“I’ve made a horrible mistake.” – Gavin thought as he was sitting in the med bay at the Ranch while a Centauri – a race which perfectly and eerily fits the descriptions of “tall, grey men” of Old-Earth alien legends – doctor was examining him, while Director Carlyle besieged his mind with an endless barrage of information.
“You’re already fitted with some cybernetics, which is good. It’s rare we get new recruits with as much hardware as you’re packing unless they’re scooped up from the military.”
“It’s a hobby.” – Gavin joked.
“An expensive one, by the looks of it. In any case, you’ll be getting new arms and eyes, and our doctor will need to look at your cerebral implants too. You’ll be amazed at the things black market cyberware can do to an augmented brain.”
“Like hack the memories right out of my head? Yeah, I wrote about things like that. Didn’t you read my books?” – He feigned being hurt.
“Trust me, you don’t know the half of it. I’ve seen security footage from the shooting range you frequent, as well as holos from VR sessions…”
“You can do that?” – Gavin interrupted. Carlyle merely raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“You’ve got a good gun arm – for a writer, that is. Your new cybernetics will help in that regard. We have surprisingly few cemented policies for an official agency but it’s still a lot of material to work through, but I guess you’ll have to pick things up on the go.” – The Director continued.
“On the go? You sound like you want to send me out on a mission already.”
“Because that’s precisely what I want to do.”
“Whoa, slow down now!” – Gavin raised an arm which was immediately knocked down by an increasingly agitated doctor.
“I’ve never actually done stuff like this before! Those odd jobs as a private eye? I was really, really bad at them and never actually met any… resistance! Today was the first time I ever actually knocked someone out and even then, I did it with help! Don’t you guys have strict training regimens and the like?” – He was visibly panicked.
“Aside from very few exceptions, most of our agents spend almost a decade in training before a live mission, yes.” – The Director was frighteningly casual about the situation.
“If you’re trying to reassure me, you botched it.”
“Celly will be with you, for the first few runs at least. Listen, we simply haven’t the time to do things any other way at this point. Government agencies love keeping up a facade of being super-strict about protocol, but the higher up you go in the food-chain, the more frequent these ‘special cases’ become, and we’re on the top of that chain. We’ve no inkling what Pizarro is planning, and you’re our best lead. Thing is, you’re only any good as a lead if you’re out in the open, so keeping you in the Ranch for training will simply mean that you’ll be nice and cozy in a simulation when that bastard blows up an entire arm or something.”
“So I’m bait. You don’t need me as a recruit, you need me to writhe on a figurative hook.”
“For your first mission? Yes. I haven’t tricked you into this, Ritter, I genuinely think you’ll make a good agent. I just can’t wait until you become that agent before I start treating you like it. If it makes you feel any better, Celly has acted as bait in missions at least a dozen times already.”
“You said Celly got three hours of training, total. Can I get that at least?”
“You know what, Ritter?” – Carlyle began with a smile.
“I’ll give you four.”
Gavin was closely examining the rigidness of the training room’s foam lining, and concluded that he might be marginally more comfortable if it was a tad softer, as his face was being pushed into it by Celly’s foot. The creature was half Gavin’s size, but was almost literally wiping the floor with him consistently for almost two hours now.
“I think this would be a lovely time for me to explain the finer points of difference between the concepts of training and practice.” – He groaned.
“Don’t worry mate, it’s not likely you’ll soon come face to face with another fighter like me.” – Celly said mockingly.
Gavin clambered to his feet, which is just about the only exercise he’s been getting during the training session.
“Alright, enough of this then, how about some sparring?” – Celly asked.
“What have we been doing until now?” – Gaving asked back with fearful outrage.
“With swords, I mean.” – Celly smiled.
“You know, long, sharp objects, put dull end in your hand, put pointy end in enemies…”
“I know what a sword is, but don’t you use guns?”
Instead of answering, Celly whipped out a pistol in the blink of an eye and let off a shot straight into Gavin’s abdomen before the writer could let out so much as a peep. Instead of burning through his flesh and melting his intestines whilst spattering the wall behind him with a healthy helping of bodily fluids, the plasma shot fizzled and dissipated not an inch from his body. When it happened, the buzz and shimmer of an energy shield could be seen around him. He was unharmed.
“Any other questions?” – Celly had already holstered his pistol and turned to a weapon rack that folded out of the wall. Gavin simply shook his head, and looked down at his left arm. The new limb was a lot less inconspicuous as his previous one, which was covered in a soft material that matched his skin color. The new arm was covered in gray and some dark blue armor plates that interlocked and overlapped, with a few status indicator lights built into it. Gavin could control the various built-in functions with mental commands at present, but as he would get used to it over time, the control of these features would feel as natural as moving any of his original muscles – or so the doctor said. One of the plates on his underarm opened up, and a small articulated appendage holding the hilt of a short blade extended outward, then automatically twisted so that it deposited said hilt right into his palm. Upon gripping the weapon, the little appendage retracted into the slot, and the plate closed back. A light squeeze on the hilt activated the blade, which extended to double its previous length. As a training weapon, this blade was dulled, however the real thing was always precision sharpened with tiny high-intensity beams within the arm-slot every time it was returned there, and when active, micro-vibrations of an incredibly high frequency allowed it to slice through almost all armor.
“So how are we-” – Gavin couldn’t finish before Celly’s swing whacked him across the jaw.
“The sword isn’t your opponent; I am. Why look at it and not me?”
“Oh for fu-” – Another sentence interrupted by a strike. Instead of trying to communicate with his partner again, Gavin collected himself and started fighting back. As abysmally inept as he was at hand to hand, he had some years of casual training experience in a number of Old-Earth martial arts involving sticks and swords, most notably Eskrima, which he pursued as a recreational sport whenever he had time for it. Celly, however, was much quicker and smaller than training dummies and holographic sparring programs, so the only thing that changed was the frequency with which Gavin got pummeled. After a solid strike to his stomach left him winded and nauseated, he held up a hand to signal that he needs a breather.
“How am I going to be ready in just four hours?” – He asked between pained pants.
“You really need to work on your motivational speeches, mate.”
“You misunderstand. 4 hours, 40, 400, it doesn’t matter. You’ll never be ready.”
“Those of us who trained from the moment we enlisted weren’t ready. The Director wasn’t ready when he left training after more than ten years of it. I got less training than you – was I ready? Hell no. No one is ever ready, that’s just how it is. Your first mission is invariably going to make you feel like an inept, incompetent failure with no place in an agency like this. So will your second, and third. You only get ‘ready’ long, long after you’ve gone out into the field. That’s why we’re so lax with training. That’s why we’re tossing a hapless writer into the fray after four hours of getting his ass kicked. Back when we were all of us stuck on our own planets among our own species? Training may have meant something back then, but now there are too many variables. You could train for years, but on Corymbus, or anywhere else in the galaxy, one step outside these rooms and life can throw you the kind of curveball you never prepared for, and then what’s the point? Training never saves lives, not anymore. Intuition, creativity and ingenuity do.”
“I like to think I’m well equipped with those.” – Gavin joked.
“So does the Director, which is why he’s trusting you with this. He may have told you a hundred times that you’re our only lead on this Pizarro guy, but he’d never let you do this if he didn’t have at least a small hope that you’d succeed.”
“That… actually does sound reassuring.”
“You insisted on the training, but honestly, you’d be better off with a meal and some rest before the first mission. You haven’t slept since the murder, have you?” – It only just occurred to Gavin that Celly was right, and that he was absolutely exhausted.
After a humble but welcome meal at the Ranch’s mess hall with Celly, Gavin went to see what his lodgings for the next indeterminant period of his life will be like. Following the waypoint on his retinal map, he arrived at room HG-3487. The sensors built into the wall panel next to the door automatically identified him and the sheet of metal with the number printed on it slid into the frame. He stepped into a small, well-lit room. To his right, an indent in the wall held a bed with a low ceilling that had a screen built into it. Above it were a trio of storage compartments. To his left, a table stuck out of the wall with a single chair in front of it and a holo projector built into the wall right next to it. In front of him, at the rear wall, was a door which presumably led to whatever bare bones bathroom any good agent might wish for. The room had all the necessities, but nothing more. Since eating was done communally, all one needed was somewhere to sleep, somewhere to work and somewhere to shit.
The door slid closed being Gavin. He leaned back at it and slumped down to the floor. The rush of events, the arrest, the breakout with Celly, speaking with the Director, getting new cybernetics and being caught up in all of this fugitive business had occupied his mind until now, but as Gavin had a moment of calm to think, the weight of what happened crushed down on him. His life was gone, people want to kill him and he has no idea what he’s gotten into. In less than a day, everything he knew, everything he was familiar with disappeared.
Previously: Chapter 2