As it just so happened, Aldrich and the rest of the Frame students ended up in the same arena: arena number 1, making the total number of students in that arena from 50 to 54.
However, the algorithm that calculated power fairness literally determined all the Frame students to be zero threat, hence why adding them to an already full arena changed nothing.
"How do I even move in this thing?" groaned Adam, only his face visible from the upturned helmet of his Frame powersuit. He was in a fixed T-pose state like an unloaded game character, and already, other students were laughing at him.
Aldrich looked at his Frame towering in front of him.
It was a two-meter-tall humanoid suit of segmented black metal plates. Thick coils of wiry dark grey cable were visible under the plates, functioning as a shock absorbent layer and a flexible mesh that acted like the "muscles" that supported the suit"s four hundred pound (~180 kg) weight.
A nondescript, round black helmet with a rectangular, glossy blue ceramic and duraplastic face plate stared down at Aldrich.
Aldrich put his hand on the Frame"s chest, and it read his handprint.
A robotic, gender-neutral voice rung out from the Frame.
"Access to Subject 1 Granted."
The Frame opened up with hydraulic clicks and the release of pressurized air, bidding Aldrich to step in and let the metal envelop him in a cold embrace.
"Subjects, huh," said Aldrich. "That"s all we are to this world."
"Damn, you got it to open up properly? I must have jammed it or messed up something. And who made you subject number 1, huh?" said Adam. "Come on, hop in and figure this damn thing out so you can help me out."
Adam groaned as he struggled against his suit, but he was stuck in his Frame, not knowing how to operate it at all. Mostly because Adam had not actually accessed his Frame properly. He had just kicked the suit until it opened up, registering an emergency access, but because he had not scanned his biosignature on it first, the Frame did not recognize him as a proper owner.
Hence why Adam was now basically just trapped.
It was obvious that Blackwater did not give a single damn about the Frame students. They were just there to fill up a diversity quota as the leader of the bullies had said. Now that they were enrolled, the academy got their nice fat slice of government funding for hosting Frame students.
Hosting did not mean training or even remotely caring for, though, and Aldrich knew that Blackwater fully expected everyone to drop out or drop dead, whatever came first.
"Aww, look, the Duds can"t even use their crutches! Looks like their heads are as disabled as their powers are!" a student pointed at Adam, causing many to join in a round of mocking laughter.
"Dumbasses thought they actually belonged here. With us, when we have real powers," said another.
"Don"t mind them. Alters are the next stage of human evolution. Sooner or later, nature will weed the weak like them out," said a girl who crossed her arms together in a posture with a scowl that indicated she had probably not laughed at a joke for her entire life.
"Makes me sick even breathing the same air as them," said a musclebound, serious faced student.
Adam heard all of this and snorted. "They won"t be so cocky once I punch their faces in."
"And you"re going to do that how? By T-posing?" said Aldrich.
"You step in this suit and try to figure it out!" complained Adam. "Christ, I don"t even know how I got this thing to open up!"
Suddenly, a voice blared throughout the arena. Officer Fletcher"s voice. "The arenas are now active!"
The arena started to shake, the ground underneath rocking and rolling up and down as if a massive earthquake was dancing beneath it. The walls surrounding the arena, already a dozen meters tall, started to look even more imposing as they trembled, their metal structures heavily groaning as they started to light up with bright white circuit patterns.
Then, a dome of pure, translucent energy projected from the walls, sealing the entire one-thousand-meter diameter of the arena shut in a forcefield.
Almost miraculously, Aldrich saw as the entire arena covered over with a holographic grid pattern that rendered out the outline of a rocky landscape with large boulders, deep fissures, and floating stone platforms.
"Hardlight Environments are rendering! Do not move a single muscle until the environment is finished rendering!" came officer Fletcher"s orders.
"Well, at least I can do that with no issue," said Adam in his frozen T-pose.
Aldrich watched as the grid-patterned outlines filled in with solid color, creating the floating rocks and giant boulders with near perfect realism. He knew that Hardlight technology existed, but this was the first time he had seen it with his own two eyes.
Hardlight tech allowed for entire environments to be simulated under a controlled forcefield.
The largest hero groups and academies used this kind of tech for their training to simulate real life combat scenarios as accurately as possible.
Granted, Hardlight constructs could not mimic objects perfectly, only controlling for basic physical properties like texture, hardness, and mass, but even then, this was expensive tech easily costing hundreds of millions of credits.
What the hell was Blackwater, an academy ranked well near the bottom, doing with it? How could they even afford it?
Aldrich did not have time to ponder that question before officer Fletcher"s voice roared through the intercom again.
"You now have thirty seconds before combat evaluation begins! Take that time to position yourselves in your new environment. Once the buzzer sounds, all of you are enemies! And just to make this clear, hiding and running will NOT rank you high. You will get the most points by incapacitating other students, so get fighting!"
Almost immediately, Aldrich could feel stares all over him and the rest of the Frame students. They were all sitting ducks. Easy points.
A large holographic timer appeared in the sky, counting down from thirty.
"T-this is insanity," said Frank. He pushed up his glasses and frantically looked his Frame up and down while shivering at the predatory glares of all the other students resting on him, sensing his weakness.
"Yeah, have to agree," said Jake. "We don"t know how to pilot these things. What the hell do they expect us to do?"
"Doesn"t mean we can"t try," said Elaine. She had been watching Aldrich from before, and she copied him, putting her hand on her Frame and causing it to open up.
Aldrich knew how to use the Frame. He knew it very, very well.
In fact, his gaming rig had virtual reality support that had a Frame combat training simulation downloaded on it. It was a program that was not released to the general public. One that his parents had managed to secure with their hero industry connections before they were killed, wanting to give it to Aldrich so he could have a head start before the initiative was rolled out.
The thing was, though, Aldrich was not willing to tell the other students how to use their Frames, even if he did feel bad for them. Telling them when the other students were eyeing them would only paint a bigger target on his back.
And he wanted them to underestimate him.
Aldrich stepped into his Frame, and so did the other students. They would get overloaded with several floating screens containing massive amounts of information that would be impossible to read through in thirty seconds, meaning they would have no idea how to use any of the suit"s weapon systems.
But at the very least, they could move around properly unlike Adam. Adam was just screwed at this point, immobile until he was pried out of his Frame manually.
The blue face plate snapped over Aldrich"s head, temporarily blinding his vision before his eyes adjusted. The world around him was slightly blue tinted and, as expected, a dozen different screens floated in his vision, introducing him to the Frame"s functions, offering him a tutorial, and so on.
Aldrich ignored them and just looked up at the timer in the sky. Twenty seconds.
He heard as the other Frame suits fell heavily to the ground, the students inside of them not knowing at all how to move in them with all the sudden weight around them.
"Hah! Look at them! They can"t even walk properly!"
Aldrich stayed still, intentionally trying to seem like he could not move.
"And look at that one, he can"t even move!"
"So, how are these points claimed? Do we just knock them out? Or do we just have to break their suits?"
"Why not both? I"ll enjoy ripping them from their metal shells. Like eating crab. Ought to be just as easy, too."
Ten seconds left.
Aldrich heard as two of the Frames started to run away shakily, one of them constantly tripping.
"Come back here!"
Aldrich heard footsteps as several students ran out to chase the runners.
"You okay?" said Elaine from her Frame.
"Yeah," said Aldrich.
"You and Adam can"t move, but I"ll try and help as best as I can," said Elaine.
"…" Aldrich appreciated the gesture, but he had no time to respond.
The counter read zero, and the buzzer sounded, blaring out across the arena.
Aldrich saw a student leap up in the air with a cocked fist, his entire arm transmuting into solid layers of dense, hard green crystals. From the confident smile on the student"s face, it was obvious that he thought he would smash right through Aldrich"s helmet and beat him bloody and unconscious.
Elaine tried to help but she stumbled and dropped to a knee, unused to the weight strain that Frames placed on the body.
"Boosters 4,5 engage," said Aldrich rapidly, making sure his voice was not projected. Hidden thrusters in he heels of his Frame suit shot out jets of flame, boosting his movement.
Aldrich used his martial arts training to predict the crystal fist student"s punch and spun to the side. The student smashed his fist into the ground, shattering the ground underneath. Just as the student"s confident smile started to fade away into surprise, Aldrich grabbed the kid by the arm.
In response, the student covered his entire body in thick crystals, prepared for any punch.
Aldrich instead used the kid"s arm as a lever and threw him over his shoulder. Hydraulics clicked and pressurized air vented from Aldrich"s Frame joints as he slammed the student full force into the ground with an expert judo throw.
The student"s crystal armor shattered as he gouged out a solid crater in the dirt, the shockwaves of impact permeating through his armor and into his body. He gasped for air like a landed fish, the breath knocked straight out of him.
Aldrich kicked the student in the head with just enough force to knock him out.
"H-huh!?" said Elaine in complete disbelief as she stared at Aldrich annihilating a student with proper powers. "What? How?"
Elaine"s surprise was not limited to her. It spread among the Alter students.
"Wh-what the fuck?" said a bewildered student. "That kid, that Frame kid, he knocked out Dorian with a single hit!"
"Yeah, beat them up!" said Adam enthusiastically. "Always knew you had it in you, Aldy!"
"Shut up! You powerless cockroaches just got lucky!" said the formerly surprised, now angry student. He fired a blast of red energy from his hands, hitting Adam square in the face, knocking him out and tipping his T-posing Frame over.
Aldrich used this moment of distraction that Adam bought.
"Boosters 4,5 maximum output. Engage left flare," said Aldrich. He sped towards the surprised student and held out his left hand. A blinding white flare emerged, acting like a flashbang.
The student winced and held his arms out to protect himself. His hands started to shimmer with waves of red energy, charging another shot.
Aldrich used his maxed out boosters to circle around the student and slam a roundhouse kick into his ribs, dodging twin red beams while sending the student flying back with shattered ribs, completely incapacitated.
"Initiate unit scan and full-scale view," said Aldrich, and the localized interface A.I. complied. He saw a screen in the side of his vision mapping out red dots where other students were. There were still a good dozen students surrounding him.
Full-scale view started, giving Aldrich a 360-degree range of sight, making sure nothing blindsided him. But to deal with a crowd like this, he needed more firepower. "Available weapons systems report."
"No weapons systems installed," came the A.I."s response.
"Sh*t," said Aldrich. He knew that finalized Frames were to be fitted with various forms of crowd control arms and munitions, but it seemed that these were prototypes lacking any real weapons.
"That fucker"s dangerous! Take him out!" A student wildly pointed at Aldrich.
Aldrich took in a breath through his teeth. This was it for him if they ganged up on him. He had no weapons. Maybe he could take down two or three more, but now that the element of surprise was gone, proper Alters, especially strong ones, would make short work of him.
The ones he had knocked out so far were complete fodder. Weak kids with powers they had not trained at all to their maximum potentials.
"Relax, you idiots." A voice came from above, belonging to a student floating in the air with crossed arms and a wide, sadistic smile and slicked back hair. "It"s just a Dud in a metal can. The fuck are you so afraid of?"
The leader of the bullies from back at the dorm again. And he looked like a proper superpowered Alter threat. There was just an aura of threat about him that made it obvious he was multiple grades above the regular student power level.
This was the kind of superhuman power that Aldrich would never be able to beat.
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