Thirteen - First Competition
A/N: Thank you guys for all your views, follows, favorites, and reviews! I'm so glad this story still has readers after such a long hiatus! Replies are at the end!
On the hottest of days, it was a blessing to be underground with the cool dark earth. Bumblebee returned from her fourth practice flight feeling exhilarated, but sweat glued her wings to her shoulders when they were at rest. She almost regretted going out in her Bumblebee uniform, but wearing the HIVE bodysuit now was like wrapping yourself in thick plastic.
Passing the receptionist desk she gave Ruby a wave, then headed down on the elevator. When it finally opened to the school, she was bum-rushed by Professor G, a bug-eyed, spindly woman who some kids privately nicknamed the Spiderwoman.
The professor glared down at her, waving her tablet. "Where are you going, Miss Bumblebee?"
Karen squinted to keep her eyes from rolling. She had done nothing to earn Professor G's ire, but that didn't stop the woman's antics. "Class ended an hour ago," she calmly explained.
"And the monthly assembly starts in five minutes," she clucked, pushing her wire-rimmed glasses to the top of her head. "You are not scheduled for a flight test, yet you've been gallivanting all over the west coast without soldier supervision. Save the showing-off for Ability Lab. It would be a shame if someone were to take your privileges away."
Karen bit back a smart-ass reply. "You're not allowed to take students' gifts back."
Professor G's wide eyes danced with glee. "Maybe not me, but someone higher up could be convinced."
"What's this?" The Headmistress materialized out of thin air. She had a knack for that. Maybe it was her superpower.
"Miss Bumblebee here," sniffed the professor, "seems to have trouble sticking to the schedule. She's been testing her modifications without approval or supervision."
The Headmistress's normally expressionless face cracked into a smile. No, it was more of a smirk. "She had my approval for today's practice."
"Is that so?" Professor G asked. Her voice was gentle but her pale skin turned an interesting shade of purple. "I hold the sign-out sheet for all practice testing yet I saw nothing in my documents."
"And as your supervisor, I hold it, as well, my friend, along with Professors K and M. See my signature?" The Headmistress tapped on her tablet screen and turned it to show to the frazzled professor. "It's alright," she soothed. "It's your first week. Soon you'll grow accustomed to the way we do things here."
The professor's mouth flattened. "Yes. Thank you for your help, ma'am." Then she turned her heel and marched off to the auditorium.
The Headmistress tilted her head. "Jealousy is an ugly emotion," she muttered. "Don't you agree, Bumblebee?"
Bumblebee jumped, surprised the Headmistress was directing a question toward her. She'd been trailing a pace behind, but now she worked to keep up with the principal's quick strides. "Jealousy is ugly. But it's envy you have to watch out for."
"Jealousy is when you're upset because someone has a car you can't afford or they're a better musician than you. It's petty and you know it. It's just so quick, almost reflexive. But envy is deep-seated. You've been sitting on it a long time. You start looking for excuses for despising this person until it feels justified. People can be jealous of their closest friends and family. But it rarely expands to envy."
"Well-spoken," the Headmistress commented.
Sure, kids sneered and made jokes, but being the teacher's pet was cool. Who wanted to go unnoticed, kicked to the side and one of the masses, when you could be a star and reap all the perks? Last week, the Headmistress had summoned her from the cafeteria to promote her as an assistant in Martial Arts classes. Billy had teased her, announcing to their table that Karen was fixin' to become headmistress-in-training. But Billy laughed at everything, especially as of late. He was talented, sure, but being made to hit things all day and let loose with his clones had pushed his head further up his own ass.
That Spiderwoman had lied. The assembly didn't start for another fifteen minutes. Bumblebee parted from the head teacher and took a seat in the back. Yeah, she was proud, but she didn't like the unsafe feeling of sitting with her back to the likes of Mammoth or Gizmo. The former had given up on trying to rattle her in favor of bothering every newcomer that walked in the door. But seriously? She was going to have to make some friends. Billy was reliable when needed, but he'd been hanging around smelly boys most of the time. More often than not, he was about as useless as a screen door on a submarine. She needed a BFF, a girl preferably. Maybe a boyfriend, too. She was going to dry up and die of loneliness if she didn't have a date to the fall mixer. She was going to be fifteen in two months. How was she going to go another year of her life without kissing anyone? The embarrassment!
To calm her inner turmoil, Karen pretended to occupy herself with her Disguises textbook, jotting notes on some French has-been with a dated jet-black haircut. Instead she people-watched as everyone piled into the rows. There was that oaf, Mammoth. Quiet Kyd Wykkyd, whose name she still couldn't think of without a mental laugh. Their friend Seymour, who was actually kind of cute, but he still was in his burps-are-comedy-gold phase. Bumblebee turned to the other entrance where an orange-haired girl entered, a stocky, broad-shouldered, boy, and a few other old-timers. Thirty-two total, including herself. The numbers were getting smaller, but people weren't leaving as quickly as they had two months ago.
A minute before the start, Billy dashed into the seat next to her. Two clones filled out the seats on his other side. "Did we miss anything?" they said in creepy unison.
Thirty-three students total, Bumblebee corrected. "Your credibility."
Billy grinned, putting his feet on the chair in front of him. "I went down to see the monster truck races."
"Really, in the middle of the day?"
"Well, it is technically summer." He yawned. "We've been going to school since June. Do you realize how torturous that is? I'm starting to miss being a high-school dropout. Normal schools would be on break right now."
Bumblebee slammed her textbook shut. "This isn't a normal school, Billy."
He tugged on his black bodysuit. "You take this stuff too seriously, Beatrice. Every day, you're busy as a moth in a mitten."
The reminder of her former alias set her on edge. "My name is Bumblebee. In case you haven't noticed, I've been Selected. Meanwhile, you and your clones are tripping behind even though you've been here just as long."
Billy rubbed his eyes. "I know, I know. But I haven't been sent home, have I? I'm getting by. The plan was to survive, wasn't it?"
Karen sighed. Billy didn't get it. Yes, survival was the goal, but what did their lives mean if they were just struggling? The HIVE had given them a cover and a haven and if they didn't work to keep it it'd all be for nothing.
The small auditorium seemed even bigger with the scattered students. Yet the room buzzed with a bright energy especially when the principal appeared on stage. The other twelve educators flanked her on either side of the stage, their bodies becoming a formidable wall of gunmetal gray.
"Now, children," the Headmistress began. "We've no time for announcements. Today is a special day."
Everyone leaned forward in anticipation.
"I need strong students. Let me rephrase that. The world needs champions. Someone who is ready to take villainy to the next level, at any cost. Someone who will rise up against the so-called heroes and even the score." She leaned into the microphone. "Tonight, all of you will compete and be ranked. The top five will be my elite team. My HIVE Five, who will be the first among you to complete missions."
Murmurs filled the room.
"There will be a challenge tonight. Who is ready to be tested?"
Billy grabbed Bumblebee's wrist and shot it in the air, letting out a whoop. She elbowed him, but the pair went unnoticed. Others were doing the same, bouncing their seats like hyper preschoolers.
"There's no need for volunteers," the Headmistress said with a serpentine smile. "You've all done the homework, took the tests, sparred the matches. Let's put some of that experience to use. In sixty seconds, these doors will lock and the competition will begin. The last five left standing are the winners. Good luck."
The lights of the stage switched off and a clear shield rose, dividing the teachers from the students. Very slowly, the house lights dimmed. Some people stood nervously, reaching for weapons or moving to the edges of the room.
Karen's throat tightened. She turned to Billy who only shook his head nervously.
Then the seats collapsed beneath them. The floor broke up in sharp fragments, and carpet, rubber, and wood sprayed up in chunks from below.
"Billy!" Karen shouted, as her and dozens of other kids fell, farther and farther. She couldn't see anything but darkness and stunned shouts stabbed at her ears. Wrapping her arms around her head, she curled up, trying to land on her side. With a boom, she smacked into something smooth and hard. Similar sounds echoed it, as kids large and small hit the ground. At least it had been quick. They weren't too far below the school.
But then the floor tilted to the right. Yes, tilted like a dinner plate being scraped into a trashcan, just a few degrees shy of going vertical. Her hands looked for something to latch onto, but other bodies pushed into her. The HIVE students landed in a heap on a new floor, still plunged in darkness. A few kids got to their feet, swaying like ghosts in the dark. The rest knew better. Again the floor tilted to the left, starting them all over again. Someone cried out as they likely hurt their head or twisted their ankle or something. Right, left, right left, it went on, like balls in a sadistic ping-pong machine.
On one floor, the lamps flickered on. Not actual normal overhead ones, but twelve or so bright-as-headlights beams shooting out from the sides of the walls. This room was colder too, unnaturally so. By now the yelps had turned to grunts of pain and confusion, but the vibe in the room churned to fear once again.
Bumblebee scrambled to her feet and glanced around. They were in a circular room, even smaller than the auditorium. The walls were grey, dusty concrete, nothing like the shine of the academy. The ground was no longer smooth, but covered in pebbles. Were they outside? No. That didn't make sense. They were still underground. Which was outside. Bumblebee's head hurt. She stretched her back. No worse than what she was used to.
Around her, people called to each other. Some shifted away from the light, and others stepped in front of it, afraid of being knocked into.
A blaring horn went off.
For a second, everyone went motionless. They'd forgotten why they were here.
And all at once, they remembered. Bumblebee couldn't see who started it, but a hit had landed. A crack echoed it, and when the wave of violence traveled to her corner, she caught it. Literally. Her forearm shot up to block the offending arm, and she shoved the weaker girl away with ease.
Her wings fanned out. She shot above the melee and peered down. Two kids were already out. She narrowed her eyes. Was that Billy wrestling that big guy? Should she help him out?
An explosion went off, inches from her head. Karen fluttered to the ground, nearly collapsing into her offender. She pushed herself up to look at him.
Holding some complicated blaster, Gizmo laughed, a tinny sound that rang above the chaos. "You put the 'bumble' in Bumblebee!"
She growled and flung out a hand, swatting at the boy lazily. A bigger explosion followed, separated them. She backflipped to get out of the way. Cursing, she shook out her stinging finger The kid had good tricks.
Focus. She needed to focus on what she could do. Someone grabbed her shoulder and she elbowed them in the jaw. They backed off and she whirled. She grabbed a wispy girl about her size, and knocked her out with a merciful cross-punch. Sweat stung her eyes and her muscles protested, but she went on a full offensive, resolving to never give up until they let her out of the cage. Strike here. Sweep-kick there. Weave over there, flit over here.
Her father had held her back from success, but at this school, she could reach her full potential. No one could stop her from being the best. What an addictive feeling.
A second horn startled her and her dozens of opponents.
In between the lights, cannons appeared in the walls. BOOM! Out shot clouds of white flurries.
What? At first glance, they looked like bugs. But Bumblebee caught on faster than the others. She pressed the heels of her palms to her face just as someone screamed, "My eyes! My eyes!"
The school's bodysuits came with goggles, but they were so dorky most kids didn't bother even latching them to their belts. Very few others had goggles with their uniforms. Above her, Bumblebee could hear the joyous laughter of Gizmo and the accompanying explosions. She stumbled towards a wall, but someone slammed into her.
"Bumblebee!" she heard Billy say close to her ear. "Stay down! He'll hit the moving targets first."
She sneezed, then shifted, uncomfortable being pinned by three clones at once. "He sure does like a challenge," she coughed. It hurt to speak with pollen flying down her throat.
"How many kids out?" he whispered in a rush.
"I don't know, maybe ten? Twelve?" She had done her fair share of work, but it was hard to see what wasn't in her close vicinity.
"See you at the top."
A sharp laser-like sound drew their attention. Bee sat up and saw that someone had turned the pollen into sparkly pink glitter. It coated their bodies, but fell to the ground, useless.
"Who -" She started. But Billy was gone and his clones had disappeared.
CRASH! The light behind her exploded, shards of glass flying out. She ducked in time, but someone grabbed her by the back of her collar, yanking her up.
"Pathetic," said a lilting voice. The speaker leaned down, her pink eyes dancing. "You know, I expected a bit more from the teacher's pet."
Bumblebee nailed her with a roundhouse kick, but Jinx was sharper, even more ruthless than she looked in sparring matches. A part of Bee cheered at the thought of fighting a real trained acrobat, but most of her brain was terrified, scared of the pointed nails that moved like lightning and cut her face, of the blasts of light that sent pebbles rolling and sweeping her feet out from under her.
Another horn sounded.
"Oh for crying out loud," Bumblebee muttered.
The cannons reappeared, but instead of pollen, honey poured out. No, pour wasn't the right word. The thick, golden liquid gushed out like a dam had broken. WIthin in seconds it was put to their shins.
Bee flitted her wings, and pulled forward, but she was stuck. Gizmo shot at the offending liquid with his gadgets. Billy's clones made a tower of bodies for him to rise onto. Mammoth punched out the nearest cannon to stop the outpour. Kyd Wykkyd looked to be sawing through the hardening mess with his...cape?
Could she pull through? She looked to the high ceiling. There was still so much confusion. She couldn't risk getting hurt.
Out of the corner of her eye, someone sparked a fire and hollered for the others to duck. Fireworks blasted through the room, sending the honey spraying onto the walls. For a few minutes it seemed to work. But then the thick substance stretched into a homogenous spread around the walls and raced to the floor.
"It won't stop!" yelled a girl.
No, thought Bee, it won't stop. So when the honey came for her, she willed herself to relax and wait for the next canon to switch over. The liquid seemed to thin when she allowed herself to sink into it. She closed her eyes and steadied her breathing. If only she'd mastered meditation.
Something slammed into her head. Falling onto her butt, her arms became stuck in the honey. Across the room, a few kids were already trapped in the liquid. About five or six kids were left standing. They might have stopped resisting the honey, but their viciousness remained as they shot at each other with lasers, rockets, hexes and the like. Mammoth pounded a fist against the wall that reverberated and sent the honey vibrated. Someone fell and was lost to the liquid.
Karen willed her body to calm down, pretend it was just a normal day, flying out in the sun. When her arms and legs were finally released, she spread her wings and gently pulled herself out of the honey. Then she shot down like a bullet, her foot outstretched to slam down onto Gizmo's face. But -
A shock of pink light. A sting to the back of her head.
For a few seconds everything went quiet. Then, she could feel the ground changing and shifting and falling. She could hear a voice on a megaphone but its words were indistinguishable. It didn't matter. They weren't for her.
Somehow, she made it out of that place and back to her dorm, but she couldn't recall how.
A week later, the ceremony was held. Bumblebee stood at the back of the crowd and clapped when appropriate, smiled when prompted, and most importantly, congratulated when all eyes were on her.
The other kids didn't seem to care as much. There was some pouting here and there, but most shrugged it off, glad to still be alive. After all, they were all going to become agents anyway, right? But Bumblebee didn't want to be "an agent". She didn't want to be "the agent". How was she supposed to protect herself if she couldn't beat her own contemporaries?
During the afterparty, the Headmistress spoke to her just once. "I'm disappointed in you," she said, her voice cool and casual, as if the words weren't the biggest slap in the face.
Karen recoiled. At the time she was so confused and nervous she hadn't known what to say. But the words chilled and froze over during the rest of the night. So right after, she marched over to the Headmistress's office.
"Come in," the woman chimed. She was hard at work, with many stacks of paper around her. Yet she worked steadily and peacefully as if at home.
"I'm here to say," Karen sniffed from the doorway, "that I deserve a spot on that team."
"I'm smart, I'm reliable -"
"Thousands of students are."
Her brain short circuited and she started grasping at straws. "I'm experienced in the underworld. Some people fear me, just because of my past."
The principal raised a hand. "That is where I'll stop you, Bumblebee. You're not going to get very far if you lean on your reputation. People want something to see something to back it up. "
"And I can! I've never had any slip-ups. I'm strong."
"No, you're a girl who's skilled and tough but afraid. You won't rise above a run-of-the-mill backup perimeter guard if you keep holding back."
The grey-haired woman shook her head, almost sadly. "Do you even know who you are? What makes you special? Who is Bumblebee? Is she just a kid with wings and a striped costume?"
"I - uh…"
"Figure it out. If you aren't sure of yourself, that translates into battle. And the last thing I need is doubt." The head teacher bent over her work again, going silent for a few moments.
Bumblebee took that as her cue to leave. She turned, but was stopped.
"Unless," the Headmistress enunciated, rising to walk over to her. "There is a more substantial reason you believe one of your peers should be replaced."
Karen swallowed. "No."
The Headmistress patted the top of her head. "My little worker bee," she said affectionately. "There will always be a place for you here. After all, you were ranked number six."
Bumblebee was ushered out the door. She took a deep breath. It was too risky to go outside this late at night so she flew laps around the empty halls. She squeezed her eyes shut, listening to her wings fluttering behind her, her sole comfort.
She could fly above all this. She'd done it before.
Guest: As for Yasmina and Paola's fate, there's no proof of their survival or death. I hope they are alive ;)
tontheoffbalance: I love all your comments! In this story Karen's wings were built into her body, so yes, she was modified!