“Finally,” Optima said as she sat at the judge’s table. The digital displays showed each finalist’s picture and basic information. It also showed their grades during training and general performance review. “The last day of this dog and pony show.” Her heavy sigh filled the small soundproof room.
Audience members cheered when the large video screen showed the open door from the locker rooms. The finalists paraded in, each waving in different directions, slapping hands of fans, and smiling. Once on the stand, they stopped. Three paths sprawled in different directions. Their obstacles seemed simple. A weapon rack, full of weapons, the size of a billboard stood behind the three women.
“At the tone, begin,” the loud flat voice said over the loudspeaker. The crowd quieted to a low rumble. A baritone sound echoed through the enormous stadium while every screen displayed the number three. The tone repeated for two, then one. Finally, a higher pitched sound blasted and all the video screens displayed GO.
All three finalists bolted in different directions. Finalist one, called Variegate, wore a purple domino mask, a chestnut-colored cape that came to her knees, grass-green top, with orange leggings. At her waist, a well-worn leather belt with pouches covering every inch. Her boots were the same style, but one was red and the other white. Both gloves matched the mask. There were different colored streaks in her hair, but she moved too fast to see them.
Finalist two, her name listed as Aphotic, wore a dark body suit with dull gray accents. Her cowl had a hole that allowed a long black ponytail to dangle behind her. She was taller than the other two women and she didn’t wear heals.
The third woman, Tensile, was stockier than the others. She favored a black tank top and shorts that came to her knees. Her costume choice fit with her bulging muscles. The mask on her face covered the top half of her head and had a chin strap. Unlike the other two, she didn’t wear gloves.
Tensile jumped to an obstacle and moved to the rope attached across the opening. She slowed her pace as she slid the first foot onto the thin walkway. Alternating her feet, she moved across the gap. Her arms didn’t extend far, but she kept her eyes on the platform on the other side.
“She’s making good time,” Optima tapped the digital display with Tensile’s image on it. “Great balance and speed for one so muscular.”
Variegate snagged several hand-sized weapons from the rack. Her hands were a blur as they moved from the rack to her belt. After a few seconds, she also moved to an obstacle course. A quick jump and she landed on a platform no wider than a step-stool. When both feet touched, a heavy bulbous object swung from the dark. Variegate’s eyes locked onto the traveling target. As the object got a hands width from her, she stuck her arm out and flowed around the heavy item. When it passed her rear shoulder, it looked like the trajectory had changed.
“That’s something you don’t see every day,” Optima said. “Variegate didn’t even look like she touched that swinging bag, and its path is different from the initial one. Very good, indeed.” Her wine-colored lips turned up at the corners and she arched an eyebrow.
Aphotic chose the obstacle course that began with the poles. She hopped through the first three with no problem. When her foot touched the top of the fourth, it descended. As her shoulders reached the floor level, she vaulted and landed on the fifth, then the sixth without missing a beat. The seventh shot up when her foot touched it. Splaying her legs, Aphotic slid with her hands. Pushing with her feet she cleared the next five poles and landed on the simulated rooftop.
“Fast with her hands and feet,” Optima said. She tapped on the plus sign under Aphotic’s name. A number incremented on the top right corner. On the large screens in the arena, the same number showed under Aphotic’s image. The crowd screamed.
Variegate climbed a rope and transitioned to a horizontal pole. When her body reached the midway point, the pole section detached. Both of her hands went to her belt. One hand flung something and a thin line looped around the remaining pole. She swung to the same simulated rooftop where Aphotic waited.
“Quick and prepared,” Optima muttered. She nodded her head once as she touched the plus sign under Variegate’s name. The numbers increased like they did for Aphotic. The screams of the crowd intensified.
When Tensile’s foot touched the flat open platform, a large metal barrel descended. Throwing her hands up, Tensile caught it and wrapped her fingers around the edges. The hydraulic pipe on the top of the barrel pressed. Her knees flexed and she extended her elbows. A loud grinding sound rumbled through the stadium. Her snarl appeared larger than life on the screens. Sweat poured over her cheeks and down her neck. A growl lunged from her opened mouth and the barrel inched upwards, making the grinding noise louder. With a loud bang and falling debris, Tensile stood and let the barrel fall at her feet.
“Perseverance,” Optima said. “You’re gonna need a trunk load of that.” She tapped the plus sign. All three of the contestants had the same number on display.
Tensile walked to the ladder while she wiped the sweat from her face. As she climbed, she glanced at the scoreboard. Her lips tightened and she shook her head. Stepping on the simulated rooftop, she joined the other two participants.
“Combat Phase,” the male sounding electro-voice said over the loud speakers. The tumult from the crowd made the judge’s booth shake.
“This will be what separates the girls from the women,” Optima said, standing. She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. The displays showed each contestant from several angles.
Four figures clad head to toe in tight fitting black costume vaulted onto the platform. “The Troupe,” the voice announced over the loudspeakers. The four figures bowed with a flourish. A quiet clap sounded from the audience.
Two more figures wearing fire themed costumes landed on the rooftop. “Pyre and Hot Spot,” the voice said. Both figures waved a hand into the air and beamed large smiles. The noise from the crowd was louder than from The Troupe.
“I’ve heard of them,” Optima said. “Low key, but not obscure and no slouches either.”
The last figure to join the group wore a luchador mask with a blue theme and jeans. He sported muscles and a gut. The crowd shouted as a spotlight encased him. “Serpiente.” The man in the mask simply nodded once.
“This will be a good show,” Optima said with a smile and nod. “He still looks good.”
“Begin!” The stadium echoed with the computerized voice.
Pyre and Hot Spot immediately turned and faced each other. They did an overly complicated handshake involving a hip-bump and ended in a high-five. As their hands separated, they turned and looked at the three women. In the space of an eye blink, they took off running at the group, leaving a red blur in their wake.
The Troupe separated into two groups. The first faced each other and squatted. They joined their hands together and signaled one of the others. The third member put a foot up and stepped into the joined hands. In a smooth motion, the two lifted and straightened. The one in the hands shot into the air like a dart. The duo reset and the fourth member was airborne a second later. As the first flying figure crested the apex, he flipped and descended feet first.
Serpiente clapped his hands, then rubbed them vigorously as he hustled forward. He tilted his head forward and fixed his eyes on his target.
Tensile focused in on Serpiente as he approached, missing the flying acrobats. The foot to her face brought her attention around, but the second flyer’s leading foot put her on the floor. Rolling to her feet she spotted the other two flipping in her direction. Hunching her shoulders and catching her breath, she rotated her head from shoulder to shoulder and kept her nimble opponents in sight.
Variegate zeroed her eyes onto the running speedsters. Her hands dashed out twice each. A small black blur zoomed with each flick.
The lead runner, Pyre, slapped the first two missiles aside. He took the third in the chest and the fourth in the stomach. Both puffed into thick black smoke and Pyre flailed to the ground. On the first bounce, Variegate’s mouth twitched into a small smile.
Hot Spot zoomed through the remaining wisp of smoke. Putting his head down, he doubled his speed and put an arm out to the side. His forearm connected with Variegate’s shoulders and chest, lifting her off her feet. She flipped twice and landed on her front with a loud bang. The crowd made a collective gasp.
Serpiente stepped up to Aphotic. Before he could reach a hand out, the black-clad woman sent a series of kicks, each one connecting with Serpiente’s shoulder, head, gut, and leg. Serpiente advanced, unfazed.
Due to Aphotic’s black body coverings, reading her face was impossible. However, she backpedaled and kept her arms up.
Serpiente reached across the distance, his arm extending beyond the normal range. He encircled both wrists of Aphotic and jerked his arm back towards himself. Aphotic was yanked off her feet and flew the narrow distance in the matter of a second. She adjusted her legs at the last possible moment and her knees connected with Serpiente’s face. The large man rocked back and stumbled two steps, then fell. Aphotic straddle his torso and pulled her arms free.
Optima leaned forward, wide eyed and mouth agape. “That was great!” Optima reached for the digital pad holding Aphotic’s image. A quick tap of the plus sign and the number increased.
The crowd cheered.
Variegate put a hand on the floor and pushed to her feet. Using her other hand, she disconnected her cape and brought it around. Spreading it over her hands, she bunched it up, forming a tight line.
Pyre was on his feet and heading towards Variegate. He poured on the speed and gave a quick hand signal to Hot Spot.
Variegate didn’t move, she kept her focus on Pyre as he zig-zagged towards her. She gritted her teeth and let one end of her cape go. Squatting down, she flicked the cape at the knees of Pyre. One leg clipped the other and he was airborne. As he appeared over Variegate, she stuck a leg out behind her and swept Hot Spot’s feet from under him.
Both speeders collided in the air over Variegate. They landed in a heap on top of her. Pushing the unconscious forms off her, Variegate stood.
“Genius,” Optima said with a chuckle. “People say capes are overrated. Don’t tell her that.” Reaching forward she tapped on the plus sign under Variegate’s name.
A tumult rose from the crowd.
Tensile, watched as the Troupe set up for another attack. One member bent down and the other three came in fast. The bending member tossed first one, then two, and finally the third into the air.
“That dog won’t hunt anymore,” Tensile shouted. She leaped into the air, reaching with clawed hands. Snatching the leg of the first flying man, she landed, and hammer tossed him into the throwing man. Reaching out, she snagged the second flying man by the collar and yanked him to the ground.
Turning to face the lone standing member of the Troupe, Tensile smeared a snarl across her face. Placing a fist into one hand, she cracked her knuckles one after the other. The staccato sounded like gunfire.
After a quick glance at his fallen team, then back to Tensile, the lone member of the Troupe threw his hands above his head.
The audience laughed.
A number two appeared under Tensile’s name on the billboard. “Intimidation can be a great weapon,” Optima said.
The digital readouts on her desk read complete. Optima stood and exited the soundproof booth. Descending the circular stairs, she sighed.
“I know who the voice said to pick,” Optima said to herself. “But if I pick her, will she save my daughter?” She paused a beat. “Will she care? What if she finds out how she was picked? Will she want the job? If I pick one of the other two, will they save my daughter?”