Alpha Team Alpha


My name is Jacob Rupert. I'm nineteen years old, about 5' 10", a bit skinny, and a quick glance wouldn't necessarily reveal anything especially impressive about me. Except that – oh yeah – I'm genetically enhanced. I figure I might as well get that out there as quickly as possible, since this won't be much of a story if you have any trouble accepting that. I might as well also go ahead and confess that I'm the worst cadet here, and right now I'm getting pummeled by Eric, a fellow cadet who happens to be a whole year younger than me.

But first, a little more exposition. I'll throw all the cards out on the table now, and if you can wade through it and still somehow be interested in what I have to say, I think we'll be all right. See, starting in the late 2020s the American government passed a secret bill allowing researchers to engineer superior human specimens for the military. Called the Human Enhancement Project, it involved the painstaking manipulation of our genetic code to enhance certain characteristics. What they didn't know at the time – and what becomes of vital importance much later on – was that this procedure had the rather unexpected side-effect of producing entirely new capabilities. The bill was of course immensely controversial, even in the ranks of government, but it should be stressed that before scientists even considered attempting to spit out super-babies they did many years of research on gorillas, to ensure that they could work out the best possible procedures before they started on any human experimentation.

The first genetically engineered human was introduced in 2033. The woman – named Dolly (spot the reference!) – was a phenomenal success, and paved the way for an army of super-humans with advanced sensory capacities, coordination, strength, and mental facilities. We spend our lives in the Omega Training Facility, which is a massive complex that serves as our school, gym, and residence. I don't even want to imagine how much the place cost, but I can't imagine there are more than maybe two or three more expensive research facilities in the entire world.

Because of the hundreds of variables that inevitably play into gene manipulation, not everyone is as advanced as everyone else. One of the curious tendencies that developed with genetic engineering (which proved to be a Godsend for our grading, as you'll see) is the sharp fall-off in abilities that occurs below a certain threshold. As a result, the military personnel use a scale of A – E, much like anywhere else in the United States, where A, B, C, and D are all pass, and E is fail. And E grade occurs right at the edge that drop-off I mentioned, so there are very few instances of cadets getting, say a 59. And that's good, because really, getting a 59 and being forced to leave a multi-billion dollar training facility to live a life as a civilian would be a real bitch.

The kids who don't make it past the minimum requirements to stay become known as Epsilon-levels, and are called – get this – Epsilons. Epsilon is the Greek letter for our Roman E, see, and that follows through the rest of the scale. Anyone with a 60-69 D is at Delta-level, 70-79 Gamma-level, and so on up to the Alpha-levels. I assume they used Greek instead of Roman letters in order to make this all sound a lot cooler and more complicated than it really is.

(Don't think the Epsilons are abandoned. I've been trying my damnedest to stress that this isn't some vile, inhumane operation that the government is running. They're sent to foster parents and are raised as normal children, where they usually excel in school.)

Where exactly do I come into all this? Well, I was born two years after Dolly on March 28th, 2035 to a woman named Kim Rupert. She's my biological mother, but in fact I received very little genetic information from her. There's simply too much at stake for the geneticists to leave so much up to chance, really. Most of what we receive naturally can be considered superficial characteristics like race, eye color, hair color, etc. Nevertheless, the variation in abilities between Alpha-levels and Epsilon-levels are thought to be related to similar minor genetic information we got from our mothers, and although these geneticists are working feverishly to minimize that input, others are convinced that we should leave at least some of this up to fate, in order to retain what minimal humanity we can in a process that essentially becomes playing God.

I was one of thirteen other children born that day in 2035, but from an early age it became pretty clear that I wasn't exactly one of the best. I've spent a good nineteen years hovering just above a 60, and in fact the highest rating I ever received was an abysmal 63 (even then, it only lasted one quarter). The joke among the rest of the cadets in my age group is that I get by on pure luck, and there are plenty of instances where that sure as hell looks true. Every time I fall below a 60 early on I manage to pull some miracle out of my ass to bring myself back up to Delta-level before – or during, which plays havoc on the ol' nerves – my quarterly review.

This bit of luck has manifested itself in many ways over the years. Once, it involved blocking a quadruple-combo and sneaking in a string of my own hits during Combat Training some four years ago. This is even more impressive since I was paired against Derek Powers, among the top five cadets at the Omega Training Facility, who has long since moved up to Alpha-level and holds the title of second-best overall combat score out of all of us. He's currently the mission commander on Team Red, competing for – well, you know what? Forget it for now. You've still got to wade through all of this, so I'll get back to the competition when it becomes relevant. The point is, you can imagine how eyebrows were raised during that fight, and even though I went on to lose the next six successive matches it still remains the topic of discussion to this day. Deltas simply don't win against Alpha-levels, let alone when it's the worst of the worse against one of the best of the best.

The second time involved an exam on Pattern Recognition (my best subject) during a quarterly review, where I was the only one to get full marks. Scandalized whispers ran up and down the halls for the next month, and everyone expected there to be some huge investigation, because cadets never get 100 on anything. But it never came. Instead I got a small medallion that I could never actually wear because it violated our stringent dress code.

That was the time I had my 63.

Okay, okay. Even I'll concede that that's enough exposition for now. Forgive me for straying so long on this tangent, but I'm not exactly in a hurry to get back to the part of the story where I was getting my ass handed to me by Eric. Still I guess I might as well just go ahead and suck it.

I lay hunched over, gasping for air. I turned to look back at Eric, and he smiled apologetically. "Sorry, but you told me not to go easy on you."

"No, no, it's all right," I wheezed. "I need to do better at fighting anyway, and you're the best combatant at Beta-level I can get." I took a deep breath and winced. "Though damn, you sure have got one mean little right hook in those bony hands of yours."

He laughed and straightened up, using one of those bony hands to wipe the sweat from his face. Eric's hair is not quite as dark as mine and he's taller than me by a couple inches, but otherwise we could have passed for brothers. He has the same brown eyes that I do, with a good sturdy frame and easy-going smile. He had been hovering at an 89 for two months now, and has become almost obsessed in his single-minded determination to increase his grade by that critical 1 and become an Alpha-level. This is the first time I've been able to get a hold in a month, since he uses whatever free time he has available to study or practice for the upcoming quarterly reviews. As I watched him stretch his back and inhale deeply, I realized that if he did graduate to Alpha-level, I would miss him quite a bit.

It finally occurred to me that he was waiting for me to get my breath back before we resumed training, and while I could appreciate the gesture I knew it wasn't exactly helping me. "Come on, Eric," I said. "I don't need you to take pity on me. I'm down to three short weeks to miraculously get any good at this, and I'm pretty sure my opponent won't show me the same compassion." I stuck a finger in my mouth and rubbed at a tender part of my gums. When I brought it out it was a light red. "Great, and I'm bleeding."

Eric winced. "Sorry. I was sure you'd have enough time to block that swing. I thought I gave you plenty of time."

"You probably did," I pulled myself up, suddenly grateful for the padded floor. The Scrap Room – as we call it – is long and low-ceilinged, essentially a glorified workout room with mirrors all along the walls. My face, dripping with sweat, stared right back at me from the nearest mirror, slightly obscured by the two thick clumps of black hair that hung over our eyes. I guess my eyes are the only distinguishing feature about me, because otherwise I'm rather plain. 5' 10" is not exactly tall, and 165 lbs is not exactly solid, either. I was neither exceptionally weak nor exceptionally strong, and there was a second lifetime of late nights behind me where I'd been struggling simply to maintain my Delta-level status.

Eric stood patiently by. "It's 1230 hours," he said. "Do you think we've got time for one more spar?"

I rolled my shoulder and felt a sharp pain. "Damn it, where the hell did that come from?"


"I found another injury."

"Maybe it would be best if we just went and hit the showers," he suggested.

I thought about it. Now that I'd taken a brief break, several more aches were becoming noticeable. "Yeah, sounds good. Besides, the earlier we show up, the better spots we'll get."

"Exactly," he said, grinning.

Eric showered quickly, but I took my time. The hot water felt great, and I ended up staying in longer than was really necessary just to enjoy it. The shower heads have those knobs that you can use to turn the water into a massaging pulse, and I directed the beam at my shoulders and the small of my back until the pain started to ebb. There are usually dozens of people in the Scrap Room, so we have to get used to taking quick showers, but few people practiced on a Sunday (our one day off), and anyway the competition didn't start for another half an hour.

"All right," came Eric's agitated voice from the lockers, "for God's sake, twenty minutes is plenty, Jacob. I don't think the others can keep our spots forever."

"Yeah, yeah." I closed my eyes. Damn…

The centerpiece of the Omega Training Facility is the Simulation Room, a massive arena of about 40,000 square yards, or roughly the area of eight football fields. There are several different environments within, ranging from a forest with a pond and stream to a network of rocks and boulders. In each of four corners stood half of a three-story building. It wasn't a full building, but rather a cut-away, so that the cadets could always be observed from the observation deck, even when "indoors."

Supposedly there were about two dozen hidden caves, submerged entrances, and other secrets spread throughout the room, and they could be closed off at any time to make each experience different. Although I had been there several times in my life, however, I had only managed to find one. Cadets had to vow never to expose what secrets they may discover to others before they were allowed to use the Simulation Room their first time, and here a vow was something that couldn't be broken. Eric said he'd managed to find six, but most of the others only knew of about three or four.

We weren't even near the arena before the crowds started getting almost too thick to squeeze through. The observation deck hadn't been built to hold anywhere near the number of cadets that were crowding around it, so a rather violent shoving match developed pretty quickly. Eric and I dodged and pushed and forced our way to the southern corner, where we hoped our friends had successfully held off the masses from taking our spots.

"And where the hell were you?" Matt bellowed as soon as he saw us elbowing our way towards them. "Do you know how hard we've been defending this spot? I think Aaron's still bleeding!"

Of our two other friends, Matt was the stockiest. He was a Beta like Eric, but he had been firmly at 84 his whole life. Because your score was as much a reflection of your capability as an engineered soldier as it was about how well you did in evaluations, it didn't fluctuate very much. Most cadets who found themselves in the middle of a grade after puberty, such as a 65 or 85, couldn't expect to move up to the next level. Their bodies had pretty much finished developing, and the strengths they had were the strengths they were pretty much stuck with.

Aaron was perhaps the scrawniest of all, and he was everyone's friend. He had the confidence of a Beta-level, a great sense of humor, and tended to be the class clown of the entire facility. "Don't listen to him," he was saying. "I'm fine. It's just a bruise, and I dare say I gave her one just as nasty right on her forearm."

Aaron and Matt had taken position near the corner. There was a 10-foot gap between the walls of the observation deck and the actual Simulation Room. providing insulation against any noise distractions the cadets would have to put up with while they were inside. It also provided us with an angle to see into the two floors below the fake building, since we were up on the third level. Finally, it gave us an aerial view of the rest of the Simulation Room some thirty feet below. Far, far across the room we could see the three levels of the northern corner, and the teeming masses within. This really was a spectacle, and our friends had probably found us some of the best spots.

The competition didn't start for another five minutes, but the crowd was getting impatient. We'd been waiting three weeks for this day, and a sense of baited breath and giddy anticipation had settled over everyone. You see, every year a special few are picked to join the Alpha Teams (there are those damned Greek letters again) because regardless of their age their grades prove that they have the highest potential for success. There are six teams, and in a stunning display of creativity the military decided to use colors for their code-naming.

Most of the Alpha-levels are girls, and there are several theories that suggest, in general, women have a higher capacity for performance enhancement. Indeed Team Yellow, the most favored group, was composed entirely of girls. Unfortunately they were trailing behind Team Red, thanks in part to a poor performance from the technical operative during the last competition. These teams had access to the best training facilities, and were well on their way to becoming the most advanced intelligence operatives the government had to offer. Still, all it takes is one small blunder between 1st place and 2nd, and the other three girls were struggling valiantly to make up for the mistake of their teammate.

For the past month now, the six current Alpha Teams had been competing for the coveted position of Alpha Team Alpha, and it all came down to this: Team Yellow versus Team Red were contending in front of a throng of raging cadets. In fact, a small group of them were standing nearby, complaining loudly. "Well, where's the Red Team? They should be out there by now."

"Yeah," someone else was whining. "I thought each team did a last-minute tactical conference in their corner."

"They do," Matt said loudly. "Team Red's over in the eastern corner and Team Yellow's over on the western corner."


In a flash the crowd went from fairly quiet and civilized into one mass rage. I could hear cries of "We're not going to see anything!" and "Jesus, I might as well watch from a video monitor in the dining hall!" as well as several words that I can't repeat without going up at least two ratings for this story.

One particularly vocal complainant was leveled against Matt himself. "You were bragging not twenty minutes ago that we had the best seats in the house!"

"Try to do a little research before you start pissing and moaning," Matt snapped. "Both teams start out in the eastern and western corners, but they go to the northern and southern corners as soon as it starts. It means that each building – this one and the one on the opposite side – is a base, and each is vulnerable until its respective team gets there. Team Red will be defending this corner against Team Yellow, and vice versa, all right? So we're right where we want to be. Jesus!"

At that moment an air horn went blaring through the hall, signaling the start of the match. But instead of a deathly quiet, the crowd instantly broke into loud chattering. With the exception of the other Alpha Teams, none of us would ever be involved in such a high-profile contest, and the kind of (mostly good-natured) debating and mock strategizing I heard all around me was the closest we'd ever get.

No one talked more than Matt. "So this is it," he breathed. "You know, if Derek was smart he'd be defending their base with Mick Riley. They both have the highest combat scores on their team."

"No way," Eric said. "Derek's too full of himself to be relegated to defending his base. You can bet he's out there on the offensive."

Derek Powers was the Red Team's mission commander. He was an intense and (if I may say) rather nasty young man who had an arrogance about him that made him one of the least-liked, if most well-respected, cadets in the entire facility. Try to remember this guy, because you'll be seeing him again.

Suddenly a girl on our right shouted, "I see somebody!"

"Coming from the east?" came a reply, incredulously. "Already? It hasn't even been a minute!"

A third voice: "Who is it?"

"It's – oh wow! It's Kara!"

"That explains it then," Aaron said loudly. "If anyone can make it across two hundred yards of that heinous dense thicket crap, it her. That woman's magical, I swear to God." He seemed to recall a particularly painful memory. "I've had to fight her a few times, and some of the moves she's got…holy crap." He rubbed his jaw, probably recalled a brutal blow she'd inflicted on him once upon a time. "And how she could get all this way in under a minute…Sarah's sure not screwing around this time."

Remember how I said that Derek had the second-best overall combat score? No? Well he does, but Kara Takanshi had the first. She was a skilled warrior, adept at all kinds of weapons, and completely humorless. I'd met her a grand total of once, and she hardly acknowledged me then. Not a few people were deathly afraid of her, but she hardly took any notice anyway.

Little more than a shadow among the trees, she moved swiftly and quietly towards the Red Team's building. I'd forgotten what a tall girl she was, maybe six-foot two, with jet-black hair and dark eyes. She was of some Japanese descent, and her upbringing, somehow, was very traditional. The theory was she got it from her mother, but since we rarely even saw our own mothers, let alone anyone else's, there was no way to verify it. She was also stunningly beautiful, in an imperial sort of way, just by how she held herself as she crept nimbly along.

She briefly vanished out of our view as she approached the front of the building. We were now dead quiet with anticipation, but a moment later she was in the building. Like I said, the back two walls of the building were technically the edge of the Simulation Room, so they were made of glass to allow us observers to see what went on inside. And although she knew several hundred pairs of eyes were currently focused on her, she didn't so much as acknowledge any of us.

Aaron breathed a sigh of relief. "Wow, she even knew about the alarm."

"There was an alarm?" a boy asked.

"There's an infrared laser just inside the door," he explained. "I'll bet Amy told her about that."

"Well, Amy's got a lot to live up to now," Matt said. "Technical operatives simply don't make the kind of mistakes she did."

I guess now I should explain. Amy Warner was the technical operative on Team Yellow, and a few weeks ago during the competition against the Green Team she read off the wrong coordinates to Sarah Benchley, the mission commander. Team Green is damned good (3rd place, infact), and it was a close competition already, but Amy's simple slip-up sent Sarah to the wrong end of the Simulation Room entirely. Team Green could be counted on to take advantage of every opportunity, and before Sarah even knew what was happening the air horn sounded and that particular mission was already over. Sarah and the others lost a lot of points, and spent the remainder of the competition digging themselves out of the hole Amy had dug for them.

"Don't be fooled," one of the girls said impetuously of Matt's comment. "She's brilliant. Everyone makes mistakes."

"Yeah she is," Aaron said, "and damn is she cute. I really dig those innocent types." He pretended to sigh heavily. "Too bad she's only sixteen. Makes me wish there were more activities where we got to interact with other age groups."

Someone called Aaron a dirty name, and he grinned. "Get used to it," he called back to the anonymous voice. "Now that I think about it, everyone on the Yellow Team's hot. I lost a lot of sleep last night, dreaming up some fun innuendo to use for the competition, just so I could offend a few—"

"Pay attention!" I said, jabbing him before he started to babble. "You know more about this than we do, and we're counting on you to full us in."

"What's to know?" he asked.

"Well, you could tell us what she's doing now," another voice said, obviously agreeing with me. Kara was up on the second floor, typing into a computer in a room that was set up to resemble an office. We couldn't see exactly what she was doing from our angle, but she was hunched over and appeared to be in a great hurry.

"Well, considering that Sarah sent Kara instead of Amy, the focus of the first mission probably isn't on anything technical so – oh, there's the Red Team. It's about time, too. Nearly three minutes."

Two figures had just stepped out of the trees. They gave the building a quick once-over, and one of them began making her way into the building, "Probably to make sure everything's still okay," Eric suggested.

"Who are they?" Matt asked, craning his neck to see over Eric.

"Mick Riley and Katie Nesral," a taller boy answered.

Eric scoffed at the reply. "See? What did I tell you!"

"Too they don't know Kara beat them to it."

We were looking at the combat and intelligence operatives for Team Red, respectively. Eric had been dead on, and Derek Powers was leaving the task of defending the base to them. Still, the rest of the crowd murmured their approval of Derek's strategy, and I had to agree. Between his plan of attack and Sarah's from Team Red, the former was probably the better strategy. Derek was probably sending over his technical operative to attempt to retrieve the information from Team Yellow's base on the other side. That way the combat operative (who would otherwise be the logical choice) could stay and defend their base.

Of course, Bill's combat training meant jack right now, since Kara on Team Yellow had already gotten into their building, and was still in the middle of doing whatever she was doing. Katie was on the floor below, checking to make sure it was still secure. Kara suddenly looked up with alarm. "She's screwed now," a younger boy called. "She's trapped!"

We waited to see what would happen. Katie was already on her way up to the third floor, and Kara was frantically scrambling to complete her task. It finally looked like she was done, because she was putting a CD into the computer and typing at the keyboard. A second later she yanked it out and made directly for the window. She slid it open and cautiously stepped out onto a ledge just as Katie made it to the "office." Kara pulled out her radio and started whispering in it, but we couldn't make out what she was saying. Then, in one smooth motion, she walked off the ledge, twisted herself gracefully around, and caught it again with her hands. She was now hanging by the same ledge she had just fallen from, and to our collective surprise she let go. She only fell maybe six feet, but she landed on the ledge below – the second story – and used the window to somehow support herself before she would have toppled off.

If I hadn't just seen it, I wouldn't have believed it. We're talking about maybe six inches of foot space here. The last drop to the ground was swift and soundless. She dashed behind a nearby tree while Mick stood by utterly clueless, dashed to another, and another – and was gone.

We burst into a roaring applause. Several first-year cadets were standing slack-jawed with amazement. The never had anything like this over at the preparation facility. Aaron clapped me on the shoulder and loudly proclaimed, "That, ladies and gentlemen, was history in the making! Not since our own Jacob Rupert here beat Derek Powers in combat have I seen such brilliance – oh ho, what's this?"

Thankfully, he was distracted from bringing up the combat episode, because I hated it when my friends mentioned it in front of others.

Far off near the center of the room, away from all the action and moving slowly among a dark cropping of boulders, we could see another girl. I squinted, but the foliage was just a bit too thick from our viewpoint. It took a younger girl, maybe sixteen, to tell who it was: Adrian Sake, the Yellow Team's intelligence operative. I didn't know much about her, but from the few times when I'd seen her face I could detect a mischievous glint in her eyes. She seemed like one of those girls who took full advantage of her admitted beauty. She was about my height too, but at this point that's all I could tell you.

We watched as she pulled out her own radio and started speaking into it. "Scoping out the terrain, most likely," Eric said. "Trying to see what passages and secret tunnels are open, so they'll have the advantage for the rest of the competition."

"I'm telling you, Sarah's not going to mess around," Aaron repeated. "When she focuses on a goal, then good luck trying to beat her."

All this talk of Sarah Bentley, and I still hadn't seen her yet. We were all assuming that she was staying to guard their base with Amy, since we'd already seen what Adrian and Kara were up to, but another cry from someone else in the observation room, who probably had a better view, alerted us that Sarah was out prowling the grounds as well. "Why would she Amy at her base alone?" I wondered.

"Maybe Adrian's not prowling for passages after all," Matt suggested.

"No, look," Eric said, pointing. "They're all making for the same spot."

It was true. All three girls – Sarah, Adrian, and Kara – were heading towards an area of the rocky caves that we couldn't see very well from where we were standing. But Amy beat them all, emerging from a small cluster of trees and swooping down to pick something up.

A shrill siren suddenly went off, making us all jump. Mick and Katie, obviously caught completely by surprise from where they were still dumbly guarding their base, swore loudly and headed off into the woods. No doubt whatever Amy had just retrieved had been rigged to sound an alert if disturbed, and I'll bet they were amazed that Sarah and the others had somehow already found it.

By now it was clear this was some kind of a retrieval mission. Each base probably contained the coordinates of some object hidden in the woods. That's what Kara had been after, and that's probably what she had told the rest of her teammates when she'd radioed back. Indeed everyone from each team was zeroing in on Amy's location. She certainly looked panicked, but a second later she sprinted back off into the woods. The problem was, she was heading back our way, towards the Red Team's base!

"What is she doing?" Aaron cried. "She's going the wrong way! I'm telling you, if she screws up again Sarah had better seriously reconsider her for the team."

But all was not lost. Amy dove into a thicket of trees and vanished. Moments later Mick and Katie arrived at her position. They radioed something to their other teammates, then flung themselves into the same thicket, where they too disappeared.

"Oh, damn!" Matt shouted. "A secret passage!"

Not that we weren't able to figure it out at this point. Adrian was moving off on the other side of the Simulation Room, pursued by Theresa Sprague, the Red Team's technical operative. It looked like Adrian was trying to lead her away from a particularly large rock that hung out over a stream that we knew represented the halfway point through the Simulation Room. Suddenly Theresa gave up the chase against Adrian and veered away directly towards the rock.

"Nope, you'll have to do better than that, Adrian!" Mike cried, cheering.

Sure enough, Amy appeared from somewhere under the rock, splashing wildly in the river. Suddenly Sarah appeared nearby – "Probably waiting for her," Eric said – just as Theresa happened on both of them.

Amy turned and sprinted towards the Yellow Team's base while Sarah tried to intercept Theresa. Theresa wasn't having any of it, and with surprising skill for a technical operative she managed to trip Sarah up before Sarah even had time to defend herself.

Kara met up with Amy soon afterwards – how was anybody's guess, since last time we'd seen her she was still next to the Red Team's base – and just as everyone up here was beginning to think it was going to be an easy victory for Team Yellow Derek appeared as well. He must have still been trying to download the coordinates from the Yellow Team's computer, because he was already on their side of the arena, directly between them and where they needed to go.

"I think those two are going to face off!" Aaron said. "This should be awesome!"

But they didn't. Kara knew enough to recognize that the best strategy was just to slow Derek down, and she went on the defensive instantly. Derek tried unsuccessfully to get around her and at Amy, but Kara brought her arm up against his chest, and jabbed her elbow up into his neck. He tried to hook her legs with his foot, but she already had anticipated it and braced herself. They ended up locked together, struggling, while Amy continued on unchallenged. Moments later another air horn sounded the end of the match.

The rest of us went wild. The noise was deafening in such a small hallway, but that didn't stop us. The older cadets were ecstatic, loudly claiming that that had been the best opening match they'd ever seen. It would be absolutely devastating for the Red Team, and when Kara and Derek finally let go of each other and we got a good look at his face, he was furious. Whatever ground had been lost because of Amy's negligence earlier in the competitions had been more than made up for with Sarah's tactical brilliance during this opening final match.

Matt looked like he was about to pass out from shouting so loud. He kept gasping for air, trying vainly to put his thoughts into a sentence, but the best he could come up with was a trembling, "God damn, no words…none. God damn."

The competition went on for another two hours or so. Each mission seemed designed to test at least one aspect of the team, such as strategy, combat, or teamwork, and the first mission was relatively simple compared to what they had to do later. One mission required a member of each team to complete a set of objectives, without knowing that someone from the other team was trailing them, taking surveillance shots. The judges then analyzed the images taken, and whoever had the most clear and informative pictures won the match.

There were any number of these, and as time pressed on they became more varied, creative, and (inevitably) more boring. If it was any other competition we would probably start filing out when it became more about psychology and less about strategy, but this was to name the new members of Alpha Team Alpha, for God's sake. I can't even begin to stress how important this was to us, but I can say that nobody moved from his or her spot the entire time, and we were all pretty much hoarse from shouting before it ended.

The final match took about half an hour to fully complete, and involved all of the skills up until that point. The overall goal was to be the first to locate two object hidden somewhere in the Simulation Room, but that required setting up a computer network with at least two other bases. Obviously each team started out with two bases already. For example, as I mentioned earlier during that first mission, Team Yellow began in the western base and had to work their way to the northern base to defend it. So they could occupy both of those bases and easily network those to computer systems together. Meanwhile Team Red would naturally network the south and east computers before they went after the other two.

Derek, however, was going to try to make it simple on his team, and he dispatched Mick Riley to take out one of the Yellow Team's bases as soon as the signaling horn sounded. Mick went for the eastern base once he saw that Kara was guarding the north base with Amy (to avoid having to fight her and possibly lose), so it seemed like the Red Team had gained an early advantage when he took out Sarah and Adrian and successfully accessed their computers.

Unfortunately he didn't count on a virus that Amy had prepared, and it turned out to be an elaborate setup. Once Mick set up the third computer and networked it with the east and south ones he found that all three networks forbade him from accessing the pertinent data. Amy then implemented the second part of her virus from the northern base, which provided a backdoor so that she could network all four bases simultaneously.

Follow? If not, don't worry. This was the boring part anyway. Once Amy networked all the bases, it was only a matter of a few seconds before Theresa, who was brilliant in her own way, hacked back in and got all the information herself. Apparently each computer contained (among other things) a single number, and paring them up yielded a pair of x and y coordinates pointing to two locations in the Simulation Room.

That led to an all-out twenty-minute mini-war, with each side trying to position themselves for the most important contest of their lives. Most of us had long since lost our voices, and no small number of fights broke out between both teams, but when the dust settled and the scores tallied, and the rest of us waited with baited breaths, the judges at last spoke:

Team Yellow was the clear winner.

The competition was all we talked about for the next week. You couldn't walk down a hall without seeing ten or fifteen groups huddled together and gesturing wildly as they poured over each and every decision Sarah Bentley and Derek Powers had made. Sarah Bentley especially was the topic of much debate. She was well-know for being by-the-book, but her best friend and (for all intents and purposes) second-in-command Adrian Sake was the exact opposite: cunning and mischievous. Adrian didn't have near the command sense Sarah had, but she possessed a knack for crazy suggestions that, when incorporated into Sarah's own strategies, tended to produce some truly innovative results. The general consensus was that Sarah must have let Adrian exert more influence than usual (to Team Yellow's own risk), but the results spoke for themselves. No team in the history of the Omega Training Facility had made such an eleventh-hour comeback, and there were now rumors flying around that, for the field training mission, General Grant had decided to give Sarah and the others more of a challenge than the facility had historically done. While nothing was known for sure (and never would be; the field training was top-secret), no less than Washington, D.C. had been selected as the destination.

The next Sunday was the ceremony. I was more frustrated than anything else, because I had planned on meeting Eric in the Scrap Room for some more practice, but instead I had to spend the evening in my itchy military dress uniform and head over to the Assembly Hall. Unlike the observation deck of the Simulation Room, the Assembly Hall was actually designed for all 434 cadets. It was a massively tall room, built in a half-circle, with white walls and oak trim; while certainly not luxurious, it was still elegant in its own simple way. A large stage against the wall had been decorated and contained tables for all six Alpha Teams and a large gathering of high-ranking military personnel . Team Yellow was given honorary position to the right of General Grant (who oversaw the entire facility), while the other officials sat to his left. This was a formal event, and thus incredibly rare, so while I heard more than one cadet complain about how uncomfortable the military dress uniforms were, we knew we could also look forward to a fancy meal.

Don't laugh. If you only knew what they fed us on a regular basis you would understand how excited we got about the prospect of fettuccine alfredo and chocolate mousse.

This was all incredibly exciting for the 15-year-olds, the youngest age group at the facility. They were seated right next to the stage, and in their eyes the twenty-four cadets up there probably seemed larger than life. I guess I could understand why. Like I said, by the time I was fifteen it was already clear that I was going to be one of the dimmer bulbs. I could still remember when I was their age, sitting up at the very front of the Hall with the stage right there in front of me, and being in awe of the new ATA members that year. I had decided that evening four years ago that I didn't care how impossible it was, I was going to become an Alpha-level, qualify for one of the Alpha Teams, and maybe even (it was a fantasy, so why the hell not?) be selected for Alpha Team Alpha.

Well, clearly things hadn't worked out so well for me. As I sat there, watching those two-dozen men and women talking so casually with such prominent officials, officials I'd never talked to once – nor probably ever would – I realized for the first time how jealous I was. Jealous of their success, jealous that they were just naturally better than me, and jealous of the life they would inevitably go on to live.

My friends, meanwhile, were clearly enjoying themselves. Aaron was rating the women, as usual, while Eric and Matt continued to discuss the last match of the competition, as if there could possibly be anything left to say at this point.

I was brought out of my reverie by a sharp poke to the side. "What?" I asked somewhat harshly.

"Whoa." Eric blinked, surprised by my tone. "I was just saying that you seem rather quiet."

"Yeah," Matt added. "Look around. We've being served dinner, no one's telling us where to sit or yelling at our posture, and General Grant is actually up there smiling."

Aaron grinned and waved his hand around, encompassing everyone in the room. "You know, if you just kind of forget the past nineteen years, it's almost, almost possible to imagine that we could be normal human beings at, say, a high school graduation."

"Instead of soulless, isolated genetically engineered super-humans," Eric added dryly. "Cheers."

We lifted our glasses of sparkling grape juice in a mock toast.

We had another half hour to let the food settle before General Grant rose, and if you knew the man you'd understand what a sight it was. He wasn't especially tall, but he was solid, and the way he carried himself automatically commanded your attention. No one knew much about his past, but the deep lines in his mouth and the corners of his eyes seemed to trace a long and difficult life. His eyes, though, still remained bright and alert.

He lightly chinked his knife against his glass and waited patiently for the talking to die down. "Well, I certainly hope you've enjoyed the meal," he said, "but don't get used to it. Starting tomorrow it's back to the usual gruel." It was probably meant to be a joke, but instead we began grumbling. "Still, this is cause for celebration! Every year I look forward to this day, and I try to predict who will be selected to join the elite ranks of the Alpha Teams." He paused, looking away to some unseen memory. "I've been here since the beginning," he resumed slowly, "so I'm not wrong very often, and indeed these twenty-four fine cadets are among the best I've ever seen. I've watched their progress with a keen satisfaction."

He nodded to the cadets he was referring to. "What they have done is no small accomplishment, and I see many bright futures for these men and women. I'd like to take a second to introduce them, because I know they're going to move on to great things. However, I would encourage them to always remember their roots, and the aid, support, and friendship offered by all of you." He was facing us again. "They owe as much to the rest of you as they do to their gifts, and I hope they never forget that."

This was the long part, as one-by-one each cadet was brought over to the podium while General Grant made a small speech. The ceremony lasted for the better part of two hours, somehow, even before we got to the Yellow Team, who they were obviously saving for last.

"Well," he said, and our waning attentions perked up once again, "I say that I'm not wrong very often, but I don't doubt that we were all rather surprised by the unexpected victor of this year. So with that, it's my proud, proud duty to present our new Alpha Team Alpha. They are the best of the best, but what's more, they're role models for all of us. These wonderful young women exemplify everything that this program has to offer, and represent some of the most promising cadets we're ever likely to produce! I'd like to start by introducing you to the brains of the group, Mission Commander Sarah Bentley!"

Sarah rose and surveyed us while we applauded. Beautiful and very proud, she nevertheless betrayed herself by standing there with a huge smile on face. She had piercing blue eyes, dirty blonde hair, and a full, radiant face. I'd seen her before, of course, but decked out in a full military dress uniform I was again struck by the sight she presented.

The only other girl I don't think I've mentioned was Amy Warner, the technical operative. She especially caught the interest of the younger cadets, since she was only sixteen years old herself, and the youngest cadets to earn such a prominent place in the entire history of the training facility. She rubbed her hands, blushing furiously, and as we clapped I realized that Aaron was right: she really was cute.

Over the noise I could hear Matt saying something, but all I caught was, "—all so damned hot."

Aaron nodded idly. "What I wouldn't give to be part of that team."

I nodded in agreement, but for a different reason.