October 30, 2117 - One year later
"This game is way too hard!" complained Adam as he sat in front of Aldrich's gaming ring, an immersive VR helmet on his head as he played through Elden World.
Adam had chosen quite fittingly a warrior barbarian to play, but even the warrior's simple skill set confused him, making him die to a basic mob of level 20 trolls after fumbling a defensive shield based skill.
"Keep at it, you'll get there," said Aldrich as he watched from his tiny dorm bed. "Make sure to cast coat your sword in Flame Oil before fighting trolls or else their regen is going to be way too hard to deal with."
"But your character just goes like, 'boom', and then they all die," said Adam.
"Because mine is a Necromancer. I use death magic, and since these trolls are low level enough, they instantly die to my [Anti-Life Shell] aura," said Aldrich.
"That's ridiculously overpowered. I should've chosen your class," said Adam.
"You get confused juggling like five skills, how do you think you'll manage micro-managing fifty units?" said Aldrich.
"Yeah, you're right." Adam paused the game and took off his VR helmet before turning on a swiveling chair to see Adam.
Elaine was there too, at the foot of the bed, reading something as she usually did on her Eye-Phone, though occasionally she would look up to check Adam's progress in the game.
Elaine did not play Elden World because there was only one copy to share between the three of them, but she was an avid gamer who had brought her own gaming rig. She mostly played other games with Aldrich where she consistently beat him no matter the genre whether it be fighting games, real time strategy, or RPGs.
Aldrich fully believed that if Elaine had played Elden World seriously that she would have easily beat him out too in terms of making a maxed-out character.
"One whole year, huh," said Adam. "Can't believe that much time has passed. And we passed our first practical too, though right by the skin of our nuts."
Aldrich nodded. It was indeed an exceptional accomplishment. The Alterhuman Agency made any hero academy hold practical exams every year to make sure graduating students were qualified, and those that did not perform well enough were cut from their academies.
Generally speaking, these practicals were not too hard, often involving basic combat and rescue exercises, but that was for people with powers.
Duds like Aldrich, Adam, and Elaine had to work fifty times as hard to pass the same basic tests, even with the practicals having an adjusted lower difficulty for Frame students.
Blackwater's class system was harshly designed so that not even the majority of Alters got proper training. Only those from the A to B classes got anything resembling a proper training regiment. C and below learned almost nothing, and so the gap between the top and the bottom only increased as time went.
This ensured that Blackwater got their best students all the attention and care they needed, but at the same time threw everyone else under the bus.
Since Aldrich and the Duds were in the F-class, they were not allowed into any useful classes or nearly any training, so they were literally self-taught heroes. Everything about proper rescue procedure, combating villains with various types of powers, and maximizing their Frame's strengths all came from a combination of online research and self-repairs.
Granted, there was a Techno Department on the compound that did repair the Frames but asking them to upgrade them or outfit them with any weapons was a near impossibility. The Technos there would just glare at Aldrich and the Duds and tell them to fuck off, that repairs were already way better than what they deserved.
At best, Aldrich and Elaine had gotten some blackmail on a Techno there who smuggled in and spread illegal drugs to students. Using that leverage, they got the Techno to sneak them some spare parts for upgrades, but actually installing them was done by Adam's experience as a mechanic.
Aldrich had wanted to get the Techno to spill who he had sold drugs to because that would give Aldrich prime blackmail on multiple students considering that Blackwater had a strict zero drugs policy. The Techno would not part with that info though, even with Aldrich threatening to end his career and get him in prison.
Meant that whoever that Techno was protecting had enough status that losing his job and going to jail was preferable to crossing them.
There were a few notable Alters in the academy, most notable of which was Seth Solar, but aside from him, of the twenty five students in the A-class, ten were from established hero dynasties, though interestingly, none were the main heirs or in the spotlight of their family's actions.
Aldrich theorized that it was these high influence students that the Techno was protecting.
Regardless, Aldrich, Adam, and Elaine had managed to persevere as the last remaining Frame students after Frank and Jake were discharged for their injuries.
The bullying from Alter students had been a serious issue as well, but after the first few months, it largely died down as the Alters had to focus on their own performance to either stay in the A or B classes or try to reach them if they were below.
In summary, they did not have time to worry about the Frame kids.
Every so often, Seth and his group would come by, often to vent anger at something that had gone wrong and beat Adam bloody because he would always talk back and try to fight. Aldrich was beaten the first few times, but because he showed zero reaction to them, they quickly lost interest in him, labeling him a deranged psycho who probably got off on pain.
"Just three more years, and we'll be out of here," said Adam as he nursed bruises on his face from yet another beating he had taken from Seth's group. "Then I can eat a burger and Elaine can make her old man proud. Isn't that right, Elaine?"
"Yeah, hope he'll still be around by then," said Elaine with a sigh from the foot of Aldrich's bed where she sat and read some articles on Frame software and hardware on her Eye-Phone. "Sometimes, when I call him, he has trouble remembering small things. The shop's not doing too well, either. I told him to get a new assistant, but he's so stubborn and says nobody else matches up to me."
"Your ability to work with the Frames is absolutely top notch," said Aldrich. "To the point where you may even compete with or beat out some Technos with sheer natural talent alone."
"Yeah, you're real smart," said Adam.
Elaine blushed. "Oh, you two. I'm not that good." She looked up from her Eye-Phone, her green eyes strikingly wide under her round reading glasses. "You two are always amazing too. Always so reliable. Aldrich, I've never met anyone that can keep their cool like you, even in the worst situations. It always seems like you can think a way out of things.
And Adam, I've never met someone that was as amazing a punching bag as you. You take so many hits-,"
Adam groaned. "Okay, yeah, compared to Aldy, I'm a dumbass that gets smacked around all the time. Don't know when to shut up so I always get beat by another hit or two."
"No, it's genuinely impressive," said Elaine. "You take so many hits and you always, always keep coming back up."
"It makes you an invaluable distraction. With how loud you are and how much you can get under Alter student nerves with your yelling, you're basically a tank with AoE taunts," said Aldrich.
"Well, guess I'm good at something at least," said Adam. He shrugged. "Y'know, sometimes I feel too dumb or too incompetent to be a hero. I can't think quick like either of you, and in the Frames where we're all the same power, thinking quick is the most important thing to have."
"Maybe," said Aldrich. He put a hand on Adam's shoulder. "But what I can tell you is that out of us, out of anyone in this entire academy, you have the most heroic heart. You always get back up and you always see the good in things."
To be honest, Aldrich envied Adam a little for this. Adam had suffered greatly in life, but his heart had stayed pure. Aldrich knew that though he was not 'evil' by any means, but deep down, he was not truly fit to be a hero.
"Thanks, man," said Adam. "Now, if I can just beat these damn trolls-,"
Right then, the door to Aldrich's dorm swung open. Or more like it was torn open.
Seth Solar was there, door frame in his hand like it was a piece of paper, and behind him was his crew including the creep Ghost. The rank smell of alcohol reeked out from them and a few of them held half drunk liquor bottles in their hand.
They were all A-class students by now, though the only one truly deserving of the A-class was Seth. But because Seth had influence in the academy due to his mother being the head, he had gotten his four stooges into the A-class with no issue.
Because they were in A-class, they got a hefty stipend to spend and days off which they spent at Haven, the nearby town, spending their money on drinks, drugs, and women.
But why the hell were they here?
Aldrich, Adam, and Elaine immediately stood up, but they felt like mice cornered by a group of cats. Without their Frames, no, even with their Frames, they were all just prey to this group. This group of dangerous drunks.
"Playing video games, huh? You cockroaches think you deserve any of this?" said Seth as he stared at Aldrich's gaming monitor. He walked towards it and slammed his fist through the screen, obliterating the rig in a shower of sparks, broken plastic, metal, and glass.
"What the fuck was that for, asshole?" said Adam as he reached out to grab Seth's arm.
Seth immediately back hand slapped Adam into the wall behind him, rattling the room with the impact.
Adam groaned as he slid down, kneeling to recover his breath.
"Today has been a bad fucking day, so I suggest you Duds stay real quiet and do as we say," said Seth.
Aldrich helped Adam up, and Adam wiped blood off a burst lip before he grinned at Seth.
"Shut up, man," whispered Aldrich. "They're drunk. You have no idea what they'll do."
"I don't care. This asshole broke your gaming rig. That was one of the last things your parents bought you - I'm not going to let him get away with it." Adam turned to Seth. "Why'd you come here? Was it because you got your ass handed to you yesterday? Bet you know what that feels like pretty well by now, huh?"
Adam was referencing news that Seth, formerly the number 1 ranked student in Blackwater, had fallen to a solid 2nd after a relatively unknown Alter called Mel had beaten him consistently in single combat. The worst of this was yesterday when Mel had officially beaten Seth to take his rank 1 spot.
She had started off in the C-class, but after training like an utter madman, she realized her power had immense growth potential, and soon, she overtook Seth where he had been complacent, believing the power he had been born with to be invincible.
Seth began to breathe heavily, his rage almost tangible, but then he smiled. "You know what? Fuck it. I've had it with you. Beating you doesn't do sh*t. You always talk back because you're too fucking stupid to learn. I'll hurt you another way." He pointed to Elaine. "Get her. Take her to our barracks. We'll show her she's wasting her time with these idiots whether she wants it or not."
Ghost licked his lips and stepped forwards, motioning the other three guys ahead. "Come on, guys. Hope you didn't drink enough that your dicks aren't working."
"I have this entire meeting recorded," said Elaine as she held up her Eye-Phone. "If you touch me, I'll leak it to the Net and the Solar family will have quite the PR mess to clean up. Everything's recorded to a private server I have. The moment I press a single button, everything gets out."
Ghost and the other three stopped, looking back at Seth.
"I don't give a sh*t at this point," said Seth. He waved his guys ahead. "Go, get her. Break her."
At this point, Aldrich began to think of a way to get out of this using Elaine's recording as leverage, but Adam reacted first.
Adam shot out a punch at Seth's face, but it was like he had punched a brick wall. Seth did not even move from the impact, leaving Adam to painfully clutch at his fist.
"Fucking worm-filth. Out of my goddamn way!" said Seth as he once more back hand slapped Adam's head to push him off.
This time, though, the slap was accompanied by a sickening crack, and Adam fell to the ground completely limp, his head twisted at an unnatural angle.
Aldrich's thoughts completely stopped at that moment as he saw Adam slumped on the ground, his eyes wide, gurgling coming out of his throat. That was not a hit he was ever going to stand back up from.
Adam was dead.
"A-Adam?" said Elaine as she immediately knelt by Adam's side, drawing his head close to her. He looked up at her with blank eyes. She started to breathe heavily, her face twisting into equal parts fear, confusion, and shock. "Adam? Talk to me. Please, please tell me you're okay."
"Sh*t!" roared Seth as he looked at his hand. "Sh*t! Sh*t! Sh*t! Why are you Duds so fragile!? Made out of fucking cardboard! Just one tap from me and he just dies like that!"
Aldrich's moment of blankness, the sheer shock of seeing one of his only friends, a friend that always got back up no matter what, fall to the ground permanently, passed as soon as he heard Seth's enraged response.
Elaine was still on the floor with wide, distraught eyes, her hand on Adam's neck, checking desperately for a pulse even when the verdict was obvious that he was dead. She was normal. Her response was expected for someone that had lost a close friend so brutally and so easily like that.
Aldrich, however, had calmed down. It was not that he did not care about Adam, it was simply that he needed to ensure his and Elaine's survival.
Adam's death did not mean that Aldrich and Elaine had to suffer and die as well.
They could and would mourn for him later. For now, they had to live. If anything, that was what Adam would have wanted.
"You, one of the heirs to the Solar family, killed him," said Aldrich. "You know how bad this situation is, right?
You might have been able to get away with doing whatever you wanted to Elaine even if she released it. You could have hired incredible lawyers and gotten PR firms to try and clear your image while Globe-Net firms scrubbed her recording while spreading rumors that she was lying.
But this, unfortunately, is way beyond that. This is murder.
We have your recorded admission of guilt and a dead body. The Frame initiative might be bare bones, but it still tallies who goes in and out of the program, and deaths, especially, it takes seriously considering the fact that the program wants good enough PR to have plenty of willing Dud applicants.
What do you think will happen when it gets leaked that Seth Solar not only threatened sexual assault but committed casual, cold-blooded murder? Your money could have covered sexual assault, but murder? Murder with evidence like this? There's no easy way for you to weasel your way out of this, especially not with your Solar family name on the line.
Not unless you let us go."
Aldrich's mind raced, thinking about the countless ways he could hold this information over Seth and his gang, making sure they never, ever raised a hand against him and Elaine again.
Seth paused for a good ten seconds, his face hard and his expression stern. In that time, his gang looked up at him hesitantly.
"What do we do, Seth?" said Ghost. "The Dud's right. Messing around with that girl, sh*t, we could've covered that up alright, but murder? The law might not give much of a sh*t about Duds, but when it comes to murder, they won't go easy on us. We're fucked, aren't we?"
Murder was a crime that was punished heavily throughout the near entirety of human history, but now more than ever it was no joke of a crime to commit.
Society still had a scarcity mindset regarding lives that any warm body, even a Dud body, was invaluable in a world where there was constant war against Variant beasts that at any moment could rise up and mow down countless thousands.
Duds might have gotten shafted in terms of employment and fair treatment and almost every other basic right, but murder was one thing they did not have to worry about, at least not from Alters that were not straight up villains.
"No," said Seth, his voice completely devoid of emotion. Utterly cold. "No we aren't."
Seth disappeared in a flash before he emerged in front of Elaine. His fist had smashed right through her chest, completely obliterating her heart.
Elaine's eyes stilled beneath her glasses as she looked down at her bloody, fist-filled chest in surprise. Blood trickled out of her mouth in red rivulets. She blinked once, and then her life fled her, her head hanging down limp.
Seth pulled back his blood-drenched arm from her chest, leaving her to fall and slump over Adam's corpse in a growing pool of red.
"What!?" said Ghost. His pale, sunken in red eyes were wide, and the others in Seth's gang shared this surprised reaction.
"We have to kill them," said Seth simply, spatters of blood painted across his black bodysuit. A stroke of red lay across his eyes, highlighting his gleaming white pupils, at how empty they were. Complete sociopathy. "Kill them before they can leak anything."
Before Aldrich could react, Seth had sped his fist through his stomach.
Aldrich felt his vision blur as he slumped to the ground, his guts and blood spilling out of a gaping hole in his chest as Seth stood over him.
This was it, Aldrich realized as he looked down at his bloody stomach. He put his hands over the hole, trying to keep his guts from spilling out.
This was it.
This was it.
This was it.
He was going to die.
Everything he had worked for, all those years, the death of his parents, the death of his friends =
All of it for nothing.
Gone in just one pathetic moment. One casual punch. All for these privileged Alter fucks to escape the consequences of their actions. All to escape judgement.
The thought of it was so agonizing, so unfair -
He had thought that when he saw his parents butchered like animals, he had lost any capability to feel strong emotion. But emotion, maybe all the hatred and bitterness that had bottled up in him over the many agonizing years, welled up for one final moment before it all ended.
"You…you miserable fucks," said Aldrich, coughing blood. It was a miraculous effort that he could even speak, that he did not just drop dead, but somehow, through sheer force of will, he did. He raised a shaking, accusing finger at Seth Solar and his group.
"You…none of you deserve…to live. All of you-all of you-I swear, I swear I will make you suffer." Aldrich's breath began to wheeze, and he started to crawl forwards, his eyes bloodshot, his expression wild, deranged.
Everyone in the group except Seth Solar instinctively cowered backwards even though Aldrich was a dead man walking. There was something about a corpse crawling through sheer force of fucking hatred that chilled them to the bone.
"I swear…whatever Hell I go to, I'll craw my way back out, then I'll drag you all in. I-I will be your judgement."
Aldrich stared up at Seth Solar with pure hatred, and Seth Solar stared down at him with pure, uncaring cold.
The last of Aldrich's life fled him then. He slumped over in a pool of his own blood and guts. His vision tilted and darkened. He felt numb all over. His hearing muffled and faded, echoes of the conversation around him becoming near unintelligible.
"Stop pissing your pants over a dead Dud and clean this sh*t up," said Seth Solar. "Pack their bodies and dump them in the forest. We'll spread a rumor that they tried to run and Variants ate them.
You, Evan, you're a Techno. Hack into any tech they have here and wipe everything out…"
Aldrich's senses completely left him then, burying him in complete and utter darkness.
Then, Aldrich did not know how long afterwards, he saw bright white letters typing a message in plain font across the darkness that surrounded him.
The font of the letters changed, turning gold in color and becoming more decorated with swirls and ornamental curves that looked like they belonged to a fantasy game.
To Elden World.
[Choose your Class:]