. “Let’s go, move him. We don’t have much time, and I’ll need all I can get.”
“Cut that out, or I’ll snap your neck!” Growled Darian as I squirmed, my arms still pinned behind my back as he lifted me into the air, one of my kicks catching Lucio in the chest as I struggled, "I've borrowed the strength to do it!"
“Hel-” I managed to shout before Lucio’s hand clamped over my mouth and they started to move, rushing me towards their dormitory room, the rest of the beds along the way deserted as the other students completed their chores. My face flushed red as I reached out with two force points, ripping a shower curtain away from the rod and flinging it over Darian, who swore as he struggled to remove it while the metal hooks clawed over his skin. Next came the collection of shampoo and body wash bottles, spraying over Lucio and the floor as Darian struggled forward, now slipping over the layer of colored soap coating the tiles.
Stumbling, he dropped me as he fell forward, and I slid on my back over the gel until I struck the far wall with the back of my head, my vision flashing as I raised a dazed hand. A stack of toilet paper rolls pelted Darian like machine gun fire as he recovered, and with my other hand I prepared to rip the toilet stall doors straight from their hinges. But then Lucio threw the ripped away shower curtain over me like a net, cutting off my vision as Darian whipped me around like a rag doll inside the folds of the plastic, bundling me tighter than a burrito as he hoisted me over his shoulder.
Without my vision I could no longer see objects to launch at them, and I groped out at random as they dashed away. I heard the sound of bunks screeching as I pulled them towards us, then books being ripped off of the provided study desks, and chairs toppling onto the floor. Then my ankles smacked against the door frame of their room, Darian unrolled the shower curtain like a carpet, and I tumbled on the bed.
“Don’t you even!” hissed Lucio as I reached a hand upwards, immediately taking hold of a lamp with a force point and flinging it towards him while struggling to sit up, but he ducked out of the way.
“We’re trying to help you, you idiot!”
“I should have never trusted you in the first place,” I shouted back, and launched myself from the bed just as Darian raised a hand, and I slammed into an invisible wall that domed over the top of me. Tiny ripples spread away from my point of contact as I fell back onto the mattress, the springs rebounding me upwards to smack against the invisible wall again as Darian grimaced.
“Hold still!” he commanded, but I punched upwards, my fist striking the wall in an explosion of pain, the sensation of the material the exact same as the bubble that encapsulated the facility. Then I reached outwards, pulling a broom that had been leaning against the doorway over the barrier so hard that the handle snapped, splinters scattering around the room.
“SC, it’s no use, cut it out. Like Lucio said, we’re here to help.” continued Darian, his voice slightly muted. “Keep quiet, or we’ll have more trouble on our hands.”
“You’ll have more trouble on your hands!” I answered. “Let me out of here! Stay away!”
For an instant the wall disappeared, only to be replaced by one that was smaller, giving me only a half foot of space to move. The barrier was now so close I could feel my exhalations striking the inner top of it, and the hairs on my neck pricked as Lucio moved in closer. My breath came quicker, my chest heaving up and down as I pushed against the invisible material, my thoughts giving way to panic.
And I felt myself doing something familiar, something I hadn’t done in quite some time, something that happened more out of instinct than intention.
My index finger found its normal resting place between my thumb and palm, and with a flick I snapped space downwards, a black orb forming directly above me. Light spiraled into the sphere and I fed my own shirt into it as it gained stability, the fabric splitting apart at the thread level as the sphere gained weight and size, the sheets underneath me rushing to jump into the orb as well.
“What the Hell is that?” exclaimed Darian, his deep voice still managing to portray calm as his eyes widened and the dark sphere moved upwards to meet the invisible barrier. At the edges, the wall glowed purple as the sphere approached, neon sparks flying away as the two entities met. And then the sphere broke the barrier, the wall swirling inwards to join it like water down a drain. I laughed as the outer edges of the dome receded into the orb and Darian created a second barrier, only to have it disappear into the orb as well.
“Lucio, a little help!” cried Darian, sweat pouring down his forehead.
“Right!” shouted Lucio, and leapt forward, his hand coming down over my forehead, “But this isn’t going to be easy! I would apologize, SC, if you weren't being such a prick- but this is going to hurt.”
Then I smiled, the world before me dimming as I entered a daydream, a memory more fresh than reality. There, just in front of me, Arial floated, smiling as the wind caught hold of her hair and streamed it out like a cape, the setting sun behind her illuminating each of the individual strands with a golden halo. A creek bubbled just off to my right, and green meadow stretched into the distance on the left, meeting snow capped mountains a few miles away.
“I’ve always wanted to show you this place,” she said as I relaxed, taking in the scenery. It was beautiful, just as beautiful as she was as she stared at me, her pupils dilated, her face lit by a glow that drew me in. “Remarkable, isn’t it?”
I nodded, my mouth slightly open, my brow furrowed as I tried to remember where we were. Nowhere near the city could I find somewhere like this, not even when I took the bus into the outskirts. Maybe she had flown us here.
And as I fought to remember, I felt something at the back of my head. Not outside my head, but inside it, like a worm burrowing through soil. And Arial disappeared in a burst of color as singing filled my mind, singing so loud that my hands covered my ears and I could practically see the dancing notes. They moved in front of me, becoming more distant as they pulled away, the feeling similar to floss being pulled through my teeth and out from the back of my throat.
Paralyzed, my body rigid and my muscles tensed, I watched the music depart, the sounds leaving a burning sensation wherever they touched, reaching backwards as they fled and trying to catch my thoughts, to hook themselves back into my mind. But they were cleared away by a sweeping motion, like a squeegee over a window, letting no remnants remain.
I opened my eyes as Darian and Lucio stood over me, both of them tense and staring as I spoke, my body shaking as the memories of the last few days came flooding back. But it was as if I were rereading a book several years after the first time, the meanings of sentences altered on the second rendition, my more matured mind picking up parts that had been previously been hidden between the lines.
“My God.” I whispered, looking up at them. “Arial."
“SC, when you’re finished, I’m going to need some help here,” said Darian from above me.
I retched again over the side of the bed into a box that had been full of books just a few moments before, graciously provided by Lucio as soon as my face turned green. With each beat of my heart my head pounded, the sensation rushing from the outer edges of my skull inward, and I winced with each pulse.
“What?” I managed to ask, and looked upwards to where Darian stood, his hands two feet apart. Caught between them was the black orb, hovering in place, and as I watched a pen from the other side of the room zipped towards the center like an arrow, only to be consumed into the mass.
“Oh, that,” I said, feeling out for the orb where I had left it during the memory daydream, and feeling Darian’s mirrored presence holding it in place. “Let go, I’ve got it now.”
With a sigh he released the orb, pulling his hands backward, and I took hold of the sharp depression in space. Slowly I opened it, releasing a stream of light that danced around the room, illuminating Lucio’s and Darian’s faces. Then with a small pop and flash of light the orb ceased to exist, dust floating to the ground from where it had been, while the two spectators jumped back in shock.
“Telekinetic my ass!” said Lucio, pointing a finger at me. “That girl Arial wasn’t lying on that first day of class with Linns! What are you?”
“Well, before we get to that,” I said, staring into the mess accumulating at the bottom of the box, feeling my stomach lurch again. “What did you do to my head? I thought you said you couldn’t alter memories. And what’s going on, I feel all muddled.”
“Until you can speak properly, we’ll go first to fill you in. But then you owe us or else I’ll broadcast this power over the entire facility. Something tells me they would be eager to find out about it,” answered Darian. “Lucio, want to explain?”
“You’re right, I can’t modify memories,” responded Lucio. “Provided that they are actual memories. Your problem is that Siri implanted her songs into your head- they’re near memories, so I can’t alter them either, but I can find them and remove them. It’s like cutting away brambles stuck to jeans- I couldn’t help it, some of them will make you bleed. But they needed to be removed.”
“Thanks,” I said, the word all I could muster as I remembered the sensation.
“Since day one,” continued Darian, “Lucio has been removing the singing from my head each morning. And while I’m nowhere near as skilled as him, I can emulate his power enough to remove a day’s worth of singing from his head. Much more than that, though, and I would be useless. Siri’s song has to build upon itself- multiple days are needed for it to really take root. They have to be layered.”
“Not entirely true,” said Lucio, raising a finger, “From what I can tell, she could enchant someone in a single session, but it would be dangerous. Basically, she would have to rip open their subconscious, and at that point she would have far less control of the outcome. It’s much safer to gradually take root.”
“But even if it is safer,” interjected Darian, “You can still tell who has been altered by their mannerisms. She has to be careful- after some of the stronger nightly sessions, the recipients act out of their minds. SC, we watched you try to write on one of Linn’s quizzes with an eraser for ten minutes once before you realized it made no marks. Another time, getting changed after physical practice you took the same pair of pants on and off five times. It’s as if you’re concussed- the brain needs time to recover.”
“It sure does,” I said, closing my eyes, the world swimming. “God, we need to find Arial. They’re talking about giving her a full on session.”
“She’s gone for the day,” said Darian. “I saw her leave. But how, exactly, would you know that?”
“I’ll need to start from the top,” I answered. “But if I tell you this, you have to keep it a secret.”
“Hey now, you were the one that was about to run blabbing to Siri!” insisted Lucio. “I think Darian and I are more trustworthy in the secrets department.”
“Fine,” I sighed. “But first, tell me- am I really scheduled to fight Blake and Fino at the end of this week? Lucio, tell me that’s one of your memories.”
“Nope,” he answered, shaking his head, “Like I said, the singing makes you crazy. And in your case, plain stupid. At least more than normal.”
“Damn,” I responded. “That’s going to hurt. And why did you use the daydream of Arial to calm me down?”
Lucio chuckled, a sly grin forming on his face, “I didn’t. I just planted the seeds for happy thoughts, fantastical ones. But for the future, that’s good ammunition.”
“Damn again,” I groaned. “As if you need that.”
“Not like it wasn’t obvious already,” Darian stated. “Now focus, SC. You owe us a story. The others will get back any minute. Wait, hold on- Lucio, let’s clean the best we can before they see anything! Hurry!”
And when they returned, I started, my voice low so others couldn’t overhear.
“There’s a reason why you didn’t recognize my power." I said, pushing the box of vomit away, "It’s because, to my knowledge, I am the first of my kind. And the only.”
“I still can’t believe you’re from space,” whispered Lucio from across the table, his face alight. “I mean, I believe you, but it’s still crazy! I’d almost believe that you are a Memwriter, not me!”
We were at lunch, Lucio leaning across the table with his palms flat on the surface. The night before I’d switched rooms, moving in with Darian and Lucio while leaving the others behind, using the excuse that their snores had driven me off. And in the morning, we’d awakened ten minutes early- even after one night of the singing I felt groggy, as if I had barely slept the night before, and thoughts seemed to stop halfway through my mind. This time, when Lucio reached out to my mind, the process only left me slightly disoriented.
“It’s like the dentist,” he said. “Last time, I had to remove teeth. This time I only have to polish them. It’ll be much less painful.”
And now, at lunch, Darian put a hand against Lucio’s chest to push him back into his chair.
“Keep your voice down or the whole cafeteria is going to hear,” he chastised. “Don’t be an idiot. This secret is the greatest weapon we have right now- it means we can exit the force field. It means we can escape.”
“Sure, sure,” said Lucio, hesitant. “But you forgot something- SC said he came here on purpose. We can only escape with him, unless you use his power.”
“Which is something you should avoid doing at all costs,” I hissed back to Darian. “Look, I’m here because I’m hiding. I told you about the Hunter- if you use this power on the outside, you’ll draw him in like a magnet. Anyways, how long can you hold on to my power?”
“That’s all the more incentive for you to help us then,” countered Darian. “We saved you, now you save us. Anyways, I can only store a few powers at a time. The stronger they are, the less I can keep- it’s as if I put them inside a box, and the box size is only big enough to contain a few. And they’re always weaker than the original source. But I’ll hold onto this one as long as I need to.”
“I promise I’ll find a way to get you out of here,” I answered, looking directly into his eyes. “But you have to promise me you won’t use my power to do it first. Look- I know you hate Siri as much as I do. She’s planning something, something big- how great would it be to really stick it to her and the rest of the instructors when we leave? And if we do it right, we might shut down the facility by the sounds of their relationship with the police. Besides, if you’re caught escaping now, all that will happen is that the police will bring you back- let’s make sure there is nowhere they can bring you back to.”
“I’d be in for sure,” Lucio said, cutting off Darian. “Let’s start trouble.”
“Fine,” Darian ceded, crossing his hands over his chest. “I promise. But you better hold up your end of the bargain, SC. I’m in this to escape.”
“Like you said, I owe you, so I will,” I answered. “But we’ll need a plan, and right now I don’t have one.”
We fell silent, and I considered potential ideas. Unlike Darian, I was not ready to leave the facility- I still had to learn to fight. Additionally, I still had no solid leads on my mother, but spying on Siri as they became further pitted against the police might help. Perhaps they might have clues on why my mother had been taken, or perhaps I could lead them into investigating why.
I racked my brain for ideas, letting my gaze wander over the lunchroom. There, the Ass Table was still empty, the inhabitants having just reached the front of the line for food. To the right sat the Uppers, laughing as Blake threw an orange into the middle of the Bottoms still in line and they fought each other for who could claim it. I narrowed my eyes as they pushed over each other- in only moments, they would also have food, but something as rare as fresh fruit rarely remained long enough for a Bottom to find it.
I was so busy staring at the Bottoms, I didn’t realize that Blake had met my gaze, his own eyes turning hard as the outer edges frosted into crystal. Within that instant, I knew both our minds were focused on the same topic- the bracket, and this coming Saturday.
Casually, and still locked in a glare, he reached for an apple in the center of the table. And he raised an index finger, the edge glinting as it caught the lighting above us, and sliced clean through the apple to the core with a single swipe. The top of the apple slid away and fell to the floor as juice trickled down his palm, and he held the apple towards me, before crushing it in a diamond encrusted fist.
Swallowing, I looked away before he tossed the mass to the Bottoms, just as Lucio nudged me.
“Hey, SC, look who’s coming! It’s the girl of your dreams - well, our dreams, since I gave them to you! I’m sure you’d love some more, eh?”
“Shut it, Luc-” I started just as Arial sat next to me and placed a bowl of tomato soup on the table. I started, remembering that we needed a plan to expose Siri. And I realized that she might hold the answer.
“Arial, does your father still want information on the rehabilitation facility? If we could find out some secrets, could he share them with the police? Secrets bad enough that we could then leave this place?”
Arial frowned, staring at her soup, a fork in her hand. She dipped the utensil in the thin liquid, the soup drizzling away before it had a chance to reach her mouth, spilling over the table. With a sigh she tried again with the same result, her brow furrowed when only a fraction of a morsel was actually consumed.
“Arial?” I repeated, and she looked up at me, tilting her head.
“Leave, SC?” She asked, dipping the fork into the soup once more. “Why would I ever want to leave?”
Arial turned to face me, her eyes meeting mine as chills ran down my spine. For an instant, I could have sworn they were a bright sapphire blue- but when they came into focus they resumed their normal brown color, the pupils sliding over me in search for a handhold but finding none, as if they looked past my features and I was just a piece of the background.
“I already leave too often,” she mumbled, biting her lip, “To perform as a student, I need to focus more. To immerse myself in learning.”
“Arial!” I said, snapping by her ear and letting my hand fall on her shoulder. “Arial, stop it, no you don't. Lucio, can't you help her?”
“Help me what?” She asked, as Lucio scanned the room.
“Not here,” he answered. “Too many distractions, and it would be too obvious!”
“If you would help me be Upper, I would be happy,” Arial contributed, smiling, and twirling a finger around a lock of her hair, “We can be Uppers together! Wouldn't that be sweet, SC? Should we start now? The more we train, the better our chances.”
“No, Arial,” I responded, shaking my head. “Later, later we can do it. We’ll, ah, help you become an Upper then.”
“Good!” She said, standing. “Until then, I’m going to head to the practice gym. I’ve been falling behind, it’s time to get ahead. Since I’m only a flier, I’ll have to work harder than the others to make it ahead.”
The table was quiet as Arial departed, until Lucio broke the silence.
"See how we felt?" He stated. "That was you, not too long ago, until we shook you loose."
“And so much for the idea of using her father, SC,” Darian snorted, rising to follow Arial. “That's not going to happen. But one thing is certain, whether or not you listen to Siri. If we become Bottoms, we’ll have no time to develop a plan. And if we are separated, the singing will drive us mad. So I suggest we train. And SC, don’t think for a second that if we become Bottoms I’ll stick around- at that point, you can consider your promise broken, because I'll know you won't be able to make a plan.”
The lunch room was half empty and Darian out of sight when Lucio spoke up, shaking me from thoughts that had turned to brooding.
“You know, it’s not really that bad here,” he said, his voice a flat monotone, unlike the typical prying dance that it normally performed. “At least not for the three of us, since we're now immune to the singing. I don’t see why Darian hates it so much- but you, you still want to stay. How do you feel about it?”
“I feel like there’s something going on that I don’t know,” I returned, forcing myself to finish the food on my plate though I was no longer hungry, “Something that could be a clue to find my mother. But even if it isn’t, I came here to learn to fight. And I still have a long ways to go.”
“So you’re saying that you’d just leave otherwise?” he asked, leaning in. “If there was no fighting and no clues about your mother? You’d just up and go? As if nothing happened, as if we never met?”
“I wouldn’t really have a reason to stay, would I?” I answered, picking at a few crumbs on my plate before deciding they weren’t worth the effort, and setting my fork down.
“I suppose you wouldn’t, but after this, what then? Darian, he’s always trying to find something new. Even without this facility he’d be trying to escape something. We've only known each other a few weeks and already I can tell that. But what are you going to do?”
“Find my mother. That's my only goal.”
“But then what?” Lucio practically yelled, then crossed his arms and sat backwards. “You’re just going to off and leave once you do that, aren’t you? Did I ever tell you where I was born, SC? Why I have this power?”
“Yes, Hollywood. You said it when we met. I’m sorry, Lucio, I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“Right, Hollywood. The land of movies, but also the land of forgotten faces, forgotten actors and actresses and stories that never made it to the screen. Of dreams buried under Sunset Boulevard. I was born to a mother who didn’t want me, SC. In an alleyway behind a bar, a forgotten baby, left behind while she drank enough tequila to forget everything else in her life. That’s why I’m a Memwriter- like Linns said, when we are born our power clings to whatever it can in the outside world. And I think in that moment, even newborn me knew that I too would be forgotten unless I did something about it. Unless I created memories.”
Lucio’s chair stuttered backwards as he stood, and with a start I saw his eyes glistening with moisture.
“And for once in my life, I’d like to create some real ones. To not be the forgettable orphan. Because at least inside here, I have friends. And when we leave, that’s something I don’t want to lose.”
Then he stalked away, turning so I couldn’t see his face, and leaving me at the table. Alone. And without a plan.
“Since the challenges have been issued and the brackets are up, it’s only normal to experience anticipation,” stated Instructor Linns from the front of the classroom that Wednesday. “But that does not mean you have a free ride to doze off or act up in class. Pay attention! Those of you who do will be grateful this coming Saturday, and those who do not will likely regret it. Consider this some free coaching.”
Instructor Linns whipped a ruler against his teaching desk, the crack making several students in the back start.
“Now, many of you aspire to become Uppers, an admirable position. But there is a reason that the current Uppers are Uppers- to be frank, their powers are more advanced than your own. Without training, I would classify you as crazy to fight them- but with training, you stand a chance. Now class, who remembers why an unknown power is so difficult to defeat?”
“The element of surprise!” shouted Luccio, directly into Darian’s ear and making the larger student jump.
“Well demonstrated,” commended instructor Linns with a nod, “And correct. Remember, the advantage comes from the enemy being unable to find an angle of attack- with no knowledge of a power, there is no way to know their weakness. And far worse, there is no way to know if you are exposing your own weaknesses against an unknown power! But this Saturday, that rule has been turned on it’s head. Now, several days in advance, you not only know the powers you will face but you have the opportunity to choose them as well. You know their weaknesses as well as your own. And you should understand how to exploit them.”
“But they’ll know what’s coming!” wined a student in the back, and Linn’s shook his head. "There's no way we can sneak up on them."
“Some will, those more prepared. But remember, they are proud to be Uppers. Many think they are intrinsically better and this fallacy of pride will be their downfall- from my experience, more warriors fall from pride than any other weapon on the battlefield. Here, let us work through a few examples- however, I won’t be going through any from this coming week, as that would be an unfair advantage. Let this a lesson to you on the importance of choosing not the weakest upper, but the best match for your own power.”
Instructor Linns turned to the board and wrote two powers in large, looping letters.
Electrospark, and Vibrant.
“Now, which of these are more powerful? Which would you, if faced off in a fight, prefer to avoid?”
“Electospark, obviously,” yawned Lucio. “Vibrants can only make plants grow- lower levels can probably even be defeated by skilled Regulars. But an Electrospark would turn me into a Barbeque, and compliment the meal with a few of the Vibrant’s vegetables.”
“Again, correct! Electrosparks are feared and feared for good reason,” said Linns, and turned back to the board to circle Vibrant twice, “But in the field, Vibrants are one of the top powers used to diffuse Electrosparks. In fact, with proper training a Vibrant will defeat an Electrospark consistently, which is why Electrospark and Flamethrowers are often paired together. Can anyone here tell me how?”
“Plants aren’t very conductive,” said a reluctant Darian when no one else spoke up, his voice drawling. “A shielding could be created from leaves, such that the Vibrant sacrifices plants against the lightning.”
“Close, but not quite. Most plants do not conduct electricity, but what’s interesting is that some varieties are excellent at being conductors. Take Aloe Vera, with heavy electrolyte fluids, or any plant that is comprised primarily of water. Instead of creating a shield, Vibrants use a technique called the Walking Vine against Electrosparks- that is, they grow conductive vines like veins around them, and these vines sink into the ground to take root with each step. Should an Electospark attack, the lightning is absorbed by the vines and dissipated into the ground before any damage can be done to a Vibrant, rendering any electrical power useless. And at this point, the battle is no longer a Vibrant against an Electrospark. Rather, it has become a Vibrant against a Regular. Does that make sense?”
“Sure,” I said, waving a hand. “But that example seems pretty extreme. For most of us, our powers will not completely neutralize an Upper, no matter how much planning or preparation we use.”
“True, but it will provide an advantage, such that it is no longer Upper versus Average, but more similar to an Average versus Average,” said instructor Linns, illustrating his point by leveling two of his palms from an uneven formation. “Now, any more questions?”
The class was silent, most students scribbling on their notepads as they thought ahead to the fight in just four days, and others showing visible regret. Had this lesson occurred a week before, many would likely have made different choices in who they would challenge.
“Now, any suggestions for difficult powers to combat? Remember, everyone has a weakness.”
“A Teleporter!” I spoke up after a moment of silence, deciding to take a chance, “How could any of us defeat Instructor Peregrine? Any of us.”
“Your aspirations have jumped far above Upper!” laughed instructor Linns, his eyes sparkling. “Peregrine himself would be more difficult to defeat due to his experience in the field- fighting him is something I would not recommend. But for a normal Teleporter, let’s take Arial as an example. Or any Flier, for that matter.”
“Me?” asked Arial, suddenly stirring. “How would I do what?”
“Defeat a Teleporter, Arial. Please, pay attention- this lesson is designed to help you,” instructor Linns chided. “Now, Teleporters are an interesting breed. On flat terrain, and armed with a blade, they can cut down vast numbers of troops before there is time to react. But Teleporters have an interesting property that Fliers can exploit- have any of you have felt slight breezes of warmth or cold coming from Peregrine as he uses his power?”
“Yeah!” Exclaimed Lucio, “Near burned me once when coming down from the rafters!”
“Precisely, precisely," continued Linns, "When working with different heights, Teleporters have to account for energy debts and expenditures typically associated with climbing and falling. When traveling downwards, they release heat- when moving upwards, they absorb heat. Due to this restriction, jumping too high or low is extremely dangerous, and Fliers can take advantage of this to drain Teleporters or dodge beyond their reach. The rest, I’ll leave to your imagination, as class is ending and I have one final piece of advice.”
Students started packing their bags, and Linns continued speaking, drawing a rough depiction of the fighting arena on the board.
“If you have learned anything from this class, let it be to use knowledge to your advantage. Study the arena and terrain, reduce the number of unknowns that can affect the fight. And use those unknowns against your enemy. Now, for the next two days I will be answering questions to help you on Saturday. Come to the next class prepared."
I was so worried about Saturday that I nearly missed its arrival.
“Get up, SC!” shouted Lucio, shaking me. “We’re going to be late!”
“What- How did we oversleep?”
“We didn’t oversleep, you overslept,” lectured Darian, leaning against the door with his arms folded across his chest. “Come on, let’s go. Wouldn’t want to miss our chance to be an Upper, would we?”
“Figured you could use the extra sleep,” continued Lucio as I dressed, hopping into my gym clothes as we had been instructed the prior morning. “With all the extra training over the last two days, it will only help. Besides, there was no singing last night- I think they want us to be extra alert. Makes for a better show, right?”
“Right,” I muttered, “Might as well give them one then.”
At breakfast the plates were notoriously empty- even the students who stayed overnight could only muster half a bagel, and those known for piling their portions high every morning now stared at their food in silence instead of eating it. Only a few conversations broke out across the room, and those were snuffed out quickly, like match heads that flared up before dying only moments later. The silverware clinked like the ticking of a clock, each chime a reminder that soon the tables would have new inhabitants. Some for the better, and some for the worse.
Then the last fork was dropped onto a tray, and the inhabitants of the cafeteria stood in a wave- the decision unanimous to depart, and together we trickled into the hallway. Opponents skittered away from each other, some refusing to make eye contact, while others attempted to use stares for intimidation.
We arrived in the secondary gym to find bleachers erected- a large section in the middle for Average with two smaller ones on either side for Bottoms and Uppers. Beyond, the brackets had been moved to cover the far wall, a number placed next to each fight to indicate when it would occur. And behind the table where the point scoreboards rested, the two guards that had dragged me through the front doors on the first day sat, their expressions stone as they watched us trickle into our seats, their hands drumming on the table in a mirrored cadence.
Here, even the breathing of students seemed subdued as we waited, staring at the clock above the entrance door as the second hand seemed to resist the palpable force of anticipation. With five minutes left, Siri walked to the center of the combat field, instructor Lynns on her left and instructor Peregrine on her right. With two minutes left, she cleared her throat. And with thirty seconds left, she produced a microphone from within the pocket of her blue suit, tapped it to make sure it was working, and spoke to the waiting crowd.
“Welcome, welcome. Today is the day you’ve been waiting for- the day to prove yourselves to me, the day to become an Upper. The day where your training will pay off, and we will see who among you is worthy, and who among you is fit for only lower duties. Come, show us. Show us not who you are, but who you can be.”
She walked back to the judges table, and gestured at the brackets.
“First, the Bottom versus Bottom matches will occur. Next, the Average versus Bottom, then the Average versus Average. And finally, the Average versus Upper will be the culmination of the brackets. Ties, should they occur, shall be awarded to the higher rank. Any interference from the audience will be punished, so do not interact with those inside the arena. Now, Peregrine, clarify the rules.”
Peregrine stepped forward to take the microphone, then appeared directly in front of us, an eager smile playing across his face.
“Leaving the confines of the arena counts as a point for the opposition- this applies to all circumstances, so should you find yourself cornered against a painted line, I would encourage you to fight your way back in with every ounce of energy you have. Fighters will start at opposite ends of the arena, and after each point is scored they will restart at their original ends. Remember, the only way to score a point aside from forcing your opponent outside the arena is to deal a death or debilitating stroke, and remember, the final point cannot be scored by forcing your opponent outside the arena if the other points have been scored in this manner. May the fiercest among you prosper. Lynns?”
Instructor Lynns walked across the arena to take the microphone from Peregrine, and paused before speaking, his words coming low and steady.
“The fiercest, or the brightest,” he countered, looking back to Peregrine. “Though both are necessary traits. Remember what you have learned, remember what we have taught you. And show us how you have improved over the last two weeks. I wish none of you luck- rather, I wish you the sense to use your ability in its most devastating capacity.”
“And with that,” finished Siri, plucking the microphone from his hands, “Let us begin. Bout one, to the judges table! Show me you deserve to be more than Bottoms, even if I don’t believe you.”
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