The group meandered to simulation room number two. Quin could tell there was a division among them. Quin and Blair lagged a few steps behind most of the group. Timothy and Jordan followed a few steps behind them.
In the large white room, just before they reached the simulation room hallway, Quin stopped. It took Blair by surprise and she was forced to stop as well. Timothy and Jordan nearly ran into him.
“Hey!” Quin called out.
Nobody stopped. They continued walking, about to pass the threshold into the hallway.
“HEY!” His voice echoed off the walls. Everyone froze and whipped their heads around to face him. Quin cleared his throat. He wasn’t sure what to say, hadn’t thought past just getting their attention. “Hey, um…” He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to think of what to say. “I know you guys don’t trust me, and I don’t blame you, but I’m in this regardless of what you think of me and I want to survive just as much as you guys. We need to work together to get through this. We can’t let drama affect our ability to perform in Phase 2, so, for now, can we please just forget everything that just happened, at least until we get through this? Afterwards, I promise I will answer any questions you have, though I also promise you’ll be disappointed in my answers.”
Alice stood in the center of the group. She pursed her lips and stepped towards Quin. She reached out her hand. “All right.”
Quin shook her hand. The tension between everyone seemed to instantly lessen. The only person who still seemed distant was Timothy.
The group turned and resumed their journey to the simulation room.
They were put into simulation room two again. This time it was just their group, and a single competing group was placed into room one. They were greeted by Javier. He was cheerful and smiling, showing off his perfect smile just as Quin remembered from Round 1, Phase 1.
“Welcome back, everyone,” Javier said with a grin. He clapped his hands together. “I’m sure you are all wondering what is in store for you in this next phase, and I must say that I am very excited to tell you.” He paused, as if waiting for some cheerful reaction from the group. Although none came, he continued as if it had. “Wonderful. This next phase will test not only your combat ability but also your logic and intellect. If you look behind me…” He turned to the side so the group could see a screen on the other side of him. On it appeared to be some sort of map.
After giving the group a few moments to ponder the image, he explained. “This is your battleground. It will be a not-so-simple game of capture the flag. When you first enter the room, you will see markers on the floor that correspond to these symbols. When the game begins, you will be locked into your role, unable to change, so choose wisely who gets placed where. Also keep in mind that you are a couple players short. Positions one, two and three must be filled if you want to win this, so you will have to sacrifice amongst the remaining two positions.”
The group looked around at each other, confused. Quin tried to remain calm, but inside he was panicking. They weren’t prepared for this. Should they have been? Was the other team?
Javier refocused them with a single snap of his finger, not losing a beat in his explanation. “The square in the middle of the diamond is your playing field. Once the phase begins, everyone will be locked into their positions. A battleground will form, creating rooms and a maze. The stars you see on the map are your offensive team, and the rectangles are your defensive team. Keep in mind that anyone can defend, however the defensive team cannot cross the midpoint line, nor carry a flag.
The flags,” he said as he gestured air quotes, “are not necessarily flags. They are items, maybe big, maybe small. Position number 1 is responsible for guiding the offensive team to the flag. They can tell you which room it’s located in, but from there the offensive team will have to find exactly what it is. When you pick up a flag, your Shell will alert you. Trust me, you’ll know when you have it. Position number 2 aids your defensive team. They are able to view enemy activity on your defensive half, however they cannot see where your flag is. Their goal is to let you know where the enemies are located. You cannot, however, physically see them nor feel them in a location until prompted. That’s where position number 3 comes in. They have the easiest yet most stressful job of the group: They can trigger fights. Fights can only be triggered on your defensive side; you cannot trigger a fight for your offensive group. Position 3 will choose a room on their map, depending where your allies and enemies are located, and that room will then be locked down and everybody in the room will manifest for the other group to see. The room does not come out of lockdown until there is only one team left in it.”
Quin gulped. Only one team left? They could lose everyone in one fight?
Feeling the tension in the group, Javier quickly continued. “Combat is strictly hand-to-hand, there are no weapons. Once you take a certain amount of damage, you will be reset. Offensive players will return to their side and must 30 seconds before crossing the midpoint, and defensive players must wait 45 seconds before being able to continue. Objects in a room may be used as blunt weapons.” He smiled and clapped his hands together. “Well, that about sums it up. I will send you off to the field. You will have thirty minutes to strategize and discuss position placement amongst yourselves. If you have any questions during your half hour of planning, feel free to call me in. I’d be happy to repeat anything. Good luck.” He started to walk away, but then spun back around, pointing one finger in the air. “Oh, and one more thing I forgot to mention. Although your team will be split from one another, there are microphones and speakers all around so that you can communicate. Just try not to talk over each other. Also, the enemies can never hear what you’re saying, only your team.” He pulled his lips back in a goofy smile and looked up, as if trying to remember something. “Okay, now that really is everything. Good luck again.”
The group shuffled into the white simulation room. It was completely empty but for twelve labeled circles on the ground throughout the room. There were also faint lines that created a diamond with a rectangular center and a line cutting through it. It was an exact replica of the map that Javier showed them.
A monotone voice came over the intercom. “You now have thirty minutes to prepare.” A large clock formed on the wall behind them and started to tick down, second by second.
“Okay, so what’s the plan?” Alice said. Her voice echoed loudly in the large, empty space.
“We should start by assigning positions one through three,” Sam said.
“I’ll take the first one.” Lauren said raising her hand with one finger pointed in the air. “I’m not the best fighter, but I can strategize.”
“I’m down with that,” Sam agreed.
“Anyone opposed?” Quin asked.
There was very short moment of silence. After no objection was made, Quin continued. “Okay. Do we have any volunteers for position two?”
More silence followed.
“Someone has to do it,” Alice said irritably. She looked at Davontaye. He stood in the back of the group with his head down, avoiding eye contact. “Davontaye…”
He snapped his head up to face her, his fingers fidgeted in front of him. “What?” He asked as if he hadn’t heard that had been said so far.
“I think you should do position two. You’re smart. You can keep an eye on our defensive team and make sure they are positioned where they need to be.” Alice smiled, trying to encourage Davontaye to accept the role.
“Yeah, I can do that, I guess,” he said quietly. He quickly cleared his throat and stood up straighter. “I mean, yes, I won’t let you down.” This time he sounded much more confident, which made Quin feel better about the selection.
Quin knew everyone had to be at the top of their game, especially the people who would be their eyes on the field. Without them, they would be blind. They needed to be confident, and ready. Quin knew the perfect person that would fit that criteria.
“Blair,” Quin said, “I think you should be position three.”
“Why?” She challenged him.
“Because you’re good under pressure. You won’t make any hasty decisions, and you will keep our team safe.” Quin wasn’t sure if he was saying these things because he actually thought she would be best for the role, or if he was just trying to keep her safe and away from the fighting.
Quin looked at Blair, waiting for an answer. He could tell she was contemplating his motives for the nomination. Ultimately, she decided to take the path of least resistance.
“I’ll do it,” she said.
“Fifteen minutes remaining,” said the voice over the intercom.
Everyone looked up, searching for the voice though it couldn’t be seen.
“All right. Let’s focus.” Everyone brought their attention back down to look at Alice. “Offense and defense, who is where?” she asked. “I will be on offense.”
“Us too,” Kevin and Clyde said together.
“We’re a team,” Clyde said, wrapping his arm around Kevin’s shoulders.
“Well, we’re all a team,” Kevin added, “but we are like a team within the team.
Kevin and Clyde looked at each other. “Team-ception.” They laughed. There were a few stifled laughs from the entire group.
“All right, then,” Quin said with a smile. “’I’ll join you.”
The mood seemed to lighten a bit. People were smiling. The fear broke for a moment, but reality was sucked back in like a high tide.
“Wait a moment, that only leaves us three on defense,” Timothy said irritably. “We will get outnumbered.”
“Not if we are smart,” Sam said. “And it’s better to have more on offense. That means we might be able to get in and out faster and win this thing. All we need to do is hold them off until they can do that, and we’re a strong three to do it. We can fight, or at least I know I can.”
Sam’s encouragement seemed to resonate with Timothy. His shoulders relaxed, and he shook his head in agreement. “Okay,” he said. “Yeah, we can do this.” He looked at Quin and nodded.
Quin wasn’t sure whether he was trying to apologize, but right then Quin wasn’t worried about it. He nodded back. If Timothy needed to think he was forgiven in order to get through this, then so be it. He could deal with it afterwards, if there was an afterwards.
“Five minutes remaining.” The disembodied voice echoed around them.
“All right. Any strategies?” Davontaye asked, hurriedly.
“Uh… Good question,” Alice replied.
The group was quiet for a few moments, thinking. Everyone looked puzzled. Finally, Lauren spoke up. “Well, we aren’t sure what the playing field will even look like when it starts. Whatever we think of now will probably be messed up by what happens,” she said bluntly.
Quin knew she was right. There was no point in making a plan that may not even work in the field. “We’re a solid group. We can think on the fly. That’s why we assigned the positions the way we did.”
The group nodded in unison, although not without some apprehension. Quin could see the fear in some of their eyes. He could see the doubt and the anxiety crawling around them like a million insects feeding off their bodies.
“Remember, everyone,” Alice said loudly, “the other team is in the same situation as us. They have no clue what’s going on either. They don’t know we are two people down. For all we know, they could be three down. They could have no clue what they are doing, or they could be the best team here. We don’t know, and neither do they.” As she spoke, the weight seemed to lift slightly.
She was right, Quin thought. Their group didn’t know any more or less than the other team.
Alice continued. “We need to make them think we have our shit together before they do the same to us. If we can trip them up quick, they’ll panic and be disoriented. If we’re the ones who trip, we need to regroup and not panic. We got this.” She smiled confidently at the group. Although still present, the fear in the group seemed lighten even more.
Before anyone could get another word in, the voice overhead spoke again. “Two minutes remaining. Please get in your positions.”
The speaker cut out, then cut back in. This time it was Javier’s voice. “It’s very important you get on your positions before the countdown ends. This will lock you into your positions. The playing field will form around you, so anyone off their mark could get seriously injured in the process.” He didn’t sound as cheery as usual. Instead he was the most serious that Quin had ever heard him, almost unrecognizable.
The group went to their places. Blair, Lauren, and Davontaye were all isolated in their own sections of the room, far from the rest. Quin, Alice, Kevin, and Clyde went to their offensive circle while Timothy, Jordan, and Sam went to the defensive circle about a hundred feet away.
“Thirty seconds remaining.”
Quin stared at Blair from his position. He wished he could reach out and touch her, but she was far away, so far that he couldn’t properly meet her gaze. He knew she was looking at him too. He waved to her, and she gave a small wave back.
“Five, four, three…”
Quin turned around and faced the large white room ahead of him.
His shell forced itself over his eyes.