The combat evaluation ended about as expected. Aldrich and the rest of the Frame students were placed right into the F-class with nobody else joining them.
Which made it obvious in hindsight that the 'F-class' was made especially for the Frame students to segregate them even further.
Aldrich and Adam spent their time in the infirmary after combat evaluation. Drones opened up their Frame suits and evacuated them from the arenas with many an observing Alter student, what few were left conscious, laughing at their misfortune.
The infirmary was a fairly sizable two-story building at the edge of the Blackwater compound, marked by its bright white metal walls and the gleam of a glowing green cross sign.
Like most things in Blackwater, the infirmary was decked out with state-of-the-art equipment, and like most things in Blackwater, Aldrich and the Frame students were not allowed to access it fully.
Instead, they were corralled into a repurposed basement where they only had access to basic medical equipment that looked like it belonged to a shoddy outpost camp in Variant territory.
Here, in beds that were hard like rock, under flickering lighting and with skittering shadows that probably were rats, Aldrich and Adam rested, bandages wrapped around their respective injuries. Elaine was there with them though she had no injuries because she said she felt safer there than alone in her dorm.
Understandable, honestly, with how blatantly creepy every Alter seemed to be towards her.
A nurse, a woman wearing a white mask with sunken in, sleepless eyes, shifted in and out, checking in on vitals wordlessly, evidently not wanting to talk to them at all.
"Where are the others, miss?" said Adam as he sat up, his injuries comparatively light. Made sense considering the fact that the only hit he had taken was a blast that had knocked him out.
"They're upstairs," said the nurse as she pointed to the cracked stone ceiling above with a stylus while clutching a thin grey Eye-Pad to her chest.
"Damn, why do they get to be up there while we're stuck down here, huh?" said Adam.
"The other two are in intensive care," said the nurse. "You are lucky to be down here. Means you at least have the energy to talk like that."
"Oh," said Adam.
Aldrich stared at the cracks in the ceiling wordlessly. He had heard what happened to Frank and Jake, the Frame students that had ran.
They had been chased down and mercilessly hunted down by Alters that smelled their fear, and they were savagely beaten again and again as the Alter students tried to fight for who got the knockout points.
Meanwhile, because Seth and his crew had personally dealt with Aldrich, Adam, and Elaine, no other Alters wanted to compete against Seth and try to claim they had beaten Aldrich and his little group.
In a way, Seth's cruelty had saved them from further harm.
"I doubt they will stay here," said the nurse. "Blackwater will probably discharge them considering the severity of their injuries, and I doubt they can afford to call in a Restorer."
It was a known fact that among Alter powers, ones that healed the body were extraordinarily rare.
Powers that healed the self were not that uncommon, but healing others manifested in such rarity that any Alter that could heal even little cuts on others was guaranteed a lifetime of wealth and employment.
Alters capable of this were categorized as Restorers, and their services cost fortunes to hire. Medical technology had advanced to the point where anything short of death could be healed, but recovery still took time and effort neither of which Blackwater was willing to spend much on Duds.
And it was a sick joke to even suggest a Frame student hire a proper high end Restorer to heal their wounds instantly.
The nurse sighed and shook her head before staring at Aldrich, Adam, and Elaine. "You three should consider leaving, too, before this place eats you up and spits you back out in broken pieces."
"Fuck that," said Adam. "I get rich, or I die trying."
"Well, I'm not really here to give life advice, so you do you." The nurse shrugged before she left, walking upstairs to tend to patients upstairs.
After a brief pause, Adam spoke again.
"You were insane out there, Aldy. You beat the sh*t out of a couple of those Alter idiots. Did you see how stupid that guy looked before you knocked him out? I could replay that moment in my head a thousand times over."
"Same here," said Aldrich.
"Why didn't you tell us you could use the Frames?" said Elaine. "Why didn't you tell us how to use them earlier?"
"…" Aldrich did not say anything.
"You wanted to keep your skills hidden, right? Make sure they underestimated you," said Adam.
Aldrich raised a brow, surprised that Adam could parse this despite seeming so dumb.
"Y'know, it's just natural. If you're good at something, you keep it to yourself, especially when you're powerless like us," said Adam. "I don't put it against you. It's just the way the world is. Every advantage you can take, you take."
"I suppose," said Elaine with a sigh. "You're right. I just thought that for Frame students like us, all we've got in this academy was each other. I was willing to fight for you two just because you were Duds like me."
"And we can still be allies," said Aldrich. "You're right. We need allies here, and no Alter is going to associate with us. In the future, it will be optimal for us to work together.
If you suspect my trustworthiness, then think about this: how could I have known our first test was going to be a free for all bloodbath?
If I had known beforehand and had time to piece together a plan, I would have informed everyone and created a strategy that maximized our strengths and covered our weaknesses.
But I can't see the future like some Alters can, can I?"
"Yes, I don't really blame you," said Elaine. "It's like Adam said. When you're a Dud like us where everyone in the world seems to be out to get you, it's just natural to take the advantages you can. I just had a bad gut reaction, but I've thought through it."
"Anyway, considering it looks like we're going to be the last three Frame students left, let's get to know each other," said Adam. He smiled at Elaine. "So, what are you all in here for? Why are you guys so desperate you're willing to get your asses kicked ten different ways just for a chance to graduate from this sh*thole?"
Elaine and Aldrich remained silent for several seconds.
Aldrich spoke first. "My parents were heroes. They were killed by the Trident. I want to get a license to hunt them down."
Adam whistled. "Damn, that's pretty hardcore. I can see why you've got so much drive behind those dead eyes of yours. And you, Elaine?"
"My parents weren't heroes, but they were Alters," said Elaine. She started to nervously run her fingers through her long locks of red hair. "When they realized I was a Dud, they disowned me and threw me out to the Wastes."
Aldrich felt a twinge of sympathy for her. The Wastes were considered areas ravaged by Variant activity where the truly desperate settled, forming ragtag, tiny towns and cities where poverty and desperation filled the air.
It was a known practice that Alters that lived in Neo-Cities - proper walled cities where wealth, heroes, and protection against monsters were concentrated - would often throw their Dud children out to the Wastes in the rare chance that they birthed one to hide the shame and burden of raising a powerless child.
"That's fucked," said Adam sympathetically. "How old were you?"
"Five, I think. It was so long ago, so I don't remember much," said Elaine.
Adam shook his head. "The world hates us, what can I say. I'm the same deal as you. Parents had powers, I had none, so they threw me out. I survived in the Wastes working odd jobs, scrapping for metal and broken tech here and there and, of course, stealing when I could.
How'd you survive?"
"An old Techno took me in," said Elaine. "I might not have had powers, but I did have a knack for coding. I helped out at his shop when I could. Tried to earn my keep but keeping drones running."
Technos were a class of Alter that were capable of manipulating technology in some enhanced capacity. That Elaine could help out a proper Techno meant the old Techno either pitied her that much or she was just that naturally talented.
"Sweet, so you're smart," said Adam.
Elaine shifted uncomfortably, unused to praise. "I do what I can." Her eyes cast down. "Randall - that's the name of the guy that took me in - he's getting old. His memory's fading and his powers don't work for him anymore. I don't want him to die in the Wastes all alone, worked to the bone like that.
I want to graduate from here, become a hero, and get him a place to live in a Neo-City where he can spend the rest of his days in quiet. That's the least I owe him."
"You've got a good heart," said Adam. "Way better than mine. All I see are credits. Hell, if I turn into a hero, I'm going to get a place by myself all to myself, one that doesn't smell like trash and fire, and buy myself three entire meals a day and eat burgers and cake and nobody can fucking stop me."
Elaine laughed, and Adam cocked his head and asked, "Huh? What's wrong?"
"Burgers and cake? That's all you want?" said Elaine.
"Yeah, I mean, I've never had either, and I see for them all the time. They must be good, right?" said Adam. "Guess I'd want a car, too. Clean water would be awesome as well. Lots of clothes. Clean clothes. And let me see…"
Adam started to list off all the tiny little things he had wanted but had never, ever gotten.
Aldrich noted this conversation in silence. He had respect for these two. Comparatively speaking, they had far harder childhoods than him. He had lived in Neo-York, a proper Neo-City, because his parents had left behind enough money and the apartment on top of being heroes that earned a decent amount.
Most importantly, his parents had not chosen to abandon him like Adam and Elaines' parents had.
"But at the end of the day, I also wanted friends," said Adam. He smiled broadly at Elaine and Adam. "And what do you know! I've got two friends already. A tech genius and a silent badass. Can't say I'm disappointed."
"You don't have much room to be disappointed," said Aldrich with a faint smile. Adam's positive energy was infectious, Aldrich had to admit.
"And friends gotta' stick together," said Adam. He put a fist to his heart. "Especially powerless people like us. I got this feeling, but if we stick together, I feel like we'll all make it through this no problem."
"Hope so," said Elaine with a sigh.
"Yeah," said Aldrich simply, not knowing how terribly wrong things would get.