Friday, 12:33 PM MST
Homestake Paranormal Combat Training Academy, Lead, South Dakota
A casual visitor to Lead, South Dakota could be forgiven for overlooking Homestake Academy. On the surface, it appeared to be nothing more than a dozen camps of teepees on the bluffs surrounding the former Homestake Gold Mine. These structures provided lodging for the students of the school. However, this view of the academy barely scratched the surface. Located below the ground were the administrative and classroom areas. Scattered across the bluffs were various native-looking structures. These provided sunlight and passage to the underground areas.
Nestled in the basin that had been the mine proper were 6 giant hoops, perched on poles. They were divided into two clusters of three, with the space between them forming the academy's skyball field. Built into the sides on the basin were bleachers, taking advantage of the natural slope of the space. On one side of the field, a structure resembling a construction trailer could be found. On the other side was a hemispherical dome, with a trio of tunnels leading from the rear into the hillside.
Centered under the dome was a devisor campfire surrounded by a dozen seated students. Standing opposite the entrance were two older ladies, one in her late-20s and the other in her mid-30s. All present were clad in war paint and deerskin shirts and britches. While the beading on the outfits varied, the beads on the back of the students' shirts formed a number and a name above the number. The younger of the adults was clad in a war bonnet, with a medicine pouch on her hip. A couple students were finishing off drinks from gourd cups, while the rest had set their cup off to the side.
The students were focused on the shaman's words as she was wrapping up her pep talk. "To win, whether in a match or in a battle against our ancient enemies, you need tactics. To form good tactics, you need to know your opponent. Expect Whateley to field a team with a couple avatar or GSD fliers, a couple power-suit types, and a mage or two. The remainder of the team will likely be PK fliers, with one or two PDPs mixed in. You've met teams with all of these before and you know your playbook. Remember, feel the wind spirits like Ceta. That is one of your best tools, even if isn't reliable all the time."
"This week is homecoming at Whateley Academy. While some schools will deliberately chose a weak team for their homecoming opponent, this is not the Whateley way. Rather, they will try to bring in one of the strongest teams that they can find. To be selected as the homecoming opponent for Whateley is one of the greatest honors in the league."
"However, do not think for one second that we will be able to walk over them. Whateley is the oldest school in the league, pre-dating the league by over 50 years. For mutants across the world, Whateley is the school to attend and the talent pool they attract is second to none. For any team in the league, the match against Whateley is their championship match."
"Whatever the odds are, there is a reason that a match is played. A match that appears to be balanced on paper can be a blowout, and uneven match can end up playing out with a razor thin margin. This match will be played in Whateley's Arena 16, also known as Holbrook Arena. This means that the match will be televised internationally on pay-per-view. Whateley requires that all students participating in arena matches go by code names only and wear masks to conceal their identity. We will follow their lead, regardless of the language used for communication."
"Another standard of conduct that I expect from you all is adherence to the banner system while on Whatley's campus. Where we use color-coded banners around our camps, they use the border of the campus flag on the main flagpole. Expect the border to be yellow or red and behave accordingly. Any questions?"
Friday, 2:41 PM EST
Whateley Academy Front Gate
The gargoyles perched on either side of the front gate kept their silent vigil over the empty road. A gravel path lead away from the gate and road to a circular Messingite pad, roughly 5 meters in diameter. The edge of the pad was inscribed with a graceful set of runes, filled with a thin layer of adamantium. Off to one side of the pad stood a metal pole. Perched on top of the pole were a set of cameras, looking in all directions. Mounted below the cameras on the pole was a bell.
The silence of the afternoon was interrupted when the bell rang three times. A small flock of birds took to the air, startled by the sound. The clearing fell silent for a few moments before the two adults and two of the teenagers appeared. Rather than warping into the middle of the pad, they were clustered around a sturdy maple tree on the opposite side of the pole from the pad.
After everyone took a moment to get their bearings, the shaman spoke. "Thanks for the warp Cottonwood Bridge. Check in at the front gate and head for the Crystal Hall. We'll see you when you've recovered. Harvest Moon, get started with your magic."
As Cottonwood Bridge strolled down the path towards the road and gate, the taller student retrieved a wooden jar from the pouch on his waist. After taking a moment to study the runes on the pad, he strode to a particular spot and opened the jar. Dipping his finger into the jar, he coated it with pigment. Moving clockwise around the circle from the north, he added his own markings to the pad at each of the cardinal points. He then proceeded to add additional markings, forming an inner circle. After a couple more minutes, he stepped back and looked over his work with a careful eye, making certain that nothing was out of place.
Once satisfied, he chanted softly in Hopi. As he finished, a section of pipe, 6 feet in diameter, an inch thick and 6 inches long appeared in the middle of the pad, supported by several lengths of 2x4. The pipe was decorated with a string of blue-green christmas lights and studded with glowing triangle markers. Nestled under the pipe and its supports were a pair of metal cases, festooned with lights. A second later, the bell gave another chime. The trio silently counted to 10 before Harvest Moon spoke. "She's all yours Birch Nest. I'll clean up the wards while you check her over."
The mage retrieved a small whisk broom from his pouch and began sweeping. Meanwhile, his classmate stepped across the threshold to begin her inspection of the contraption. After a minute of quiet, the adult spoke. "The team won't be the same without you next year Birch Nest."
"I won't be going far if I can help it Chief."
"Oh? What plans do you have up your sleeve?"
"My backup plan is to intern with the Casper Valley Collective after I graduate in the spring."
"And what is your primary plan?"
"I hope to go full time with the folks downstairs."
"It's a tough place to get into, but I think you've got the drive. I take it you want to stick around and help with the transportation?"
"I do. Gating the team to the destination is so much easier than wondering who's going to be left behind at the MCO checkpoint."
"You can say that again."
As the banter continued, Birch Nest ran the electronics on her creation through their self diagnostics mode. Harvest Moon finished his sweeping, then carefully reexamined the adamantium runes for stray markings. Once Birch Nest was satisfied that everything was behaving as desired, she pulled on a small box attached to a cable spool. After everyone was clear of the pad, she opened the cover over the glowing green button. As she pressed the button, she whistled the first few notes of the X-Files theme song.
The strings of lights started blinking in a wave pattern around the pipe. Each whistled note caused a marker to change color from a dim yellow to a strong pulsing blue-green. As the final marker changed colors, the interior of the ring blurred. The view through the opening faded away, replaced by the view of a similar teleport pad in an underground cavern. A soft breeze came to life, the denser air of the New Hampshire countryside passing through the portal into the South Dakota highlands. After another 10 count, the rest of the skyball team quickly moved through the opening. Once the last member and the carried gear was clear, Birch Nest slapped the uncovered red button on the box. A second later, the gate faded away as the lights on the ring blinked out.
Friday, 3:02 PM EST
For the seniors of Whateley, the project that set the bar for visible changes to the campus scenery was that of the class of 1985. Until the class of 2016 decided on their undertaking, no student thought that this bar would be surpassed. In hindsight, the decision to reconstruct Holbrook Arena was obvious. Interest in skyball was booming, and the combat arenas were newly modenized. What made the decision a surprise was the symbolism of the rebuild. Only a member of the fledgling mutant academy league would have a permanent skyball field on campus. The debate in the review and oversight committee about the project was very heated. In the end, the project was approved by the narrowest of margins.
The reconstructed Holbrook featured the signature triple hoops on either end of the field. Unlike the Homestake arena, Holbrook had permanent cameras for Pay-per-view and broadcast TV. As spectators raced to get to their seats in time for launch-off, two solitary figures walked onto the field, one from each team's sideline. From the home team sideline came an imposing exemplar, clad in a business suit, her back ramrod straight. From the visitors sideline strode Homestake Academy's chief. When they met at the center of the field, they shook hands. The exemplar was the first to speak, her voice echoing faintly through the stands and across the airwaves.
"Welcome, one and all to Whateley Academy's 2026 homecoming skyball game. Before I invite our opponents onto the pitch, I have a few homecoming week announcements to make. First off, I am pleased to announce that we have obtained the blueprints for the artifact known as the Modular Component Harness. They are now safely stored within Whateley's vaults. I am also lead to believe that the copy in Yama Dojo's museum has been marked with Dr. Alexander's seal and relocated to their vaults for secure storage. Second, I wish to complement the members of the JROTC program and the Intelligence Cadet Corps. Thanks to their attentiveness, we were able to capture both the primary and diversion strike team from DeVille Academy. This accomplishment came at the cost of a sprained ankle."
She paused a moment for the cheering from the stands to die down before continuing. "Next, I am pleased to announce that tomorrow's parade of the fireflies will be broadcast free of charge on arena.mut. All visiting alumni who wish to participate are asked to report to their legacy cottages before 7:30. Finally, I wish to reiterate to everyone that Whateley is neutral territory. All visitors who wish to return are asked to respect the 24 hour hold rule with regards to gathered intelligence."
A few faint chuckles rattled through the stands at the headmistress' reminder. She then turned to her counterpart and spoke. "As headmistress of Whateley Academy, it is my privilege to welcome the Homestake Paranormal Academy skyball team to the hallowed grounds of Holbrook arena for today's match."
"Thank you, Headmistress. My team and I are honored to have been invited as your opponent for this match. Before our teams come out onto the pitch, I wish to engage you in a time-honored Whateley tradition."
The knowing flick of the corners of the headmistress' mouth put the lie to her response. "Oh? And what tradition might that be?"
"I wish to place a wager on the outcome of the game. I have with me 2 kilograms of jerky that says my bison will come out ahead in this match."
"In that case, I have 2 liters of our finest maple syrup that says we will successfully defend our home record."
"A sporting bet. All we need now is a bookie to confirm the deal. I'm afraid I left all of mine at home today."
A musical chuckle rang out across the field as a plain-looking lady dressed in her Whateley uniform trotted out from the sideline. As she moved, her voice sounded clearly to all present. "I believe I can handle the bookkeeping of that little wager."
The headmistress inclined her head in the direction of her student. "Chief Franks, let me introduce Mockinggale. She has connections to the local bookie network and will be singing the national anthem today."
The chief turned to the approaching student. "A pleasure to meet you. What does the network think of our wager?"
"While I can't speak for the bookies in Vegas, the bookies here and at Homestake find the betting line to be acceptable."
After nodding an acknowledgement, she turned to her counterpart and extended a hand. "Headmistress, do we have a bet?"
The extended hand was met by another for a shake. "Indeed we do. Now, if everyone could please stand, it's time for our national anthem."
The teenager came to a stop a couple meters away from the leaders and turned to face towards the flag fluttering at one end of the stadium. After a few moments, the stands fell silent, and she began to sing. A few stanzas into the song, it became apparent the the soft sound of the accompanying bells from the campus bell tower were actually a manifestation of her siren talent.
As Mockinggale sang the anthem, a quartet of fliers in military dress uniforms approached the stadium from the direction of the crystal hall. The V-shaped formation flew over the stadium just meters above the top of the stands. As they passed over the center of the pitch, the flier to the leader's right broke away. They shot up into the sky and off to the west as the remaining trio continued their path to the north.
From the vantage point of the pay per view announcer's booth, the sports commentator spoke into the camera. "A solemn rendition of the anthem today Adam. The rumors I heard running around was that she was going to try for the Hendrix version."
"I agree John. However, I think it was just the right thing for the missing man formation that the JROTC fliers just showed us. Say what you will about the Homestake team, but their uniforms clearly demonstrate their heritage."
"If I'm not mistaken, their chief probably had a hand in the beadwork design. But enough about my favorite diversion. We've got a game to play! Both teams are taking to the sky in preparation for the release of the balls."
"And they look sharp. Speaking of rumors, apparently one of the teams from DeVille Academy was planning on monkeying with today's broadcast. If they had been successful, the broadcast of the national anthem would have been replaced with a rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up."
"That's either brilliant or tacky, and I can't decide which."
Friday, 6:33 PM EST
The sound of a horn echoed across the field as the game came to an end, accompanied by whoops and cheers from the stands. A few of the Whateley players exchanged high-fives as they descended towards their sideline, while the Homestake players took an orderly flight towards their own. On the sidelines, the Whateley coach literally shook off the traditional energy drink bath while the power armor jockeys peeled off their helmets. Once the teams were gathered, they walked to the middle of the field to exchange handshakes.
Up in the broadcast booth, John was shaking his head slowly. "Now that's what I call a game. Whateley wins by the narrowest of margins. Mark your calendars now - Next year's trip to Lead is going to be a doozy."
Adam nodded in agreement. "You can say that again. Both teams gave it everything they had. I think it's safe to say that people will be going over these tapes with a fine tooth comb. I was looking over the stats and one that jumped out at me was that the teams were even in their foul totals. While a foul can throw a team off tempo, I don't think that happened in this case."
Down in the home team locker room, the atmosphere was upbeat, but subdued. As the team's hunter put it for the camera crew, "Any win is good, though this could have easily gone the other way."
For the visiting team, the atmosphere was similar. Although it lacked the victory cries of a win, the students were proud of their accomplishment. As the team cycled through the showers, an Iroquois exemplar strode into the locker area. Chief Franks smiled as she caught a glimpse of him. "Trustee Lodgeman! It's good to see you. Are you here to collect for the headmistress?"
A trace of a grin flickered across his face before he responded. ""The same to you Chief. That was not on my agenda, though I may end up doing so. The nations wish to extend an invitation to the lodge to your team. You of course are invited as well."
Homestake Academy's leader shifted her gaze to the members of her squad emerging from the showers. A brief exchange of glances, and her attention turned back to the Trustee. "On behalf of my team, we accept your invitation. As we will be staying late, I hope you will pardon me if I take a slight detour with a couple of my braves. I wish to show them a thing or two in my cottage."
Friday, 6:57 PM EST
Outside Poe Cottage
As the trustee lead the gaggle of visitors across the now dark campus, their chief tapped two of the younger members on the shoulder. Motioning for them to come with her, they split off from the group and approached one of the outlying cottages. The male member of the trio was dressed in a kilt and orange t-shirt, while the female student was more at home in a native dress, reflecting her Crow heritage.
As the trio of visitors approached the front door of the cottage, they were met by the iconic Bella Horton. The older ladies hugged as Bella spoke. "Mrs. Franks! I should have figured you'd stop by today."
"I never cease to be amazed at how well Headmistress Carlson runs this place. I have a third as many students, and they keep me hopping."
"Think of it as payback for all the headaches you gave us."
"That's one way to look at it. But I digress. Mrs Horton, meet Dominique Cloudgazer and Rachel Windwalker. They were here for tonight's game and I wanted to show them the trophy room. Dominique and Rachel, this is Mrs. Horton. She was the house mother for Poe back when I was a student here."
Mrs. Horton's eyebrow rose a fraction of an inch at the statement. "Why these students?"
The shaman handled the question with an oblique answer. "Because they live in the waterfall band at Homestake."
"I see. What do they know about Poe?"
The male teenager answered in response. "Basically nothing. We didn't know where we were going until we got here."
Chief Franks quirked her lip before responding. "I thought it best to get inside before I explained."
The housemother noded. "Very well then. Please, follow me." She strode to the front door of the cottage, pausing for a moment to hold it open for the trio of guests. Once inside the lobby, she walked over to the elevator and retrieved a key from her key chain. After inserting it in the fire recall switch, she gave it a couple casual twists before withdrawing it. She then pressed the call button. As the elevator ground its way down from the third floor, a Whateley girl clad in a Cherokee dress entered, a duffle bag slung over her shoulder.
She started to make her way across the lobby to the stairs, before being interrupted by the house mother. "Michel! Could I trouble you to join us for a few moments? Mrs. Franks is visiting the basement, and she might have some insights that you would find interesting.
Michel's eyebrows rose fractionally as she recognized the guests from the game, but strode over as requested. A moment later, the elevator arrived with an odd double ding. Mrs. Horton led the guests into the elevator, pressing the second floor button as they entered. As the doors to the elevator closed, she quickly hit a series of buttons. To the surprise of the younger visitors, the elevator silently dropped, descending to a sub-basement. Bella spoke as she led the group out. "Quickly please. We try to keep the operations of the elevators a secret, even if it's something of an open one."
Once inside the cottage's trophy room, Rachel spoke. "Chief, why did you mention we are part of the waterfall band?"
The shaman glanced to Mrs. Horton and then Michel, before answering the question. "As you know, Homestake Academy is modeled upon Whateley in several ways. Where Whateley has cottages, wings and floors, we have bands and camps. The waterfall band has earned a reputation of being the Homestake nuthouse."
The Whateley girl interrupted with a snort. "Sounds familiar."
Chief Franks gave a knowing nod. "There's a reason. Both Poe and Waterfall have a secret that the nuthouse reputation is a cover for. More to the point, they both have the same secret."
All three of the youth's eyes widened at the revelation. The housemother picked up for her former charge. "And the secret of your counterpart band or cottage must be kept as you keep your own secret."
The Chief moved with purpose to a case standing near one wall. As she moved, she spoke. "Rachel is a member of the sisterhood, while Dominique is one of my changlings."
Displayed within was a snake-like skull and a pair of glistening black leather boots. As she looked at the case, a tear made its way out of her eye. "The skull is a replica of one down in HPARC. It belonged to one of the sons of Unhcegila, whom I killed a few miles from here in Dunwich. The boots were made from his skin. They were to be a gift to a friend of mine, Jamie Carson. Unfortunately, he died before I could give them to him." Her focus shifted to Dominique and she spoke again, this time in Lakota. "His codename was Heyoka. This is not a coincidence, as your spirit once was his."
Dominique started when she mentioned the name 'Heyoka'.
Rachel tilted her head. "How did he die, if I might ask."
Both of the adults stiffened at the question, before Mrs. Horton responded. "Murder, I'm afraid. The person who did it tried to frame your chief for the deed. It was a trying time, but she made it through."
Dominique blinked and added a question of his own. "Do you forget Jamie?"
After a pregnant pause, the response came back. "Forget? I'll never forget him. Remember? Not as often as I did after it happened, but it's hard not to remember when I have someone with his codename on campus."
Bella nodded sadly. "I have my own reminder in the Kimba Korner training team. Somehow, they always manage to insert his name into the roster. It drives the simulator guys nuts trying to figure out how they do it."
Saturday, 5:15 AM EST
Whispering Oaks Motel, Outside Dunwich NH
For passers-by on state highway 16, the Whispering Oaks Motel barely deserved a second glance. The only thing distinguishing it from the many others like it was the name on the sign out front. Unlike most saturday mornings, the 'No' light was brightly lit, announcing that it was filled to capacity. For the night clerk on duty this morning, it had been an uneventful night. This changed shortly after 5 in the morning, as the day's guests began to filter into the lobby in ones and twos. All were carrying a small bag. When asked, each guest said they were waiting for the shuttle bus. The first time the clerk heard the explanation, he politely informed the guest that the motel didn't have a shuttle bus. He was surprised to hear in return that the guest was aware of this.
From the banter in the lobby, It soon became apparent that the guests this evening were a close-knit group. Shortly before 5:30, a school bus with the name 'Whateley Academy' on the side pulled up in front of the motel office. The guests in the lobby filled out quietly, showing the drivers their ID cards as they boarded. As it pulled out, the clerk shook his head as he realized that nearly everyone who had checked in the previous day was on the bus.
Saturday, 6:00 AM EST
Outside Shuster Hall
The bus circled around the historic statue of Noah Whateley before coming to a stop in front of Shuster hall. Forming a welcoming committee were a dozen or so students, along with the academy's resident traceuse. All were dressed for an early morning run. As each of her former students stepped off of the vans, she greeted them. Once the final alumni stepped off the bus, she whistled to get everyone's attention.
"Welcome one and all to the 20th annual Eric Mahren memorial parkour jam. I am pleased that so many of our hooligans have chosen to join us today. We will end today's run at Holbrook Arena, where you can shower before joining the rest of the homecoming activities. As a reminder, we will be hosting an introduction to parkour at 10 this morning around the quad. Please arrive by 9:30 if you wish to participate. In addition, at 2:30 this afternoon the hooligans will be having a round of what we call a parkour derby. Meet us outside the main entrance to Holbrook at 2 if you wish to join in."
She paused a moment, then continued speaking. "Parkour derby is modeled on roller derby. Each team fields a traceur and 4 runners. Runners will pursue another team's traceur for a fixed interval of time, attempting to tag them. Each tag given by a runner scores their team a point. Each tag given up by a traceur loses a point. After tagging the traceur, the runner backs off to allow the traceur time to recover. Our current class of hooligans is fielding two teams, one from Poe and Hawthorne and a second from Twain and Whitman."
She took a moment to look around the gathered alumni, mentally taking note of the teams of past students who appeared to have an interest. She snapped out of the musings and finished her introduction. "Now, before we start our run, why don't we all take a few minutes to warm up."
Saturday, 7:23 AM EST
Security offices, Kane Hall
Shortly after sunrise, the pack of hooligans thundered over the roof of Kane hall, still following their fearless traceuse. Deep in the bowels of the security offices, other preparations for the day's activities were under way. In one of the holographic display rooms, a scale model of the campus floated in mid-air. Floating above the diorama were a handful pea-sized dots, each tagged with an alphanumeric label. Standing on opposite sides were two security officers listening to their radios. As they watched, a new dot appeared over the corner of the diorama. This was followed a minute later by a call on the radio.
"Whateley field, this is Sierra Tango three three."
One of the officers nodded at the call and responded. "This is Whateley field. Go ahead Tango three three."
"Tango three three requesting clearance to land at Dunn Hall."
"Are you flying solo today Tango three three?"
"Affirmative Whateley field."
"Tango three three, descend to five hundred and reduce speed to twenty five." As the officer spoke, a faint dotted line appeared in the air, showing the path the flying mutant had been instructed to take.
"Tango three three copies."
The second officer nodded slightly as the exchange ended. "No surprise that she's headed for food. I believe that's 20 you owe me?"
The first officer gave an eye roll and handed the bill over. "The day is still young. How did you know that she'd be headed for Dunn."
"You know who her training team was?"
"Exactly. Any team with a foodie of that caliber would learn to appreciate good food."
Saturday, 7:47 AM EST
Outside Dunn Hall
The flier with the unnaturally spiky blue hair came to a graceful landing just outside the main entrance to Dunn hall. After taking a moment to regain her bearings, she stepped through the threshold and followed her nose to the teaching kitchen.
Upon stepping into the kitchen, one would find themselves in a space that would be the crown jewel of a culinary academy. Each of the dozen stations was lavishly equipped with marble countertops, a butcher block island and stainless steel appliances. This being Whateley Academy, the space had a few unique twists of its own. On the walls next to the clocks, a second indicator could be found. The dial was broken into 6 red or black segments, and was captioned "The chef is…" The arrow on the dial was pointing to the segment reading "devising new recipes". At several of the stations, one or more of the appliances had been replaced with something that could only have come from the tunnels. This impression was further reinforced by the safety cones and police tape surrounding a mostly normal looking station.
Standing in the middle of the room was a female centaur, clad in linen barding. Spotting the entering alumnus, she turned and spoke. "Welcome to the Bergerac memorial cooking lab. Please take care not to cross the safety tape. I'm afraid that Splatterball slept in today, and he's the only one who can turn off his security system."
"Who would build a security system into their cooking station?"
"Someone who was concerned that someone would steal their pizza teleporter or coffee maker. You remember Belphorger, do you not?"
"I don't think I could forget him, even if I wanted to."
"We've got a drow princess who picked up some of her grandfather's bad habits."
The flier winced. "Enough said. How is it armed?"
"Automatic paintball turret, armed with assorted non-lethal ammunition."
"I don't think I want to know."
The alumnus turned her attention to the other cooking stations in the room and started to circulate. A few minutes later, the coffee maker on the counter of the cordoned off kitchen suddenly whirred to life. This was followed by the entrance of a student wearing a Twain t-shirt. He lumbered over to the machine, barely avoiding tripping over one of the safety cones. Once he finished drinking the large mug of steaming liquid, his focus expanded outwards. Shaking his head, he flicked a switch, then started picking up the cones.
As additional students and visitors wandered through the culinary laboratory, a ball of light with wings flickered into existence over the shoulder of one of the school's sidhe students. The Virtual Assistant flitted in front of its master and began speaking. "Hey! Listen!"
"What is it Navi?" Came the expected response.
"Chaka will be starting her presentation in 15 minutes in Arena 99."
"Crap! I forgot all about it. All the good seats are probably taken by now." After quickly shaking hands with the student he was talking with, he turned and quickstepped for the door.
Saturday, 9:26 AM EST
Despite losing the prestige of being the largest arena on campus, the simulator staff kept up with the maintenance of the arena. The stands on one side of the arena were filled with current and former Tigers, while staring at them from across the space were members of the Dragons club. At one end of the arena, the Whateley Martial Arts Cheer Leaders had taken roost. Filling out the ranks of spectators were various staff members with an interest in the martial arts.
Spread out in the middle of the arena was a tatami mat. Standing on the mat was a well-toned african american lady with large hoop earrings and thigh-high leather heals. Floating in the four corners of the arena were holographic projections of the figure standing on the mat. Rather than echoing the position of the figure, the images were rotated by 120 degrees, providing the onlookers with alternate views of the activity on the floor.
Chaka turned to face the side of the floor where the majority of the faculty was seated. Holding the mop in her left hand like a staff, she performed a precise bow before speaking. "Sifu, Semu, shi shi. This concludes my demonstration on utilizing the power of Ki to clean a tatami mat. Those members of the audience with questions are welcome to join me on the simulator floor. I believe I have about half an hour for a Q&A session before the next event is scheduled."
Observing the demonstration from the upper levels of the stands was a nondescript student clad in the formal Whateley uniform. Lightly tanned with a middle-eastern complexion, he would have turned heads in any major city. However, he was just another baseline face in a school of exemplar standouts. What made him stand out from his peers was his choice in VIs. Floating over one shoulder was a cloud-like formation of spaghetti, complete with two meatball eyes.
As the figure casually walked down the bleacher stairs, his VI whispered something in his ear. Taking a moment to rub the entity between the meatballs, he turned and strolled towards the arena entrance. Once outside, he took a left hand turn and passed through the old bookie concourse. Half way down the concourse, he took another turn and stopped at a side door. Next to the door a sign read 'Arena 99 simulators'
After a moment's pause, he reached up and pressed the doorbell next to the door. A moment later the halves of the door slid apart, revealing a cramped circular room. He stepped into the room and lifted his right hand to the security plate on the wall. The door to the room snapped closed before two planes of light appeared in the room. The first plane raced from the floor of the room to the ceiling. The second bisected the room and spun in a 180 degree arc around the vertical axis.
After a few seconds of processing, the door on the opposite side of the room opened, revealing a small lobby and a reception desk facing the opening. The walls of the lobby were decorated with posters for Good and Evil Online and Gateway of Destiny. Signs indicated doors leading to simulator blocks A through D, simulator control, and the Men and Women's locker rooms. Seated behind the desk was a member of Whateley's security team. She was the first to speak. "Nice to see you again Gary. Thanks for not trying to spoof the security measures this time."
"You guys are too touchy about your security measures for the simulators."
"I'd threaten you with an overclocked sim, but your file says you'd probably enjoy it."
"Comes with the heritage."
"Well, get your mom to tell you about when the Kimbas got ambushed in the simulators. She didn't get hit, but she was close to them."
"I'll do that tonight. All of her Kimba stories take time to tell. What suite am I in today?"
"Looks like you're in C8. Go get changed. It should be ready by the time you get back."
Gary turned and strolled in the correct direction. As he entered the men's locker area, he was surprised to note that it was rather busy for a Saturday morning. Chalking it up as the Arena 14 crew playing games again, he stepped over to his locker and popped it open. After a moment of concentration, his shape began to ripple and flow. This unnatural movement carried his clothing into the locker. As the clothing folded up, the movements started to reverse themselves. The skin-tight suit rode the ripples back out of the locker and settled around his torso.
On his way out of the locker room, he paused a moment to check his appearance in the mirror. Satisfied, he returned to the lobby and slipped down the indicated hallway. At the end of the hallway, he found a door with an electronic label reading 'Vowelless'. As he opened the door, the corner of his mouth twitched into a smile. Inside the room was a modified version of the standard simulator chair, outfitted with additional padding. Gary picked up the control harness and clipped the pigtail to the socket at the base of his spine.
After taking the time to adjust the chair to fit his size, he settled into it with a practiced ease. When he was ready, he gave an almost unnatural snap of his neck. In response, the visor fell down over his eyes, signifying his readiness to enter the simulator. This triggered an automatic 5 second countdown. At the end of the countdown, he found himself standing in front of a gilded antique mirror. Reflected in the mirror was a female druid, clad in a slightly provocative outfit. Behind her was the interior of a country tavern.
Gary reached forward with his left hand, the action echoed by the druid in the mirror. As he did so, the feminine arm of his own form danced across the corner of his vision. The arm made a wide sweep from left to right, and the mirror was replaced by a shimmering waterfall. Reflected in the waterfall was the boney figure of a litch, a dark hood obscuring his face. Behind him, the ruins of a temple could be seen.
Gary made another broad gesture with his left hand, and the waterfall was replaced by a sterile, industrial mirror. Reflected in the mirror was the androgynous form of an android. It was clad in the formal uniform of a chief petty officer. Behind the figure was the sparse quarters of a space-going ship. It took a couple steps to reacquaint itself with the form before stepping through the mirror. Upon doing so, the scene changed, replaced by the bridge of a starship.
Galactic Standard Date 24524.34, 14.30
System Epsilon 23 Delta, Gateway of Destiny
The Elizon was a unique ship. It began life as a space yacht, custom built for the leader of a multi-system conglomerate. It was captured by space pirates in a daring raid. The leader was ransomed, but the pirates kept the ship for their own. After being outfitted with a smuggler's hold, it entered service as a scout, smuggler and decoy. After several years of service, it was captured again, this time by the security services of one of the major intersystem empires. It was refitted again and issued to an up and coming space capitan.
Seated in the pilot's chair of the Elizon was a lithe amazon. Possessing the build of a cheerleader, she was an unlikely character to command a ship. Captan Ariana had earned her stripes working undercover in a smuggler's den a few systems away. Her current mission was essentially picket duty, watching for anyone attempting to approach the empire's gas collection operations in the Talon-Tabor system through the rickety Winlow gate. Her visual scanning of the skies was interrupted by a voice on her headset. "Captain, I've got a message for you on the interstellar."
"Go ahead Walter."
"Whateley station reports that a chronion storm will be hitting this sector in 5 minutes."
Ariana winced. Chronion storms were GOD's version of the Globe of Peace in GEO. Something was up if Whateley was unleashing them on the galaxy. "What's the impact area?"
"From the system list they gave, it sounds like everything within 7 jumps of the Talon-Tabor field."
She looked down at her plot. The ship was two jumps away from the edge of the storm, planting them firmly in its path. "How long is it expected to last?"
"Two hours captain."
"Just my luck. No way to get out of it's way, so we'll ride it out."
The pilot reached down and flicked a switch on her console, triggering the whole ship intercom. "Attention everyone. We've been warned of a pending Chronion storm that's expected to hit our system in a few minutes. Please report to your pre-jump duty stations."
As a soft chiming alarm echoed through the hull of the ship, she took a final visual scan of the empty space in front of the ship. She then opened her left hand, releasing a red ball. As the world faded out of her vision, the automated voice of the simulators spoke to her. "Welcome back Mothwing. The time is now 11:52 AM.You are booked in simulator G13 at 12:15. Please report to Arena 14 briefing room 3."
Mothwing opened her eyes with a grumble. Today was supposed to be a showcase event for the alumni. Why were the simulator jockeys throwing an unscheduled drill at her team? She reached down and detached the control umbilical from her suit before climbing out of the chair. As she moved, she unconsciously stretched her namesake wings. Hopefully she'd be able to get simulator time after the Chronion storm passed.
As she stalked out of the Arena 99 simulator suite she had booked, she took note of several other seniors making their appearance with similar scowls. "What the hell is going on?" was the question that echoed down the hallway. "I guess we'll find out at the briefing." was the response that came back.
The parade of students who had been kicked out of their simulators passed through the lobby and into the changing rooms. They joined others who were complaining about missing the opening of the Crystal Hall for lunch as the massed throng passed through the double doors into the Arena 14 lobby.
The Arena 14 lobby was a larger version of it's Arena 99 counterpart. The walls lacked the decor of gaming posters, replaced instead with signs reminding students of the simulator rules and regulations. The single mantrap permitting access to the lobby in Arena 14 was joined by five others, to better handle the number of students entering and exiting the complex. The eight wings of simulator suites (E through L) were each connected to a dedicated briefing room, and the door to the control center was also a mantrap.
As Mothwing took a seat in her designated briefing room, another student glided in the door. Where Mothwing looked mostly human with the exception of her wings, this student looked like a miniature oak tree wrapped in a tight sheet of fabric. Even so, her feminine curves revealed her human origins. Mothwing was the first to speak. "Gaia! What are you doing here?"
Gaia's Fist looked over at the calling voice and responded to her roommate. "I was on my way to meet with they who must not be named, when a VI came out of nowhere, bonked me on the head and told me to get my roots over here. I was hoping to meet Queen Jobe, but I'm not going to risk my grade for it. What are you doing here?"
Mothwing chuckled. "I was neck deep in GOD when the jockeys threw the biggest damn Chronion storm at the game that I've ever seen. It practically ate the entire quadrant of the galaxy. When I dropped out, the simulator informed me of my appointment."
Before the duo could talk further, the room lights dimmed as the projection screen turned on. Appearing on the screen was the current head of the simulator team. She spoke in a gruff tone of voice. "Ok kids, listen up. I'm only going to say this once. Today's simulator run is cut and dried. Your mission is to survive by any means necessary. You will be dressed the way you were when you walked through the simulator arena doors this afternoon. Any questions?"
A moment later, a different voice echoed across the speakers. "What if we have holdouts that we can summon, materialize or otherwise teleport in?"
The team member responded to the question. "As long as they've been inspected by the staff and you've properly recorded them in your files, you will have access to them."
Another voice resonated across the intercom. "What is the setting?"
"You'll find out when you get there."
She paused a long moment as the assembled students processed her non-answer, then continued. "Seeing no other questions, get to your assigned room. Good luck, and Happy Halloween."
Gaia's Fist gained a thoughtful look for a moment before exclaiming, "Shit!" Her exclamation was echoed a few moments later by one of her team mates. Mothwing blinked at the uncharacteristic response. "What's up?"
"The Halloween. It was twenty years ago. They're probably throwing it at us."
"The Hall…Oh no!"
"I know, right? This could be ugly."
"Well, nothing to do but to run it." She paused as Gaia's Fist opened the door to her simulator room. "Break a root, and I'll see you on the flip side."
Saturday, 4:22 PM EST
Simulator Suite I11, Arena 14
"Welcome back Thunderforge. The time is now 16:22. Your team is judged to have lost the simulation, though elements survived. Report to briefing room 5 for your debrief." The exemplar laying on the simulator couch groaned as he reached up to open his visor. He was no stranger to hard simulations, but this was one of the most draining.
As he wandered into the hallway, he was greeted by other equally dazed members of the senior class. Speaking to nobody in particular, he commented. "And I thought the breakfast battle was the hardest thing they had in their repertoire."
Another student responded with "Did someone get the license of that truck that just hit me? I know it's a simulator and all, but I'll be feeling it in the morning."
"If that was the jockeys at their best, I'd hate to see them at their worst."
"No, you don't understand. The last thing I remember before getting kicked out of the sim was being hit by a frickin semi-trailer."
"Believe it or not, I think it was your plates. I swear that the staff has British passports. Their sense of humor just isn't human."
Another student with the requisite accent chimed in with "Hey! I represent that!"
"I'd hope so, James Blond."
"That's the codename, don't wear it out!"
The mass of students trooped back into the briefing room where they had started the drill two hours before. After everyone had settled, the head of the simulation team appeared on screen again. After a moment, she spoke. "Thank you all for being good sports about the drill. I know you all have plans for the afternoon, so I will forgo the normal debrief today." She paused a moment, bringing cheers to the surface which were quickly cut off as she continued. "However, I expect to see everyone in Arena 77 bright and early Monday morning for first period. We will be debriefing everyone who participated in both simulation runs at that time. Dismissed!"
Thunderforge waited a moment before standing up. As the room emptied, he joined the flow of students headed towards the locker rooms. Where the mood in the locker room has been rather upbeat while they were getting suited up, the mood afterward was more reflective. Thunderforge changed out of his sim suit in silence. Gathered nearby were a couple of his teammates. As he put the suit back on its hanger, he spoke. "How'd you come out of the simulation?"
"Crushed by the remnants of Kerby" and "Stuck in one of those damned VTOLs." were the responses that came back. Thunderforge contributed "Those damn Rooks nearly had me before they got recalled. I wonder how the ladies came out."
"Mrs. Styx was next to me in the VTOL, so take that for what it is."
Thunderforge nodded. "Ugly, ugly sim. I want to try to catch the last FSA presentation, so I'll be late to the Crystal Hall."
"Well, there's a couple plates with my name on them, and I don't want to keep them waiting."
Both teammates chuckled at the energizer before the exemplar stretched. "I'll see you at the dance tonight then."
"Enjoy the talk."
Thunderforge made his way out of the Arena 14 complex and into the maze of tunnels below the campus. Rather than heading for the surface, he made his way towards the northern end of the warren. As he approached his destination, electronic signs proclaimed 'Welcome FSA Aluminus' and 'Remember, no recruiting is allowed during homecoming activities.'
Underneath Holbrook Arena was the newest of the academy's combat arenas, Arena 15. Occupying a volume nearly as large as the skyball field above, the administration hoped that they would be able to get a couple decades of use out of the new flagship before it was necessary to construct a replacement.
Inside the arena, a slideshow had replaced the usual video feed on the oversized video screens above the arena floor. Chairs had been set up on the floor of the arena, facing a hard light screen showing the same slideshow. Standing in front of the hard light screen was a female MCO officer, decked out in her dress uniform. Beyond her youthful looks, the most striking aspect of her appearance was her green hair and pointy ears. A trio of green fairies flitted around over the audience. As Thunderforge entered, she was wrapping up her seminar.
"In conclusion, to be an effective superhero, it is necessary to know your Ls. Know the laws of the jurisdiction where you are operating. Without that knowledge, you are nothing more than a well armed vigilante. Know the leaders of your area of operations. Even if you don't know them personally, knowing their attitude towards mutants can save you much trouble. Know the landscape where you work. You can and should use the terrain to your advantage. Traps can be avoided, ambushes can be turned and lives can be saved with that knowledge. Finally, know the locals. Knowing someone's reputation can help you assess the quality of their tip. Early intervention can turn future troublemakers into future assets of the community. Knowing who is inclined towards trouble can give you a starting place to look."
As she spoke, each major bullet point appeared on the screen. After a moment of quiet for the audience to process her words, she spoke again. "Thank you for inviting me here today. It was an honor to be allowed to present to you. I will be available in the back of the arena for questions, but I'm afraid my time at the podium is up."
As the fae on the stage stepped down to a smattering of applause, an anthropomorphic bulldog clad in a school uniform strolled onto the sage and stepped up to the podium. After the applause died down, he spoke. "And thank you for taking time to talk to us Agent Absinthe. It's always interesting to hear the MCO's take on the profession of being a hero. Our final presenter this afternoon is the S.T.A.R. League. Let's give them a warm welcome."
As the audience clapped, a dozen heroes in their work outfit strode onto the stage. All were clad in sharp white and black outfits. A lanky woman with dark hair and a somewhat petite stature stepped up to the podium. When the applause died down, she began to speak. "On behalf of the entire S.T.A.R. League, we would like to thank the FSA for inviting us to speak today. Many of us are FSA alumni, and we have great hopes for the current members. We come here today to talk about planning for the unexpected. By definition, this is a nearly impossible task. Even so, missions will go places you never thought possible. When we were students here, we had the distinct misfortune of being in the first crash for Wondercute."
She paused a moment, taking note of the winces from the majority of the audience members. "And from the looks of things, I suspect everyone here has been up against them a time or two. Our biggest takeaway from that incident was the importance of improvisation when all your plans go out the window. Not that that helped when we ran the rematch."
Saturday, 7:30 PM EST
Poe Cottage Lobby
The alumni who gathered in the first floor common area greeted each other quietly. The atmosphere was somber as a petite exemplar passed out candles to those gathered. In addition to the gathered alumni, students from the dorm rooms above began to filter down in ones and twos. The calm was broken briefly when a lone girl from the third floor spied a pair of alumni holding hands and raced over. The trio hugged as the older pair whispered words of encouragement to the youngster. When the campus clocktower struck a quarter til the hour, the mixed group of students and alumni began to process out the door in a single file line. As each candle passed the threshold, it lit, seemingly of its own accord.
As the procession started to thread its way across the threshold of Poe's front door, a similar line strode down the front steps of Shuster Hall, lead by the school's headmistress. Following behind was the majority of the faculty and staff, the ranks filled out by various emeritus. Across the campus, lines of students and alumni emerged from every dorm, each line lead by the house mother or father. At Hawthorne, the procession was lead by the ghostly form of Fubar. Floating behind him was a formation of candles, one for each student who was unable to leave their dorm room.
The lines of candles converged on the softly lit edifice of McFarlane Stadium, detouring to pass through the memorial garden on their way. The normally well-lit paths had been dimmed by the facilities staff, the candles in the procession helping to make up the difference.
Saturday, 8:00 PM EST
As the lines approached the arena, a smattering of students, alumni, faculty and emeritus broke off from their lines, heading for a side entrance. The rest of the growing crowd filtered in through the main doors, taking seats in the stands or gathering on the floor in front of the stage. Standing on the stage were Mothwing and Thunderforge. Glinting off of each student's jacket was a gold 'A' shaped pin. For those unable to get front row seats, the image of the pair shone on the giant screen behind them.
As the last of the audience settled, Mothwing began to speak. "Welcome one and all to Whateley Academy's 2026 memorial service. We gather together this evening to remember those students who never had the chance to graduate. We also remember the members of the faculty and staff who have passed from this world into the next. The causes of death are as varied as those who passed. They died of natural causes, burnout and GSD. There were sacrifices, suicides and murders. Regardless of the circumstances, they all touched our lives in one way or another."
She took a step back and her counterpart stepped forward to pick up the narrative. "20 years ago this evening, the Academy family was shaken by the event simply known as Halloween. We gather tonight to remember those who have passed, not just in this event but through the history of this campus. Following the reading of the names, the stage will be set for this year's Halloween dance. When we dance tonight, we celebrate their spirits. As this is the night known as All Hallows Evening, perhaps their spirits will dance with us too. Without further ado, let us meet those who have gone before us."
The video feed on the projection screen was replaced with a sepia-tone photograph of a broad-shouldered gentleman, dressed in the first iteration of the academy uniform. As the two alphas moved stage left, a gentleman who looked to be in his 70s entered from stage right, carrying the ubiquitous candle. After a moment, he spoke, his voice amplified for all to hear. "The first death of a member of the Whatley community occurred on November 14, 1966. My roommate Artus Dunmore died of complications from what we now call GSD. May his memories live among the stars." He then blew on his candle. Rather than flickering out, the flame floated away from the candle into the air over the audience.
As the gentleman turned away from the audience, the image on the screen changed, and another alumnus who had entered from the left side of the stage took their turn to speak. One by one, names were recited, along with the date and cause of death. The presenters came from all parts of the spectrum, from heros to villains and minor to major. Several of the villains appeared via video from paranormal detention. After each presenter extinguished their candle, another flame joined the growing constellation of lights in the air of the arena. Every so often, one of the alphas would step forward and talk about the changing environment of the campus and the world at large.
After half a dozen names were read for the year 2006, the pair of alphas returned to the middle of the stage. This time, Thunderforge began speaking. "What started as the traditional Halloween dance right here in McFarlane Stadium ended with a massive assault on the school grounds. The assailants started with a sonic attack, before deploying several hundred troops and a small fleet of dropships."
The alpha queen picked up the explanation from where he left off. "While some of the details of the event will never be known, it is believed that the targets of the Halloween assault were the training team known as Team Kimba. In the following years, the Combat Crisis Simulator teams crafted a simulation known simply as 'Halloween'. Although this simulation is part of the training for new members of security, today marks just the third time training teams have found themselves facing this scenario."
The alpha king spoke again. "In today's first run, close to half of this year's senior class were thrown to the proverbial wolves. Standing in for team Kimba were members of the Kimba Korner training team. This team lucked out when the members of the varsity skyball team opted to attack the dropship which the assault was being commanded from. This in turn lead to the demise of Deathlist. Unfortunately, Gaia's Fist found herself captured, and Kinectomatic and Spatial Disruption both perished."
His counterpart finished the briefing. "In the second run of the simulation, the remainder of the simulator qualified seniors were tested. In this run, the Champions of Olympus took the place of team Kimba. While Thunderforge managed to evade capture, the rest of his team fell in the attack. Finally, today was supposed to be the annual capes vs masks simulator battle. However, the simulator crews pulled a fast one on the faculty. While the participants were briefed that the scenario was a Los Vegas Casino heist, they instead found themselves in their department's offices on campus."
Clad in his dress uniform, the academy's chief of security stepped out from the opposite side of the stage and spoke. "As best we can tell, the end result of this simulation run was remarkably close to the outcome of the actual battle. When the dust settled, a significant portion of the security staff was injured or dead and damage was widespread across the campus. However, no student perished in the attack. Let us now remember those who perished in or from the attack."
The alpha pair exiting the stage crossed paths with the JROTC contingent. Marching in lock-step, each member of the squad carried a vintage rifle resting on their shoulder. Once they were in position, the security chief started his recitation of the names with "Caitlin McQuiston." The recitation of the names of the security members who passed ended with a 21-gun salute, before the proverbial clock started moving forward again.
As the air above the floor grew more crowded with points of light, the ages of the presenters grew younger. Eventually, the ranks of young professionals were joined by parents, remembering a lost son or daughter. In the early 2020s, the rhythm of the procession was interrupted by a female figure appearing on the screen, but without anyone stepping onto the stage from the side to speak. The figure was clad in a witch's robe, a ball of flame floating over her cupped hands.
A moment later, the projection animated itself before stepping 'out' of the screen, leaving a static image behind. "Just as energizers have a risk of exhibiting Deidrick's syndrome, Cyberpaths risk exhibiting Palm's Syndrome. Palm's Syndrome was named after doctor Able Palm and is signified by the attempt to transcend the mortal realm into a cyber entity. Few who try to take this step succeed. The first student on campus to die trying to go palm was my programmer, Mei Hartford. May her body rest in peace." The holographic figure thrust her palms upwards, the ball of flame shrinking to a point and floating upwards into the constellation.
The end of the recitation of names was marked by a trio of figures stepping out together and taking center stage. The girl from Poe took a moment to wipe an eye before she spoke in a halting manner. "The most recent death on campus occurred three days ago. My roommate…" She trailed off and sighed, her head dropping. The member of the trio dressed in a crisp pantsuit wrapped the teen in a hug from behind and picked up where she left off. "And our daughter, Michelle Goodkind, died from complications of GSD. Perhaps this is fitting, as it brings the causes of death back around to where we started."
Her partner reached over and took the candle from the teenager's hands. She lifted the flame up to her lips and blew. It flickered, then floated up into the rafters. A moment later, a lone bugle started to play taps as the constellation of stars expanded. They floated outwards and upwards, eventually forming a shell lining the acoustic tiles of the space. The screen behind the stage and the lights focused on it faded out, leaving the last few notes of the song echoing through the darkness.
After several long moments of silence, a jazzy tune sounded throughout the stadium and the lights snapped back on. The display screen was gone, it's place taken by a hemisphere shaped object, floating at about the height of the basketball hoops. Standing in the object was a student dressed like Marvin the Martin and twirling a parade marshal's baton. His voice boomed out across the stadium, "Ladies and Gentlemen. This! Is! Halloween! Are you ready to party?"