Planet Foxtrot-435 aka Fountain.
Gorbol Training Academy.
As Figaro put his clothes away, he searched the room for any surveillance devices. It was standard procedure when entering a new location, one that he had seen carried out countless times but which he would now be required to do himself.
Behind the closet, under the bed, a check for objects inside the mattress. Despite the room being reserved for people of note, it was still fairly basic with only a few pieces of furniture and no furnishings. It made the search a lot easier.
He checked the window and analysed the lines of sight to assess if anyone could view him and from where. The window looked out over the back of the academy where the buildings weren’t as tall but still built from archaic stone. He could just see the raised wings of a transport in the distance.
There was also a bathroom, small and compact with a shower, toilet and basin. Cramped as it was, Figaro was sure it would still annoy the other trainees to know he didn’t have to share with anyone. He made a thorough inspection, including a light-test to make sure the mirror wasn’t half-silvered so he could be observed from the other side. The boy in the mirror looked so young and inexperienced. If he could see it, so could others. How could a child claim the right to lead?
His assigned accommodation appeared to be clean. He took a shower and changed clothes into something simple and practical in case he was required to be physical.
Figaro worked out the lock system on the door and coded it with his palm print. He doubted anyone would break into his room but he had to start thinking in a more security conscious manner, even when it wasn’t necessary. He was used to leaving the supplemental checks to others — there were people employed to take care of the minor jobs and it was considered impolite to take their work away from them — but he had seen what happened when they fell short.
It was up to him to be aware of his surroundings and to see danger coming. It was what he had been trained to do, he just hadn’t had much reason to use that training until recently. Now he had to put it into effect on a full-time basis. He had to do it without thinking.
Downstairs in the courtyard, there were now more than twice as many men as before. None of them looked his way as he arrived, too busy with each other. Many of them were wearing regular clothes, not the grey overalls that he’d seen earlier. These had to be the trainees he’d be working alongside.
There were twenty-three trainees. His goal was clear: to make all twenty-three answerable to him. It was not going to be easy, but the first step was to observe and assess. Once he had a clear idea of where each man was psychologically, he could devise the appropriate method to bring him under his control. As a leader, he would be all things to all men.
Figaro watched them carefully, the ones talking and the ones keeping quiet, the ones moving between people and the ones standing still. Their breathing, their eye-line, the stress in their bodies and the tension in their faces, it all revealed things about them.
Those who had combat training were easy to spot. The ones who were nervous and uncertain about being here also attracted his attention. A couple of them behaved in a suspicious way, like they were wary of being caught. He had no idea what they were worried about or what they had done, but their body language indicated they expected to be found out at any moment.
But there were two that stood out in particular. A stocky man, only a little older than Figaro, who looked like he was set in stone but moved like a dancer, effortlessly shifting his weight, adjusting his stance as though in preparation of an attack. It wasn’t entirely clear to Figaro if he was expecting to be attacked or waiting to launch one. He was certainly someone to be wary of if it came down to direct conflict. But someone who would respect physical prowess in others.
The other was an unusual looking boy, thin and wiry and wild eyes constantly shifting gaze. It was hard to pin down his age. It was hard to pin down anything about him, in fact. Figaro couldn’t read him at all. It was as though he was about to move in every direction at once. There was a wildness to him that made him impossible to predict. He would be worth studying simply because Figaro had never encountered his type before.
Ganesh had taught Figaro to read the way a person moved by demonstrating examples of each type — the dancer, the speedster, the brute, the shadow. He had never shown him anything like this person.
Figaro started to move towards this unique individual. The others he would take him time to analyse, but this person would require more serious investigation.
“What you staring at?” said a short man, stepping in front of Figaro.
Careless. He had been so focused on the other side of the yard he hadn’t seen the threat right next to him.
“Sorry?” said Figaro.
“You’ve been eyeballing everyone since you got here. What’s your game?”
The man was older than most of the others with scars down one side of his face that suggested he was no stranger to fighting. He was one of the ones with something to hide, trying to raise his standing, intimidate the rest.
How to best handle this situation? Make friends? Strike first?
“Trainee, the crimes you committed in the past are of no concern to anyone here. We start with a clean slate. You are accepted.”
The man looked confused and on the verge of distress. He might find comfort in Figaro’s words, he might lash out, Figaro waited to see which way he’d go, but before he had a chance to respond there was a chime from some invisible speakers and a voice said, “New recruits, please make your way into the main hall.”
Aged wooden doors opened at one end of the courtyard and everyone began moving towards them, Figaro’s new friend stumbling away, still processing what had just happened.
The men in overalls watched, talking among themselves. They appeared to be making bets.
The main hall had a high ceiling and was big enough to easily accommodate ten times as many people. The twenty-four men stood in front of a small stage where the Princep was waiting. He was dressed differently, no longer in exercise clothes. Now he wore a stiff-looking uniform of grey with shiny buttons and bits of ribbon on the chest. They indicated some kind of achievement, Figaro assumed.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said the Princep in a totally different voice to the one he had used earlier when speaking to Figaro. Now he sounded cold and abrupt, only here to get this over with. “I am Princep Galili, commanding officer here. Welcome to the Gorbol Training Academy, the Free Volunteers Guild’s premier facility for talented individuals such as yourself. This building is over sixteen hundred years old and has witnessed the training of more than five thousand individuals. We will see to it that you are prepared for what you are about to face, and that you are given every opportunity to prove your worth to the guild.
“Make no mistake, this will not be easy. You each have a high CQ, but you are not all suitable for a top-level organic. Some of you will not be considered for any type of organic.”
There was some grumbling at this.
“There would be no point wasting an organic on someone who won’t be able to make full use of it. Potential is easy to measure. What you will do with it is not. We intend to find the best among you and the worst. Those who wash out will be returned to their units where they will be expected to carry out their duties as contracted. There is no appeals process and no second chances.”
The speech sounded like one that had been given many times to many new recruits. No one seemed particularly moved by the Princep’s words.
“There are twenty-four of you for this session. You will spend six weeks running simulations, which will include weapons familiarisation, and then two weeks operating in live sites. You will not have instructors with you in the live sites. No organics will be present. Ten percent of you will certainly not survive.”
This drew some more grumbling.
“If all twenty-four of you make it that far, which is unlikely, at least two will not return alive. In the seven years I have been in charge of this facility, there has never been a session where everyone made it back. That’s a total of twenty-six sessions, in case you were wondering. Ten percent is a good return. My predecessor’s numbers were much higher.
“I tell you this so you appreciate the seriousness of your situation. It would be to your benefit to act accordingly during your training. You cannot die during the simulation, but I suggest you act like you could. It will provide you with a better foundation to work from.
“You may be wondering why you will be going into live sites without the benefit of organics. Actual delves would not contain a team of unaugmented individuals, after all. The reason is simple. We are testing you to see your suitability for organics, which type you would suit best, which you would be able to use proficiently. It is different for each person, a high CQ does not make a difference when it comes to true compatibility. If we meld you with your ideal organic, you will be ten times as effective as a general augmentation.
“Your assessment will not only be based on your performance on site. You will be observed at all times. As such, interactions between trainees are not supervised or officiated. This is not a school. This is not the military. You are each here of your own free will and choice. How you treat each other, how you handle conflict, how you deal with problems of any kind will all go into your final assessment.
“The risks are high, gentlemen. Train hard. Focus. Your future and your lives depend on it. We begin tomorrow. Before I get into the details, are there any questions?”
The atmosphere was tense. Figaro could tell some of the recruits hadn’t really understood what they were in for until now. He saw them eyeing the door like there was still a way to walk away. None of them were considering making a run for it, but the thought was there which was telling in itself. They would be the hardest to co-opt, and the most likely to be a liability to others.
A hand rose from the crowd.
It was the hard-to-read man, scruffy and looking like he’d been wearing the same clothes for several days.
“Um, I was just wondering. Why are there no girls?”
The tension in the air broke as everyone laughed. There were no women here, of course, for the obvious reason. A good joke.
But Figaro could tell from the way the question was posed that the questioner was entirely serious. He really had no idea why there were no girls here. How was that possible? Had he been living under a rock? As Figaro watched him laugh along with everyone else, pretending the joke had been intentional, he saw something else, or rather, didn’t.
Something was absent, missing. It was hard to identify the negative space, but whatever it was, it made him different to every other person in the room. Possibly every other person in existence.
This person was someone Figaro definitely intended to get to know better.
Chapters are one week ahead on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino