All the Kings Horses

A Whateley Academy Vignette

All the King's Horses

by Neomagus
(with assistance from Elrod)


Combat Finals. Wondercute. Everyone knows they'll cream their opponents. Right?

More Whateley Academy tales can be found on Whateley Academy Home Site

* * * * * * * * * *

Saturday, June 2, 2007
Arena 99 Grandstands, Whateley Academy

"Wait...what?" Lindsay's voice perfectly reflected her confused gaze as she looked up at the announcement board over the arena. Yes, her MID was pictured up there, along with those of her teammates. That was different enough from the way everything else had been done so far as to be a bit startling, but that wasn't what really had her perplexed. It was, after all, the very last combat final of the underclassmen week, so there really wasn't any point in trying to keep a secret. There had to be a reason that Wondercute was listed as a team for the final - and with no opponent listed, it was a certainty that it was a crash of some type. But had she really heard the rest of the announcement correctly?

Nephandus didn't even try to suppress his chuckle as he took in Lindsay's reaction. "What's the matter, Dragonrider? Don't like seeing your so-called team's pretty little faces up on the screens?"

Lindsay groaned and glared back at the self-absorbed mage devisor, but before she could respond to him Jadis of all people beat her to the punch.

"Actually, Jay-Arm, considering this is the only final of the term so far to be announced by codename and MID rather than with those newfangled secret code-numbers, it IS a bit disconcerting. But that could just be written off by saying it's the last match of the week, so the need for participant secrecy isn't really a big deal. Kind of a weak argument for the change, but reasonable enough. No, if I know Lindsay like I'm sure I do, she's more worried about why Wondercute has been instructed to report to the sim suite down below and told to suit up, rather than going to the regular briefing room everyone else has used before entering the arena." Jadis met Lindsay's nodding gaze with a worried look of her own before continuing. "And considering the only combat finals to use the VR simulators instead of the arena are the junior and senior finals – and the crashes - I think Lindsay is not only justified in worrying but also right to do so. Gunny and Ito are definitely up to something here."

"Oh come on, sis," Mal butted in with a roll of his eyes. "Gunny and Ito are ALWAYS up to something, so how is this any different? What's the big deal about it being a simulator run? If anything that actually HELPS Wondercute, since that's what they're used to."

"And you have to admit, Jadis, Wondercute has pretty much dominated every single scenario and match the teachers have thrown at them in the sims." Thrasher's tone of voice was almost bored as he gave his two cents without even taking his eyes off of the arena where the repairs were still being made after the last match. "I mean come on, even Outcast Corner and the Grunts don't like to tangle with them anymore, and that says a lot. What could the two sadists actually throw at them?"

"And don't forget, Generator is on the team too," Mal added, "after that madness in her solo final, I don't think they've got anything to worry about."

Lindsay felt her fists clench reflexively. She was happy for Jade that her solo final had gone so well, for sure, but everyone constantly referring to it was starting to grate on her nerves a bit. And now some of her friends were starting to use that as an excuse for writing off her own final as a done deal? Seriously? Even though Generator was on the team, they would still all be graded individually. Jade wasn't the only one that mattered, but she still seemed to be the only one that people noticed or talked about.

With that thought in mind, Lindsay quickly stood and started down the grandstand stairs to get ready, but she'd barely gotten out of hearing range of the other Seeds when she felt a hand on her shoulder that Pern wasn't occupying. She turned around with a frustrated sigh to realize that Jadis had followed her, her face adorned with a sympathetic frown.

"Just three things," she started with a sternness in her voice that Lindsay knew meant she was being very serious, then began ticking off with her fingers. "One: Relax. Don't worry about what anyone else says about you or Generator or anyone else. You know people say stupid stuff, and letting it bother you is just going to be a distraction."

Lindsay gave a dejected sigh. Of course Jadis could see that she was frustrated, and of course she would call her on it. She didn't know if she wanted to feel resentful of that or if she should be thankful that Jadis was watching out for her. She honestly felt a mix of both at that moment. Finally she gave Jadis a nod of acknowledgment, even if it was a bit hesitant and reluctant. Jadis responded with a nod herself before continuing.

"Two: Don't try to be a hero. Don't walk into this thinking that you have to show anyone up or prove yourself to anyone, because all that will do is throw off your team dynamics and strategy. Believe me, Ito and Gunny would much rather see someone faithfully stick to their effective role on a team instead of a cocky show-boater whose attention-seeking endangers the team or its objectives." Now Jadis's expression softened just a bit as she met and held Lindsay's gaze. "That means sticking to our plan for the new tricks and tools that you've been working on, Lindsay. Just stick to your usual role as much as you can, and don't use the new stuff unless you really have to."

"Yeah, I know that part," Lindsay admitted with some resignation. She'd wanted to start using her new gear almost as soon as it was ready, but Jadis had taken the time to convince her how valuable it was to keep some of one's capabilities hidden and on reserve for emergencies. Sure it frustrated her a bit to have to hold back some of the things she'd put so much time and effort into, but she could understand the reason for it and she trusted Jadis' judgment on this point.

Jadis actually smiled at her friend's response. "Good, I thought you might want to argue about that one." Then she raised a third finger. "Three: Keep your eyes open. Mal and the others might not take it seriously, but I don't like this sudden change for the format of your match. There HAS to be a reason that Gunny and Ito opted for the full simulators for this one. Be ready for anything."

Lindsay almost giggled a bit. Now THAT was a piece of advice she could wholeheartedly agree with and had no plans of ignoring. Pern even gave a bit of an awkward chortle at it, as though even he found the notion of doing otherwise to be rather humorous. Lindsay reached up and gave him a pat on the head as she met Jadis's gaze one more time.

"Oh believe me, we'll definitely be keeping our eyes open. We all know that Gunny and Ito have had it out for us since our first sim as a team. Especially Gunny after we beat the Grunts."

Jadis nodded her approval with a smile. "Well, that's all the advice I've got for you, or at least it's all I have time to give you. You've still got to get down there and suit up." Then she offered her hand to Lindsay for a handshake. "Good luck."

Lindsay ignored her friend's hand and wrapped her in a hug instead.

"Thanks, Jadis. We'll do our best."

And with that she turned and bolted for the nearest staircase so quickly that Pern almost lost purchase on her shoulders and had to scramble to keep himself from falling off.

* * * * * * * * * *

Saturday, June 2, 2007
Beneath Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Lindsay flexed her shoulders as she walked into the briefing room with Pern perched on her left shoulder, both of them clad in their sim suits. She'd been quite happy when the team was finally able to get their own properly-fitted suits rather than having to use the spares that they'd first started with, and Pern couldn't agree more. He excitedly stretched his wings once as he shifted position on his perch.

Looking about the room, Lindsay suppressed a grimace. Apparently getting Pern into his suit had made her the last of the team to arrive. Even Rythax was already suited up and waiting, though as usual his expression was somewhat sour at the prospect of a Wondercute sim. Lindsay struggled to not smirk. He REALLY didn't like having to wear that ribbon.

As soon as Lindsay had taken her seat, the opposite door to the room opened as expected to allow Gunny Bardue and Sensei Ito to enter. Both men looked quite dour, as if the business at hand was vastly displeasing to both of them, though Lindsay knew from experience that Gunny at least almost always looked that way when the business at hand had anything to do with Wondercute. So for him at least everything seemed to be somewhat normal.

Or it did until he started talking.

"Okay, ladies, listen up," came the former Marine's signature growl, "we've got a Total Unknown scenario for you. Unknown assailants. Unknown powers, if any. Unknown motives."

That certainly got everyone's attention, and Lindsay couldn't help thinking that Jadis would be tickled to hear about this. No doubt about it, Gunny and Ito were definitely up to something.

"The only thing we do know," continued Ito after his partner-in-crime's pause, "is that a small girl- scout troop has been caught up in the mix of everything. They were on a weekend camping trip in the forested area of a rural national park, when one of the party managed to get out a satellite phone message that they were being attacked by some kind of shadowy figures. The message ended abruptly, but we have reason to believe that at least one of the girls may have been seriously injured during their capture, so while we're not imposing a strict time limit on this scenario, it is nonetheless imperative that you find and rescue these girls as quickly as possible or else we might lose one or more of them due to injury."

Lindsay blanched a bit. A search and rescue mission with unknown enemy assailants? This definitely wasn't a scenario she'd ever heard of being used before. And they had to rescue a troop of girl scouts? Did it really have to be girl scouts? It seemed like such a perfect motivation for her team – she had to wonder if it was planned specifically for them. Which of course, if Gunny and Ito had gone to that extent, then this was definitely a crash.

"Any questions?"

At Gunny's words, Lindsay did indeed have several questions come to mind, but she was a bit too slow on the uptake to be able to ask first.

"What size of an area do we need to search, Gunny?" Jade's tone was unusually even and formal, which Lindsay knew meant that she was already in her tactical mode, trying to come up with a strategy for the team to be able to effectively handle the task before them.

"Just over 100 square miles."

Lindsay's eyes boggled at that, along with most of the others on the team. A hundred square miles of ground to cover? At least that explained why they had to use the sims. There was just no way to simulate that much space in the physical arena.


"Temperate forest in a low mountainous region."

"Season? Climate? Time of day?"

The old sergeant gave a wry grin, apparently not the least surprised by Jade's insistent line of questions.

"Late fall, nearing winter. Temperature is fairly mild during the day but drops rapidly following sunset, which in this scenario is not far off."

Jade, Lindsay, and several of the others gave a sharp nod at that. Gunny was basically telling them that, while they weren't being given a hard time limit, they most certainly still couldn't dawdle. Not when doing so would mean the scouts they were being asked to rescue would be lost in the woods after nightfall, likely with possibly-serious injuries and limited or no supplies or shelter.

"Anything else?"

"Can you give us all unicorns to ride in the woods?" Misty asked hopefully.




"That's all the intel we have now, and time is of the essence" Ito interrupted with a grin as he took in the mixed expressions on the girls' faces. "Report to your pods now. The simulation will begin in precisely five minutes."

* * * * * * * * * *

Arena 99 Sim Suites


As the expected flash of light deposited her onto what seemed to be the edge of a small forest road, Lindsay couldn't help groaning a bit at the team's prerecorded battle slogan that was programmed to always accompany their entrance into a simulation. Like all of the others, she had thought it was cool and fun the first time they'd used it, but it didn't take too many matches after that for it to start bugging her a bit. And now, with the entire school watching, she couldn't help feeling that maybe it was just a bit too childish. Hopefully this match would keep one thing in common with all of the others and not air the audio feed.

Taking a moment to stretch, with Pern doing likewise by jumping from her shoulder and circling in the air a few times, Lindsay took in the fairly recent modifications that she'd made to her costume. Overall the sailor suit looked much like its original design, but there were some subtle differences. The dragon image on her chest was slightly more stylized, losing just a bit of the raw cuteness but making up for it with a more streamlined look. The orange trim was at once a bit more subdued but also bolder, looking more like fire than something off of a cartoonist's palette, and the bow on her back was slightly smaller but with longer ribbons in the same color as her trim. Pern's bow had likewise been altered to match. Other than that the biggest changes were her new knee-high riding boots and elbow-length gloves, as well as the fiery sash that wrapped around her waist, hiding the silvery belt that appeared to be made mostly out of interwoven chain links.

Needless to say, Lindsay was quite happy with the overall effect of all the changes, especially since most of them served quite practical purposes beyond just changing her look. As Pern returned and settled on her shoulder again, she turned to take in the rest of her teammates, who had all appeared quite close to her between the forest edge and the road. Most everyone had made at least a few small changes to their outfits over the past several weeks, even going all the way back to their first few matches in the sims, but the overall "magical girl" theme of the team was still notably obvious. No other theme would suffice for a team like Wondercute.

"Okay, girls, huddle up!" called Molly from where she was standing next to Jade. "We need to talk strategy." She had her quiver and bow hung across her back, with a belt of pouches for spell components wrapped around her waist, and the confidence she'd been gaining lately was clearly evident on her face, even as tempered as it was by her naturally reserved and quiet nature. She'd proven herself in many a sim to be a talented if inexperienced leader whose innate sense of caution was an excellent complement to Jade's sometimes wild but always effective strategies. And whenever she felt overwhelmed by a situation, Rythax was never too far to give her the advice she needed. Even now he was seated regally at her side, his one-time bow replaced with a handsome red collar.

As all of the girls gathered in, Molly focused everyone's attention on Jade. "Generator? Thoughts?"

"Well, it kind of sucks that we didn't get the unicorns." Jade gave a mischievous grin while most of the group giggled briefly in response. "But even without them, I'd say we're actually in a pretty good position for the time being. This scenario works out for us a lot better than some could."

"How do you reckon that?" asked Misty as she crossed her arms over her chest with a slightly frustrated look. "We've got to search more than 100 miles of miles of woods to find who knows how many frightened girl scouts, all while keeping an eye out for maybe dozens of enemies that we don't know anything about."

"Yeah, but that's not as much of a problem for us as it would be for most groups, especially in this setting." Jade smiled a bit at Misty's confused expression before pointing out individual members of the group. "Bugs and I both have drones and other intel-gathering devises we can send out. With sunset rapidly approaching, Rythax has plenty of shadows among the trees that he can use to move around quickly, while Gateway can summon up some faeries and such to act as additional scouts. We're in a forest so Aquerna can make full use of her little friends. And the fact that you can fly and Dragonrider can ride Pern gives us some eyes in the sky to help more quickly cover the long distances."

Hearing it said that way, Lindsay couldn't think of any objections to Jade's assessment. And judging from the others' expressions, they all pretty much felt the same way.

"So the first thing we have to do is gather intel, right?" Anna's voice was still quiet and somewhat timid, but like with Molly, the confidence she'd been gaining from the group's regular sim runs was starting to show. "We have to find both the scouts and the attackers, right?"

"Yep, that's where we have to start," Jade replied with a grin. "The way I see it, we've got two phases for this scenario. Phase One is the Recon Phase, when we gather as much information as we can so we know where the bad guys and our objectives are. And Phase Two is the Engagement Phase, when we move in to deal with the bad guys and accomplish the objectives. The trick is going to be stretching out Phase One as long as we reasonably can, and keeping Phase Two as short as possible."

"Sounds good to me." Bunny nodded as she flicked one of her bunny ears with her hand. "When we go to Phase Two, will it be hit and run as usual?"

"Most likely," Molly replied with a nod, "just because that's what we're good at. But we really can't make a call there until we know more."

"Exactly, so we need to get a move on now." Jade was practically jumping with excitement to really get started, but she forced herself to remain calm enough to dish out further instructions, pointing at Lindsay and Misty directly. "First thing is for you two to get up in the air and relay anything you can see. The rest of our options for intel gathering aren't great for long distances, so anything we get from you two that can help narrow our search field will be invaluable."

"On it," Misty replied quickly with scarcely a pause, leaping into the air and putting her gravity powers to work.

"Same here," Lindsay added as well, even as she directed Pern to the roadway behind them. The little dragon leapt from her shoulder and circled through the air to the stretch of open ground Lindsay had indicated, and once his claws found the empty asphalt, he started to quickly grow. In a matter of mere moments, the roadway was blocked by the massive, green-scaled bulk of Pern's full-sized form, his wings stretching out almost thirty feet from tip to tip and the ribbon around his neck growing along with him to function like sturdy silken reins.

Climbing up onto her companion's back, Lindsay took a moment to get into a good position. Because of the way Pern's wings attached to his sides, it was impossible to ride him with her legs hanging down like on a horse, but she'd found that a kind of kneeling position just behind his shoulders worked quite well, especially since it also allowed her to lean forward over his neck to reduce her wind resistance and drag, not to mention actually being able to see the ground beneath them when she needed to. Once she was in position, a quick click of her heels against Pern's scales activated the enchantment that locked them in place to his sides. Now even if they had to fly upside down she wouldn't fall off. Then a snap of her gloved fingers caused Pern's reins to move as if they'd come alive and guide themselves into her open hands. Now she was ready.

"Ready for take off," she spoke into the throat-mic that was connected to her earpiece. "Any particular direction you guys would like us to start with?"

"According to Aquerna the squirrels think they might have seen the scout troop we're looking for earlier today, some distance to the north of us." Gateway's response was prompt and to the point. "But they're not totally sure, so we'd like you and Pern to scout northeast of us for now while Superchick scouts northwest."

"Got it," Lindsay replied firmly, even as she heard Misty give her acknowledgment as well. Then she leaned forward over Pern's neck and gave him a gentle touch on the right side while also softly tugging on his left ribbon. That was all he was waiting for.

With a sudden lurch and a mighty leap, both dragon and rider were airborne.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Anything yet, Dragonrider? Superchick?" Molly's voice over the team comms was starting to ring with just a hint of frustration, and Lindsay certainly couldn't blame her.

"Still negative for me, Gateway," she replied with no less frustration in her own tone, even as she guided Pern to adjust his heading. Thirty minutes in the air had never felt so long to her before, but they were racing against time here, with the sun was drooping ever closer to the horizon in the distance, and still none of them had found even the slightest trace of either the scout troop or their unknown assailants.

"Same for me," came Misty's unsurprising response as well. "Never imagined a search and rescue mission would be quite like this. You'd think from the air we could find them rather quickly."

"It's all these trees," Lindsay supplied with a groan. "They're so close together that even from above we can't see the ground unless we come across a meadow or some other kind of break in the trees. We could have already flown right over them without even knowing it."

"Just keep at it and do your best, girls. We'll find them yet." Molly was clearly trying to sound optimistic, but Lindsay could tell it was rather forced. None of them liked not knowing what was going on or where they were supposed to be.

"Any luck with the ground searching?"

"Generator's got her new glitter-scouting thing on the move, and Bugs has six egg-drones deployed, but nothing yet on either front, and Aquerna's not getting anything more from the squirrels either. Rythax is shadow-hopping out directly north of us, and he's checked back in once already with no luck. It's about time for him to check back in again."

Lindsay let out a sigh.

"Alright, just keep us..."

"I'VE GOT SOMETHING!!!" Misty's voice cut through the comm lines loud and clear, and the excitement in her voice was nearly tangible.


"Awesome! Finally!"


"What is it, Superchick? What do you see?"

"I'm circling at about a thousand feet over a clearing now, and it looks like there are about 20 or so girls huddled up next to a large tree right on the edge of it. Looks like it's our missing scouts."

Warning bells started immediately going off in Lindsay's head. Something about that didn't sound right.

"Are there any signs of the attackers?"

"Not a thing that I can see," came Misty's reply, which Lindsay was pleased to notice now how had a tinge of nerves coloring the excitement. That meant she wasn't going to get ahead of herself and do something foolish. "The scouts are just huddled there, almost like they're just talking about what to do. There's no sign of any kind of containment system or anything. You don't think it's possible they could have gotten away from the attackers, huh?"

"Not a chance," Jade stated firmly. "There's no way Gunny would have given us a scenario that we could beat without ever encountering an opponent. This has to be a trap of some kind."

"I think Generator's right on this one," Molly added. "This is too simple and convenient. There has to be some trick to it."

"Bugs, can you lock onto my beacon and show Gateway where I'm at? I'm going to set down two hundred yards into the woods on the south side so you guys can gate to me. That way we can redeploy our ground scouting options again."

"Yeah, I can do that. I'll just need a few minutes to get my drones back too."

"Dragonrider, how long do you think it will take to get back here?" Molly's tone was now tinged with a bit of worry to go with her excitement. It was pretty clear that as much as she wanted to get this scenario over with, she also didn't want to rush into anything without the whole team.

"It's going to take me a bit," Lindsay replied as she pushed firmly against Pern's left flank with her leg. "You guys go ahead and gate there. Bugs can send me the location as well and Pern and I will fly there directly." Even as she said it, she was reaching into a pouch on her belt to retrieve the special pair of goggles that Malachi had made for her. They not only served to protect her eyes when riding Pern at speed, but they also had a built in microcomputer and HUD, which she would need to make use of the location data.

"Sending it your way, Dragonrider."

As the goggles settled over her eyes, there was a faint beep in Lindsay's ears to indicate the data had been received, and a fraction of a second later a small waypoint appeared in her field of vision with a small number beside it indicating the distance. Lindsay groaned when she saw it.

"Hey guys, it looks like it's going to take me at least fifteen minutes to get there. It looks like I went in pretty much the complete opposite direction."

"Don't worry about that, Dragonrider," Molly replied quickly. "Just get there as quick as you can. We'll probably need to take that long to get the intel we need anyways."

"Alright," Lindsay said with a worried frown of her face, in spite of the fact that no one could see it. "Just be careful, guys. I really don't like the way this is playing out."

"I know, we'll be..."

"We'll be fine, Dragonrider," interrupted Jade's voice with a chipper enthusiasm that actually grated on Lindsay's nerves. "There's nothing to worry about. We'll have those scouts out of there in no time."

Lindsay let out a quiet sigh. Why did her bad feeling suddenly seem ten times worse?

* * * * * * * * * *

From her perch halfway up a tall pine tree, Anna could clearly see the troop of scared girls gathered on the other side of the clearing. She counted a dozen of them, and as far as she could tell they ranged from about ten years old to maybe fourteen or fifteen, all apparently being led by one older woman who must be the scout leader. Of course, the fact that this leader appeared to be unconscious with some kind of bandaged head wound certainly seemed to explain a good portion of the fear most of the girls were expressing. Anna had to fight back the tears in her own eyes as she watched several of the younger girls crying, while most of the older girls did their best to console them even while they kept glancing furtively into the trees as if they expected danger at any moment.

But that was the whole problem. Even all of the squirrels in the area couldn't find any sign of the bad guys Anna knew had to be out there. It was as if they'd ambushed the girls, brought them here to the middle of the woods for no apparent reason, and then just disappeared. Why would they do that though? It just didn't make any sense.

Taking a deep breath to calm herself - it wouldn't do any good if she was all emotional if a fight did break out after all - she reluctantly turned her back on the clearing and leapt back to another tree deeper in the woods, allowing herself to drop several feet before catching her new handhold. After that it only took a few more such leaps to get back to where the others were grouped up. Or some of them at least. Lindsay was still about ten minutes away apparently, because Pern could only fly so fast, and Misty had gone airborne again to help keep an eye on the area, but Jade, Bunny, and Molly were all still gathered here. Making one final leap from above, Anna landed in an open spot right next to them.

Just as Rythax decided to step out of the shadows directly in front of her. EEEP!

She had to react or else her momentum would have her crashing right into his side, so she tucked herself into a ball and pushed off lightly with her feet even as they were hitting the ground, which added just enough height to her forward motion that she managed to roll right across the shadowcat's back, barely clipping his furled wings, before finally coming to a stop in a crouch. She absently noted someone whistling their approval.

"Bad luck on the timing, Aquerna," Jade remarked jokingly, "but you definitely get bonus points for style. That looked awesome!"

"Indeed, that was a rather impressive recovery, Ms. Aquerna," Rythax added as well, giving Anna one of his oddly feline smiles. "Though I do apologize for the sudden appearance. I didn't mean to startle anyone."

Anna couldn't help smiling a bit sheepishly at the praise. After all, Rythax was some kind of really old ambassador or something like that, and he'd probably seen lots more impressive things than what she'd just done, but it was still nice of him to give her a compliment anyways. And Jade's praise? She'd be happy with that any day.

"Okay, so let's assess again," Molly said as she looked around at everyone, though her eyes came to a stop resting on Anna. "Aquerna?"

Anna shook her head and shrugged her shoulders at the same time. "I've got nothing. The local squirrels haven't seen anything out of the ordinary for several hours, not since the troop suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the clearing. No other people at all, so no one setting up traps or cameras or anything."

"That agrees with what I've found," Bunny interjected with a grim frown. "The scanners on my drones aren't detecting any electronic signatures at all, and visual recon isn't showing any signs of more mechanical traps or hiding places either."

"Magic is much the same," added Rythax, "I'm not finding any hint of it at all in the area, which is rather worrisome if the scouts just 'appeared out of nowhere' as our little friends have told us. The most likely explanation for that would be magic, but such a spell would leave a lingering aura, which I've found no evidence of."

"Unfortunately I can back that up." Jade's voice sounded rather frustrated, which accurately reflected what most of the group was feeling at the moment. "My glitter cloud can detect auras as well, and it also came up blank, even after scouring the whole clearing."

"It would seem we have been presented with a most unusual scenario," Rythax noted unnecessarily. "Absolutely no signs indicating the presence of our unknown adversaries. No apparent means of confining or even observing those we seek to rescue. No indication of traps lying in wait for us. This is most perplexing." He gave a low, frustrated growl that made Anna somewhat nervous before thoughtfully looking around at the group. "Perhaps we should at this point consider that our enemies might have already accomplished their objectives here and moved on, leaving us with the sole objective of recovering the hostages?"

Anna didn't know why, but she had a bad feeling about that assumption. But even so, she couldn't see any other reason for them not finding anything at all about the bad guys. If they were still around, there would HAVE to be some kind of clue. And judging from the expressions on the other girls' faces, they were thinking the same thing, though for a long time no one said anything. Anna absently noted that the forest was starting to get really dark now. Sunset must be just around the corner.

Finally, it was Molly who spoke up. "Okay, we've exhausted our options scouting and recon, and it hasn't given us much to go on. We could just keep at it and hope something changes, but that's likely to take far too long and we still have to get these girls out of here. So I think it's time that WE make something change."

Anna liked the sound of that. The sooner they could get those poor, scared girls out of this mess the better. And she could tell from everyone's nods that she wasn't the only one to think that.

"What have you got in mind?" Jade asked with a curious smirk.

"We need to make contact with the scouts, to let them know that we're here to rescue them, so I think a few of us should go out into the clearing and show ourselves to them. Go up and talk to them so we can get them out as quickly as possible. I think that should be me, Generator, and Aquerna, so that Bugs and Rythax can stay hidden in the trees and Superchick and Dragonrider can stay up in the air, all keeping watch in case something changes. Once we make contact, if no baddies then immediately show up somehow, I'll open up a gate that Aquerna and Generator can lead the girls through before the rest of us follow. Getting the girls back out to the road should be enough to complete the scenario."

Anna couldn't help nervously asking a question. "Um, why specifically do you think it should be the three of us to try talking to them first?" Not that she was afraid of talking to the girls, it's just that she still had an uneasy feeling about still not knowing where their enemies were.

"Well that's easy," interrupted Jade with a grin. "Gateway is because that'll be the quickest way we can get the girls out of there. You and me are good choices because we can both react quickly enough if something does go bad that we don't need to have our weapons out the whole time, which would likely spook the girls."

Okay, that definitely made sense. Why didn't she think of that?

"Any objections?" Molly quickly asked the assembled group. When no one was forthcoming with a response she gave a firm nod before tapping her throat-mic to open the group comm. "Hey, Dragonrider, what's your ETA?"

"I'm about 3 minutes from your location now, do you want me to land in the clearing when I get there?"

Anna's eyes widened at that question, as did many of the others. A large green dragon landing less than 50 feet away from them was most definitely not a good way to avoid startling the girls.

"No, definitely don't do that. We don't want to scare the scouts any more than we have to. And Generator, Aquerna, and I are actually about to go reveal ourselves to them now, so we'd actually like you and Pern to hang back a bit."

A long moment passed before Lindsay responded. "Are you sure that's a good idea? Doesn't this feel like it has to be a trap to you guys?"

Anna could tell from the sound of her voice that she was just as nervous about this as she herself was, if not more so.

"We haven't found any signs of the bad guys at all," Jade interjected, "and we really can't afford to just keep waiting as the sun keeps getting lower and lower. So we're going to push forward with the rescue attempt and see if that changes anything."

Again Lindsay gave a long pause. "Okay, if you guys think this is the best option, we'll hang back a bit. But if something goes wrong we're coming in."

"Wouldn't have it any other way," Molly confirmed with a smile. "Superchick, are you good to stay airborne as well to give us eyes in the sky?"

Misty's groan and sigh were clearly audible over the comms. "Yeah, I can stay up here. It's getting a bit boring, but I'll keep watch for anything that changes."

"Alright, good," Molly replied with another firm nod before looking around at her closest teammates. "Alright, Wondercute, let's do this. Move out!"

* * * * * * * * * *

Lindsay had a VERY bad feeling as she lightly touched Pern's left flank to guide him into a path that would have them circling the clearing at a distance. There was absolutely no way Gunny would give them a scenario with no opponents, so the fact that they weren't finding any sign of them was very worrisome in and of itself. They would have to be VERY good to stay this well hidden.

She could only hope that the others would keep their guard up as they made this attempt to change the terms of the game.

* * * * * * * * * *

Anna could tell as soon as she and the others stepped out into the clearing that something was very wrong, but she just couldn't tell what. The sense of uneasiness she'd already been feeling practically doubled once she was exposed in the open, and she got the distinct impression that she was being watched, but no matter how much she looked around, she couldn't see any way that they might be being observed. For a moment she hesitated, wanting to tell the others that this had suddenly become a really bad idea, but with nothing she could point to to explain why, she knew saying something wouldn't matter much. They'd still have to make something happen. She swallowed hard before forcing her legs to move and continue after Jade and Molly, though she kept her eyes moving scanning everything around the clearing as much as possible.

The scouts had noticed them now, and several had nervously stood up to watch their approach. One of the older ones, who seemed to have been tending to the unconscious scoutmaster, warily made her way forward to meet the trio as they came closer. Anna gave her a good long look, as well as the others who had stood up. She didn't honestly believe they could be dangerous at all, not with the way she'd seen many of them crying and consoling each other only minutes before, but her nerves were raging so rampantly that she couldn't help scrutinizing every possibility.

"Hey, Aquerna, are you alright?" came Misty's voice over Anna's earbud, causing her to flinch. "Even from up here I can see you've gotten really jumpy all of a sudden. What's the matter?"

"I don't really know," Anna whispered her reply, a bit embarrassed by the frustrated whine that tinged her voice. "I don't know if I'm just on edge or if my spirit is messing with me somehow, but I can't shake this feeling like we're being watched." She instinctively looked up skyward to see if she could spot where her friend was watching them from herself. "I mean like, I know you're watching us, but this is different. It feels like..."

Wait. Was that a shimmer in the air? Floating just over the middle of the clearing? Her first thought was that the evening light was playing tricks on her, but the way her heart skipped a beat on seeing it caused her to scrutinize it further.

"Aquerna?" Misty asked again curiously, but Anna ignored the question, too focused on what she was perceiving.

Did the shimmer have a shape somehow? Now that she was focusing on it, she just knew in the back of her mind that something was there, something that seemed vaguely round or spherical. Then as if on impulse she looked straight up...

...and there was another one directly above them!

In that split second everything changed. Even as Anna watched it, the spherical something seemed to vanish, revealing three black-clad figures who immediately began to fall on top of them. The only thing Anna could think to do was leap out of the way, though she did at least have the presence of thought to leap THROUGH Molly, pushing her out of the way as well. Unfortunately this threw off her balance in midair and caused the pair of them to tumble and roll along the ground rather than land on their feet like Anna would have preferred. After that, several things happened very quickly.

First, Jade and the one girl who'd had the nerves to come forward both simply vanished as Anna got a brief glimpse of yet another shimmer seeming to form around them. Because of that, the rest of the assembled scouts all started to scream and scramble away from the center of the clearing where their friend had just disappeared, all except for one who was trying valiantly to move her scoutmaster to safety as well. The three figures from above all hit the ground, though one of them immediately burst into flame and took off into the sky. Another held what appeared to be a large energy rifle of some kind in his hands, which he immediately used to start shooting at Rythax, who for his part seemed at once both outraged and terrified that his partner was in danger and was trying desperately to dash forward and reach her. Unfortunately the guy with the rifle was actually pretty good, and he was managing to keep the big shadowcat at bay.

What was more unfortunate however, was what the third figure decided to do, instantly disappearing and then reappearing behind Molly even as she and Anna staggered to their feet. Then with a quick, obviously well practiced motion, he slipped his arm around her shoulder and pressed what looked to be a rag or bandanna of some kind over her mouth and nose. Anna let out a small shriek of fright as she watched Molly's eyes roll back up inside her head and she collapsed unconscious in the figure's arms, which in turn caused Rythax to suddenly vanish since was Molly was no longer able to keep him there. Then the teleporting figure slowly, almost gently, lowered Molly to the ground before turning his eyes on Anna.

All things considered, Anna felt she reacted as best she could. She had found herself suddenly alone, out in the open, facing down a teleporter and a guy with a really big energy gun. Her two nearest teammates had seemingly been taken out of commission in mere moments, her other teammates were out of reach, and the group of girls she was trying to help rescue were scrambling into the woods to avoid the now obvious danger of the clearing.

So she ran, turning and leaping for the treeline in the opposite direction from where the scouts had gone. At the very least, she could hopefully lead the danger away from them. Sure enough, even as her feet were hitting the ground from her first leap, the teleporter appeared right next to her, reaching out to grapple her and most likely use his knock-out gas or whatever it was he'd used to take out Molly against her.

Aquerna didn't give him the chance, ducking and rolling past him before coming back to her feet and quickly leaping up into the canopy. She had some advantage here, being able to tell what branches would hold her weight and which ones wouldn't, but the rapidly dimming light was going to make sure that didn't last long. Even worse, the teleporter kept appearing right next to her as if he could tell where she was going to jump before she did, forcing her to keep moving as quickly as she could, hardly able to think of anything beyond getting away.

She definitely wouldn't be able to keep this up for long, and that thought terrified her.

* * * * * * * * * *

Even without listening to the comms, Lindsay knew something was wrong when a bright fiery object launched into the sky heading directly for the spot that the waypoint on her goggles indicated as Misty's location. With a sinking feeling in her gut, she steeled her nerves as she keyed open the all-team comm channel.

The cacophony that met her ears in return included no small amount of panicked screaming and more than one variation of "Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap!" Yep, something had definitely gone wrong. And here she was circling over the trees too far away to know what that something was.

"Guys? I need some info here. What's going on?" At first it didn't seem like anyone had heard her, since the screaming continued and the swearing didn't abate, but after a few moments a voice managed to speak up over the sound of the screaming.

"Well if you want the quick version," Misty's voice replied with a seriously frantic tone, "the best I can tell you is that three guys in black just suddenly appeared out of nowhere, Generator and one of the scouts just vanished from the middle of the field, and now I'm being a harassed by a flying, fiery woman with a really big flaming sword! A little help here would be great!"

"It's worse than that, girls," interrupted Bunny, who sounded no less agitated. "One of the three goons is a teleporter, and he took out Gateway almost immediately, so she and Rythax are both down for the count. The scouts bolted for safety, I have no idea where Aquerna and the teleporter went, so she might be out as well, and now I'm being pinned down by the third guy who has a freaking BFG."

"Damn it," Lindsay cursed softly to herself. Jade, Molly and Rythax, and possibly Anna? All out of the fight that quickly? This did NOT bode well for their prospects. But hang on, if they were all out of commission, then whose mic was transmitting the screaming?


"GENERATOR?!" came the shocked response of three girls at once, and Lindsay felt a brief but notable surge of relief.

"Yes, I'm still here guys," Jade replied with no small amount of exasperation. "Sorry about not speaking up sooner, but my friend here is kind of freaking out, so I was trying to calm her down at least somewhat gently."

"Generator, if you're still in the sim, where are you?"

"I have no idea, Dragonrider. I can't see a thing in here, even when I use my aura-sight devise. But judging from everything you guys have just said about our opponents and the fact that I seem to be trapped in some kind of perfectly spherical energy field, I think I DO know who we're up against."

Lindsay's mind raced. Spherical energy field that renders people invisible? Teleporter? Flier with a flaming sword? Guy with a BFG, maybe a gadgeteer or devisor? The fact that they'd done everything so quickly implied that they were probably a well practiced team, and that was the last piece Lindsay needed to connect the dots.

Crap. They were dealing with Star League Jr, a team of sophomores who all grew up together as the kids of superheroes. And they had even gotten into actual superheroing themselves before their parents found out and sent them here to Whateley, so they had plenty of experience working together as a team. This was NOT going to be fun.

"Star League?" Bunny finally asked as she came to the same conclusion herself. "You mean Wallflower and her friends? Well that's just great."

"Umm...guys, I could still use some help up here, this fire chick is kind of running me ragged."

Lindsay could tell she wasn't exaggerating about that, since she could see through her goggles how Misty's waypoint was dancing through the sky with bright spot that had to be Phoenixfire staying right with her and matching her move for move.

"Um...guys?" A nervous voice pulled Lindsay's attention away from the aerial battle.

"Aquerna? You're still okay too?"

"For the moment at least, but I'm not going to stop moving. The teleporter was hot on my tail for a while and it was all I could do just to keep away from him, but now it seems like he's disappeared. I don't think I just lost him though, because the whole time he's been chasing me he's seemed to know exactly where I was going, almost like he could read my mind."

Lindsay's blood ran cold as Anna's word reminded her of something Jadis had once told her about Star League Jr. and its members.

"That's because he COULD! Psymod isn't just a teleporter, he's also a telepath! And he's trained at using his telepathy to keep track of where his opponents are!" Then another thought came to her that made her heart skip a beat. "Bugs, you have to watch your back! If Psymod's stopped chasing Aquerna, then he's probably coming after you since you're to only other one on the ground, and he can find you even if you're in cover!"

The lack of response was deafening.

"Bugs? Bugs?" Still no response. So totally not good.

"Aquerna, keep moving!" Jade finally commanded forcefully. "You're the last one on the ground, so Psymod's likely to start hunting you again."

"You don't have to tell me twice."

"Dragonrider, we need you and Pern in this fight, or else Psymod will just pick us all off while the others keep us distracted." The frustration in Jade's voice was nearly tangible. "Help Superchick deal with the flier first, then you two will have control of the air and won't be as pressured. Our best bet to beat these guys is to find Wallflower and take her out. Then I can get back in the fight. If it was just me in here I could probably find a way out on my own, but I don't want to risk anything too dangerous with my companion in here as well."

"Understood, Generator, I'm on it." Lindsay set her jaw with a determined grimace as she set her sights on the two dancing aerial combatants. "Superchick, keep her busy just a bit longer, I'm coming in."

"What do you think I've BEEN doing?! Just hurry!"

Flicking off her mic for a moment, Lindsay leaned forward and shouted so that Pern could hear her. "Okay, boy, let's show them what we've got!" Pern responded with an eager rumble that coursed through his whole body, even as Lindsay guided him to adjust his course. Then, with only a moment's hesitation to wonder what Jadis would think of this, she reached down and brushed her hand against the three stones attached to her belt on her right hip.

As grim as the situation looked right now, they needed every advantage they could get. Gazing ahead firmly as Pern picked up speed. She traced the glyph that adorned the center stone with her finger.

* * * * * * * * * *

Arena 99 Grandstands

"Oh shit!" Malachi blurted out, even as a collective gasp spread among the enraptured audience in the stands. "Did she and Pern just vanish too?"

Jadis gave a knowing, if mildly disappointed, smile. She'd hoped that her friend would be able to keep that particular new trick a secret for a while longer yet, but she could also see why Lindsay had decided to use it now. Her team was in dire straits and needed every possible edge they could get if they wanted to come out ahead. Were Jadis somehow in the same situation instead, she had to admit that she'd probably use it too.

"Hmm...I don't think so, Mal," Nephandus offered thoughtfully, gazing out at the holographic representation of the sim. "The timing looked far too intentional, and she's too far away from all of the action. I'd say it looked like Lindsay did it to herself." He cast a suspicious look in Jadis' direction. "You, wouldn't happen to know anything about this, huh, Jadis?"

For her part, Jadis just chuckled. She wasn't about to tell Jay-Arm that she'd helped Lindsay put together some interesting new toys, especially not when he himself had inadvertently provided some of the key components. He'd have to figure all that out on his own.

Thrasher took in Jadis' smug look with a smile of his own before refocusing intently on the holo- display.

"Nice. Things are finally about to get GOOD."

* * * * * * * * * *

Back in the Simulation

As much as she didn't want to, Misty had to give this fire chick credit. The girl could FLY. She wasn't quite as maneuverable in the air as Misty herself was, but she more than made up for it with speed and obviously well-practiced control. It was all Misty could do just to avoid her blade and fiery aura, and if it wasn't for some well-timed gravity pulses to deflect the blade away, she wouldn't have even been able to manage that.

Damn, Lindsay needed to hurry up. She was getting TIRED.


A bright flash and surge of heat, followed by a searing pain just above her right knee, told Misty that she was now seriously screwed. The goon with the gun was now shooting up at her as well. This wasn't good. She had to do SOMETHING. As the girl zoomed at her again, Misty did a quick dodging tumble to throw off the gunman's aim and the girl's flight path, and came out lunging at the sword-girl from below and to one side.


It happened so fast. A shot fired wide of her. A swinging fiery blade in response to her unorthodox and unexpected move.

Misty didn't feel a thing. She could only watch in shock as her left arm plummeted to the ground without her, severed from her shoulder by her opponent's blade. The lack of blood was amazing at first, until she realized - through the pain of seared nerves - that the blade had most likelycauterized the wound, too. The battle around her seemed to pause and fall silent as she watched, and she swore she could hear it when the lifeless limb struck the forest floor so far below with a distant thud.

Looking up at her opponent's masked face, Misty couldn't process it. She had her dead to rights now, so why did she hesitate? Why not take off the other arm? Or both legs? Why didn't she just take of her head? That's what she wanted, wasn't it? To cut her up into little pieces? Why didn't she just finish it now that she'd started?

In her stunned state, Misty didn't even notice the tears that were now pouring down her face. Or the look of utter horror on the other girl's face.


Unthinkingly, Misty reacted to the command on instinct, reversing the anti-gravity effect that allowed her to fly so that she plummeted towards the ground like a stone. She continued to watch her would-be executioner for only a second longer, just long enough to see the girl get slammed by some invisible force, before turning her attention below. A cold, emotionless fury gripped her as her eyes settled on the black garbed man below, whose rifle fire had contributed to her distraction and her loss. With just a thought, she redirected her course and came to a stop floating just above and in front of him, looking down into his masked but clearly startled face.

He raised his rifle. She raised her hand.

For a brief moment, her adversary found himself weightless and lifting slowly into the air, startling him enough to make him hold his fire for just one second too long.

She clenched her hand into a fist and let it drop.

Her opponent fell back to the ground with a sudden and violent crash, his personal gravity suddenly fourfold what it had originally been. He was pinned, hardly able to move, his breath coming in ragged, painful gasps.

Setting herself down on the ground, Misty winced as she put weight on her right leg where it had been shot. Where her captive had shot her. That couldn't be allowed to stand unpaid for. Walking forward in silence, ignoring the pitiful rasping noise coming from ground and the searing agony in her own leg and shoulder, she set her foot atop his own right knee.

The scream that echoed across the clearing as she set her foot on the ground didn't even phase her. No anger, no sorrow, no joy. All she felt was a cold contentment that they were even, that the pain he'd caused her had been repaid.

Then she felt the wind leave her chest as a staggering blow slammed into her stomach, pushing her away from her fallen enemy and his screams. Even as she was being driven back, she felt her new adversary shift around and grab her sole remaining arm while also placing a leg behind her own. In what seemed like less than a second, Misty found herself rolling along the ground after a particularly forceful throw.

As she finally came to a stop, the cold fury was building again. She slowly staggered to her feet before looking up to see who her new challenger was.

And then even that cold fury drained from her in an instant.

Anna was the one standing in front of her, her kamas drawn and ready to use, the grim look on her face stained with tears.

Misty was stunned. Why would her friend get in the way? Why would she attack her, and then even threaten her with her weapons?

"Misty, please, STOP THIS!" Anna demanded forcefully, though her voice cracked ever so slightly as if from pain. "This isn't you! You would never do this! Whatever's going through your head right now, please, snap out of it!"

Stop what? What did she mean 'this isn't you'? She was just doing her part in the fight, wasn't she? Anna's words and actions didn't make any sense. None of this made any sense any more, and Misty couldn't process it. All she could do was stand there stunned at her friend's impossible but apparent betrayal.

She never noticed the figure appear behind her or the sweet smelling cloth being pressed to her face before she blacked out.

* * * * * * * * * *

Even as Pern rammed his full weight into Phoenixfire, all 2,800 pounds of it, Lindsay knew that something had somehow gone even more terribly wrong. The look on Misty's face as she'd plummeted out of Pern's flight path...Lindsay definitely didn't like that look.

And when even the sound of Pern smashing through tree limbs to finally slam the exemplar girl into the ground with enough force to knock her unconscious wasn't enough to drown out the scream of a boy that could only be Psymod or Dredz, she felt the bottom of her stomach fall out. With a nudge in the flank and a pull on the ribbon-reins, Pern quickly turned around and made his way back to the edge of the clearing so that Lindsay could see what was happening. She wasn't prepared for the sight that awaited her.

A prone figure on the ground seemed to be trying to get up, but it was obvious that one of his legs was badly messed up and he was in immense pain. Another figure was slowly lowering Misty's unconscious form to the ground with all of the apparent tenderness of a new father cradling his firstborn child. And Anna...Anna was just standing there in the middle of the clearing, her weapons drawn but unmoving, as though she was too stunned to do anything. Then Lindsay watched on in near horror as Anna just dropped her weapons collapsed to her knees.

What the heck had happened here to cause Anna to react like that with her enemies so close at hand?

Then, as if that wasn't perplexing enough, she watched as the second figure, who she was assuming to be Psymod, slowly walked over to Anna and seemed to exchange some words with her. Then he placed his hand over face and a moment later she collapsed unconscious as well.

Lindsay felt like she was going to be sick. Anna had just given herself up, and even aside from wondering what would have prompted her to do that, Lindsay couldn't help realizing that meant she and Pern were the last ones standing. Her entire team was either captured or unconscious, and while she and Pern could undoubtedly hold their own for a while, she still didn't even know where the last member of the opposing team was. And even more importantly than that, even if she COULD manage to find Wallflower and deal with her as well as Psymod, it wouldn't change the fact that this mission had failed. The scouts were gone, scattered into the woods, and it would take far too long for her to find them all again on her own. Her team had been taken by surprise and despite their best efforts had crumbled against the rapid onslaught of a team that seemed laser-focused on capturing rather than killing them all.

And that was it, she finally realized. The whole point of this scenario was for her team to be captured. Their opponents had baited their trap carefully and then waited patiently in ambush for them to walk right into it. Whatever their reason was for capturing her team didn't really matter. They had now accomplished their goal almost completely.

But she could still deny them a complete victory, couldn't she? If this was the real world, and not just a simulated scenario, what would she do now? Would she really just keep at it, knowing her chances of success were slim to none? As much as it pained her, she knew that wasn't her answer. Jadis would tell her it wasn't the smart thing to do. Not in this situation.

Tears stinging her eyes because of how much she did NOT want to do this, Lindsay directed Pern to turn away from the clearing. Moving back to where Phoenixfire's body was lying unconscious on the forest floor, she instructed Pern to grab her in his front claws before taking leaping skyward and veering south toward the road where all of this had started. Then she reluctantly keyed her throat-mic.

"Generator, can you hear me?"

"Dragonrider! What's going on out there? What little bit I've been able to hear over the comms hasn't been good." Lindsay could hear the nervous edge in her voice.

"It's not good at all," she replied morosely. "It's all gone to shit! Something happened that I missed, but it ended up with Superchick going down and Aquerna giving herself up. Phoenixfire is out and Dredz is mostly so, but Psymod is still up and about and I still have no idea where Wallflower is, so I can't get you out. And to make matters worse, the scouts have all scattered and I have no idea how we would even find them all again, so there's no way we can even win this any more." Lindsay was so frustrated that she felt like hitting something, but the only thing readily available for that was Pern, and he didn't deserve that. So instead, she let her tears vent some of that frustration for her. Then, given that she was now a good distance from the clearing, she let out a good long shout.

Jade remained oddly silent for a moment, then she slowly, almost serenely, asked the question that Lindsay had been dreading.

"So what are you doing now?"

Lindsay didn't know how to respond. What could she say to that? I'm running away because I can't hack it without help? I'm leaving you to your fate and getting myself out of there?

"I...I'm..." Her throat seemed to close up on its own accord after that, and she couldn't bring herself to say anything more. Then, as if to cut her off and tear away her chance to come clean, she passed over the roadway and caused the world to go black.

Moments later, as she blinked her eyes in the sudden brightness of the sim suite, the weight of what she'd just done, of abandoning her friends, her teammates, came crashing down on her.

There, in the quiet solitude of the chamber, Lindsay wept. And unbeknownst to her, she wasn't the only one on her team doing so.

* * * * * * * * * *

Saturday, June 2, 2007 – Late Evening
Woods Near Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

"You know, everyone is looking for you," Jadis said as she approached the girl sitting curled up the top of a small, wooded hillock a ways from Melville. The girl didn't look up, which Jadis somehow expected, so she eased herself to the cool grass beside her. "I had to use a magic spell to find you."

"Leave me alone," Lindsay said, her tear-stained cheeks glistening in what moonlight filtered through the trees. "I don't want to talk to anyone."

"You know," Jadis mused after a few seconds of just sitting with the girl, "you did the right thing."

"Running away like a coward? Leaving my ... my ... friends?" Lindsay's voice choked; she was barely able to say the word 'friends'.

"Sometimes, the right thing is hard."

"Yeah, right!" Lindsay spat sarcastically.

"If it had been real," Jadis continued, her voice honey-smooth and soft, "you would have gotten away to get help. Staying to fight when there's no way to win, especially when innocent lives are at stake?" She put her hand on Lindsay's shoulder, but the girl shrugged it off.

"It doesn't feel like I did the right thing," Lindsay sobbed. "My ... friends ... don't think I did the right thing. They know I ran away instead of helping them." She made a futile effort to wipe at her ongoing tears. "I bet they hate me for what I did! They'll probably never speak to me again!"

"I think you're over-reacting," Jadis tried to calm the girl down.

"You didn't see the looks in their eyes!" Lindsay wailed. "Their ... disappointment, their disgust, their anger, their ... hatred!"

"Lindsay ..."

"I screwed up! I didn't stay close enough to the group to be able to help! If I'd have been there, Misty would have had my help with Phoenixfire, and ... and that wouldn't have happened!"

Jadis knew she had to do something to get through to the girl and snap her from her self-pity. She turned, reaching up and taking Lindsay's cheeks between her hands and physically turning the girl so they were looking eye-to-eye. "Listen to me, Lindsay - you guys were set up!" She saw the girl's eyes widen. "They had your number from the get-go! The scenario was designed to make you guys split up to search. Star League Junior knew exactly who they were fighting and exactly how to take you down. They had time to plan! How else could they have hit you guys so hard and so fast and so precisely?"

Lindsay stared at Jadis, struggling to comprehend the older girl's words. "But ... what happened to Misty ...."

"The mission was to capture you," Jadis stated matter-of-factly. When Lindsay's eyes widened, Jadis nodded. "Yes, I know that for a fact. A ... friend ... gave me all the detail about your crash. It was an attempt to try to humble the vaunted Wondercute. Face it - you guys have been terrorizing other teams and the training cadre. They probably felt the need to bring you guys down to earth a little bit."

Lindsay shook her head, baffled. "But ... that doesn't make sense! We're ... just ..."

"You're just a team of freshmen who even the Grunts hate to go against," Jadis finished, albeit not quite the way Lindsay had been thinking. "If I were on the cadre, I'd do the same. You guys don't take the sims seriously, Lindsay. Someday, if it's not changed, that attitude will get you hurt or killed." It was a strange tone for Jadis, but she was trying hard to come across as parental out of concern for her friend.

"But ... like that?"

"Do you think Phoenixfire intended to hit her like that? Things went south, though, when she did. Up to that point, no-one had gotten hurt, had they?"

"No," Lindsay let her gaze drop so the tears dripped off her cheeks to the grass below. "But ... that was so ... mean! And ... and ...," Lindsay's voice cracked as tears poured forth anew. "And now my friends hate me! And I don't blame them, either!"

"Lindsay," Jadis went back to 'stern-parent' mode, "your friends don't hate you. I bet you haven't even tried to talk to them, have you?"

"They ... won't want ... to talk ... to me!" Lindsay blubbered through renewed sobs - sobs of fear at confronting her friends, fear of confronting what she'd done, fear of losing her friends.

"Lindsay," Jadis said again, "you need to talk to them." She stood and reached down to the girl, surprising her totally by taking her hands and tugging her to her feet. "The reason people are looking for you is that Dr. Markham is in Doyle to talk with you girls." Lindsay's wondering eyes gawked at Jadis uncomprehendingly. "Yeah," Jadis confirmed. "The faculty and staff are very concerned about what happened, and they want to help you girls deal with it."

"Yeah, right!" Lindsay spat in disbelief.

"Things got out of hand, even for a crash. They know it. They want to make sure you girls are okay." She took Lindsay's hand, both for moral support and to keep her from running away, and led the girl down the hill toward Doyle. "And then there's a post-combat-finals dance and party in the Melville ballroom."

"I ... I don't want to go," the girl said softly. "I ... I don't feel like celebrating."

"Let's wait until you've met with Dr. Markham before you decide, okay?"

Slowly, begrudgingly, Lindsay nodded. "I guess."

* * * * * * * * * *

Saturday, June 2, 2007 – Late Evening
Beneath Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Wallflower sat numbly in the sim briefing room, watching the recording of the critical parts of the match for perhaps the twelfth or thirteenth time, not moving at all as the simulation replayed every tiny detail on the holographic display. Long ago, she'd run out of emotions to respond to the gruesome and very troubling sim; now she was almost an automaton, processing the input over and over, trying to make even the tiniest bit of sense out of what had happened. So far, she was drawing a blank.

The door opened, and Sam's head poked in, but Wallflower didn't see her, riveted as her attention was on the replay. "Hey, Wallflower," she called to try to get her attention. Sam knew the 'thousand yard stare' only too well, and the girl had it - bad.

When she didn't respond at all, Sam strode into the dimly-lit room and sat down beside the girl, who still didn't seem to recognize Sam's presence. "Hey, kiddo," Sam said, trying to be lighthearted, "you got your grade. All the sims are done. Everyone is in Melville celebrating."

"Celebrating what?" Wallflower demanded bitterly, still staring at the screen as her voice trembled.

"You guys did well. You should take some time to relax."

"Tell that to Misty!" Wallflower spun on Sam, her face a mask of anger as she nearly screamed. "Tell that to Lindsay, or Jade, or Anna! Tell that to Ashley, or Mark!" Tears started flowing again, from a source that seemed to have been long-since exhausted but nonetheless welled forth. "Was it worth it? Tell me the truth - was it worth it?"

"Was what worth it?" Sam asked warily. Clearly, Wallflower was on the verge of an emotional breakdown. "The sim? You know we have to challenge you in ..."

"And put Misty in Doyle under psychiatric evaluation?" Wallflower screamed angrily. "Or shatter a team's trust in each other and destroy friendships?" she demanded. "Or didn't you know that Lindsay ran off bawling and they can't find her?"

Sam sighed, shaking her head. "Who told you that?" she asked, pointedly not denying Wallflower's accusation.

Lily lowered her gaze from the holo-display. "Jadis ... came by to talk to me."

"What did she say?"

"Lindsay ... barely talked to her! She's kicking herself for abandoning her teammates! And Aquerna won't talk to her friends because she feels guilty about having to stop Misty. Is that what you wanted? To destroy that team because they give you so much trouble?" she screamed at Sam. "And you made us do your dirty work!" she accused angrily.

"Lily," Sam said cautiously, putting her hand reassuringly on the distraught girl's shoulder, "we didn't ..."

Lily spun away from Sam's touch angrily. "You succeeded!" she accused. "You shattered your trouble-making team!" She wiped at tears which were flowing again. "They'll probably never fight as a team again, just like you wanted! But you also ruined a whole bunch of friendships! Did you plan on that, too?"

Sam's expression hardened - a bit. "Lily, that's not fair! We didn't set this scenario up to break up a team!"

"Well, you did! Probably two teams!" Lily bawled. "Ashley locked herself in her room and won't talk to anyone, even her parents, about what she did to Misty! Even though it was an accident! And Robert won't talk to anyone! He thinks it's his fault that Wondercute is broken." She sat in silence as Sam digested her words. "How the hell are we supposed to fight as a team again?" she demanded. "How is Ashley ever supposed to fight at all, knowing she tripped someone into almost a rager state?"

"There's no reason ..."

"Did you get your precious data about the gambling?" Wallflower spat. "Was it worth using us all as pawns to try to stop that? Was it worth destroying friendships and teams?"

"Wallflower," Sam said, walking a fine line between sounding sympathetic and sounding stern, "it's not your job to focus on what I have to do to try to protect the students! That's my job, not yours."

"Yeah, we're just your pawns!"

Sam sighed; she was not getting through to the girl. "You kids decided to get into the hero game. It's time you learn it's not all neat and clean and tidy!"

"Yeah? Well, you guys destroyed a hero team! Did you consider that? 'Cuz I don't know if we'll ever fight as a team again! And Wondercute ... they'll be lucky if any of them are friends after what you did to them. They didn't deserve that! Nobody does!"

"Listen up, Lily," Sam said very sternly, hoping to break through the girl's self-recrimination. "You have to consider what you'd have done if this wasn't a sim! What if Wondercute found themselves being targeted and captured in the real world? What if they had to deal with a Dark Phoenix scenario, where one of their friends snapped?" She saw Lily's jaw drop slightly as she considered those words. "What if one of your team members accidentally triggers a rager incident someday? How are you going to deal with that?"

"But ... you hit us with everything! And you expect us to not be affected?"

Sam sighed, shaking her head. "We didn't plan on all of that happening. You were there during the planning! You all knew this was a crash, and you all knew the goal, and you helped plan the strategy. Some of what happened, we wouldn't have thrown at you for a year or two. It was Phoenixfire's mistake that got things escalated, not us! I'm sure she didn't mean it, but it happened. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a valuable lesson for all of you, because you will have to deal with unexpected and unplanned situations like this!"

Lily stared angrily at the desk, not trusting herself to speak, but trying to understand what Sam was trying to tell her.

"We'd all much rather see you kids deal with some of this stuff in the simulators, where you've got staff to help you learn and to deal with the fallout ..."

"Tell that to Misty!" Lily spat angrily. "She's in the psych ward now because of us!"

"What you don't know, because you've been sitting here watching the sim and feeling sorry for yourself, is that Dr. Markham has already met with the girls from Wondercute, and Dr. Bellows is meeting with Misty about her over-reaction and her ... temper."

Lily stared at Sam in disbelief for a few awkward seconds. "That ... that's supposed to help?"

"Misty was critically injured in a sim that was, up to that point, non-lethal. Once it got serious and she lost a limb, she freaked out. It happens to lots of people! It could happen to you! That doesn't mean that Misty's a rager, or that you triggered a rager incident."

The girl sat, staring at the frozen holo-image of the sim, trying to wrap her addled brain around what Sam was saying.

"You'd probably react the same way Misty did. So would I. So would most of the people here."

The girl's jaw dropped as she spun to gawk at Sam, not quite sure she'd heard the Admiral correctly - admitting that she'd probably react the same way? It was something Lily hadn't considered.

"You kids all have some tough lessons to learn, some much tougher than others. And no matter how much we dislike having to put you through them, we know we'd be doing you a disservice to not help you learn," Sam said, her tone more gentle. "Now, go find your team-mates, and then go to Doyle. I understand Mr. Cannell wants to talk with all of you."

Lily stared at Sam, and then at the frozen replay, and then back to Sam, before she slowly nodded. Wearily, looking like she'd been through hell and back, Lily shuffled slowly out the door.

No sooner had she left than the other door opened and Gunny Bardue came in, easing himself into a chair near Sam. "Well?" Sam asked simply.

Bardue sighed heavily and wearily; the past week of combat finals had taken a toll on him. "Well, what?"

"Did we push them too hard?" Sam asked. "I know their parents wanted them to face some things like this, but ..."

Gunny shook his head. "No. We gave them a tough scenario. They made it worse by letting themselves get out of control. Now? They'll either come through stronger, or they'll give up on the dream of being heroes. Their parents are right; if they can't handle situations like this, they have no business trying to be heroes."

"What about Wondercute?" Sam asked wearily. "Lily is right - we may have broken the team, and ruined some friendships." She shook her head. "You've seen them in other sims - no matter how bad things get, they're always bubbly-happy. Not this time. You saw 'em in the debrief. This time, they weren't just defeated. They looked ... broken. They could barely look at each other. They barely spoke."

A heavy sigh escaped the former Gunnery Sergeant. "I hope not," he said slowly, noting how Sam's eyes widened at that comment. "We need a team like Wondercute - energetic and insane and unpredictable and impossibly successful - to keep the other teams on their toes, to teach them to watch out for the totally unexpected."

"You saw the reports. That sim may have been too much for Misty and Lindsay and Anna," Sam replied. "All the king's horses, and all the king's men ...."

"Yeah, I know." Gunny nodded acknowledgement of Sam's comment. "I guess we'll have to work with Bellows and Markham and whoever the hell else to make sure that doesn't happen!" he replied. "Flip you for who goes to have a talk with Generator."

"I'll go," Sam retorted. "You cheat with coin tosses." As she stood, she reflected a moment. "There is one thing, though." Seeing that she had Gunny's curiosity piqued, she continued. "You could have heard a pin drop in the stands when the sim ended. Maybe some of the other kids learned that there's no such thing as an unbeatable team, and that you can always lose."

"We can hope," Gunny replied wearily. "We can hope."


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