“Dek, what’s your the status on your armada?” Jim voiced over his communication link.
“Moving along fine Day. How goes the expo?” Deka’s response came through Jim’s headset.
“Good. Scouting now.” Jim repositioned his overlay to analyze the miniature map. This map, one of Jim’s favorites, had lots of variable terrain levels that caused tight corridors. The base-origination points also had some very interesting geographical protections that made base defense easier, but also afforded lots of back routes and side-channels that made sure bases were anything but fortified. “I’m in an enemy side channel. Sending in a scout to see if they have expanded onto the resource point here.” Jim speedily selected and ordered a stealthy unit ahead of his army. As expected, a small detachment of enemy workers and light defense units were harvesting the resource point.
“Do we want to choke or should we gatecrash?” Shamz voice squeaked through the com.
“Let’s play it safe and choke,” Jim advised after a few beats of deliberation.
“On my way there, Day,” Deka boomed in as the blue dots that composed his armada came floating toward Jim’s units on the mini-map. All at once, they collapsed onto the expansion point, and began heavy bombardment. The base had little to no aerial defense, so his warships made quick work of the workers and infantrymen on guard. No sooner, though, had Dek floated his armada in then a hail of missiles and bombs came through the “fog of war,” the part of the map that their units weren’t revealing, followed swiftly by a huge detachment of mobile platforms and heavy gunmen. “Counter!” Deka boomed through the com, causing the speakers in Jim’s headset to clip and crackle.
“Pull over to me, Dek,” Jim ordered coolly. With a click, a gesture and a flick, Jim’s regimen of ground troops moved toward a point on the map Jim had marked with a flashing dot. Dek danced his flying units away from major fire, preventing them from sustaining any seriously crippling damage. As they pulled back through the ravine, the units pulled forward and followed. The missile and anti-air fire was constant. Deka deftly maneuvered his units between blasts and explosions, making sure to keep a good scramble preventing the enemy units from landing any seriously devastating blows. “Shamz, go gatecrash,” Jim very pointedly commanded through the com.
“On it,” Shamz wheezed through.
Deka’s units finally reconnoitered with Jim’s cavalry and an epic battle ensued. The enemy, understanding the power of Air units, focused primarily on an anti-air tactic. Jim used this opening to send in his light and agile fighters to decimate the slower, more cumbersome units. Mobile platforms fell one after another as Jim weaved his units in and out of the line of fire. The enemy, in anticipation of such a dismantling force, deployed it’s close-range shock troops. These carried high-damage short-range sustained attacks that would counter the mid-range-mid damage units Jim was dismantling the heavy tanks with. In anticipation of such things himself, Jim had peppered his brigade with long-range sniper-type units. They summarily destroyed the short-range shock troops, allowing Jim to advance his infantrymen back into combat.
Soon enough, the enemy’s regimen was dismantled. A few troops had pulled back to safety, but the knife’s edge had been thoroughly dulled. Jim sustained a relatively low amount of damage, though his losses weren’t insubstantial. The twisting nature of the map would prevent his reinforcements from meeting him in a timely fashion. The mini-map showed Jim that Shamz was in place, however, so he didn’t have time to wait. He pulled them into his group and began closing his troops in on the pathway. “Rendezvous with Shamz, Dek. I’m going to press the alley,” Jim announced with a flurry of clicks and waves. As Deka’s armada moved a low arc around the canyon to meet up with Shamz, Daybreaker pressed his units along the side path. Once he was knocking on their back door, he gave the command, “Go!”
Shamz opened with a volley of missiles on their front gate. They were heavily fortified, expecting the traditional siege method. There were also a fair bit of anti-air guns studding the raised edges of the canyon their base sat in. Shamz, smartly, ignored the front gate, however, and used his large mobile platforms and heavy units to focus down the most obvious anti-air structures. They fell in quick work. Now, in full reaction mode, the edges filled with sniper-type and heavy units to counter the siege assault. With the anti-air structures no longer a threat, however, Deka was able to sweep in and carpet-bomb the valley walls. Unable to offer any resistance, the units fell before they could do anything in response.
Thoroughly defanged, Jim pushed his infantry into the back entry. Completely unprepared for a flank, the local bases began producing whatever countermeasures they could muster. All for naught, however, as Jim’s Blitzkrieg ignored all resistance and cut straight to the front gate. After destroying the guard structures, the gates opened wide, allowing Shamz mobile platforms and heavy units to roll in uncontested. With doom imminent, the opposing team threw a surrender, and the game was over.
They were kicked to the post-game lobby. A small chat box, where they could communicate with the enemy team was embedded amongst a sea of statistics and game analysis. Jim’s coaches would break down the numbers and they would discuss the strengths and weaknesses they would need to work on in future matches. In the text box, they and the other teams bid each other a “good game,” and offered very formal and congenial acknowledgments to each other. “At least we got knocked out by Daybreaker and not some scrubs,” one of the opponents had said in chat.
“You guys didn’t make it easy,” Jim responded in the chat message, taking the compliment in stride.
“Sometimes I don’t know how you do it, Day,” Deka grumbled into the com. “If they had made any sort of aggressive play on us, our entire strategy would have backfired. If they hadn’t fortified their gates like you expected, or if they had counter-pushed, it woulda been game over.”
“We made the right plays to keep them defensive. It’s all about tactics, Deka. It’s like poker. You gotta know when to bluff, and when to go all in. Hey Shamz, do we have any more matches for the day?” Jim took off his HUD glasses and made a few gestures to close out the programs on his computer terminal.
“Why, you got another date with Molly?” Shamz taunted. “Or is Professor Cecilia going to take you out for coffee again?”
“No, Shamz,” Jim said, indignation rife. “I’ll take that as a ‘no,’ though.”
“We don’t have any more matches today, Jim,” Deka’s low voice came through in stark contrast to Shamz’s. “By the way, how did your date go? Coach was kinda pissed you didn’t come in for practice right before a qualifier.”
“Incredible, actually. We went to the diner. She sat next to me. Let’s just say PDA was the dish of the night.” Jim could feel the smile creasing his eyes as he leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “She’s a pretty good kisser, too, from what I can tell.”
“’From what you can tell,’ my dog is probably a better kisser,” Shamz tweeted through, completely deadpan.
“Why you gotta rain on his parade, Shamz?” Deka boomed out with a chuckle
“Well, I know your mom is a really great kisser, Shamz, so I used that as a point of comparison,” Jim snuffed through the mic.
“Oh ho ho, Shamz. That one has to hurt.” Deka laughed heavily. If Shamz had said anything in retort, it would have no doubt been drown out. “This might be the last time we play with you, Day,” Deka’s voice trailed off slightly, the humor replaced with wistfulness.
“We’re gonna miss you, man,” a rare tone of seriousness in Shamz’s voice.
“It’s going to be hard. I don’t know what’s going on with anything. I hope I can get back into games after, though. There are plenty of guys on the team just aching to take my spot. You guys will do fine.”
“I don’t think anyone on the team could have pulled off what you did today, Day. You’re Daybreaker. The legendary Daybreaker. There’ll never be another.” Deka was empassioned.
“You wait, when I’m out, I’ll be reading about the legendary Deka in the papers,” Jim tried to choke back his sadness with optimism. “And it’s not like I’m going anywhere. I’m sure I’ll have some downtime eventually to hop on and play with you guys from time to time.”
“Won’t be the same, Day, and you know it,” Shamz voice filled Jim to breaking.
“It’ll be fine guys, I promise. You’re my friends. We’ll make it work,” Jim was trembling. All the stress of the matches had wreaked havoc on his nerves and he couldn’t handle his emotions right now. “Hey, I’m going to get off and go wash up. I’ll catch you guys around later, ok?”
“Alright buddy, we’ll catch ya later,” Deka was calm and pleasant again.
“Sounds good, man. Later,” Shamz’s typical contempt had returned.
The couch was comfortable. It was an all-black leather affair. Lots of overstuffed pillows. Very modern. The room was small, just big enough for a couch, a coffee table, a few overstuffed chairs and a lamp.
“Meet me at this address on Monday. Make sure you’re packed. You won’t need to bring anything, the Service will come by and get your stuff. Make your peace before tomorrow, Jim. Once you’re in the program, it’s a pretty intense ordeal for the next few months. You won’t have much contact with the outside world,” the professor had told him the morning before.
“Do me proud, Son,” was all his father had told him. His mother cried a lot, but she seemed very supportive. Her sickness was getting worse, and there wasn’t much anyone could do.
“We’ll miss ya, bro. Do us proud,” Deka had told him at the training center. He had packed up the stuff at his dorm and spent the night in his room there. “Can’t wait to play with you again, bro.”
“Write to me?” Molly had asked when he told her what was up. “Please?” She and him had spent a lot of the last day together. She had asked him to coffee, alone, that afternoon. They talked a lot. There wasn’t as much physical contact, but they held hands on the table across from each other. “I’ve only just now had the courage to get you into my life. I don’t want you walking out of it, yet. Write to me, please?” Jim promised he would. Every day.
“Nice hat,” Standish had said to him from behind a newspaper on the train there, “it looks good on you. You’ll be fine. Truly. The program is tough, but it’s worth it. You’ll do us proud, I’m sure of it.”
“Come on back, Jim,” the professor said after emerging from a door in the corner of the waiting room, “we’re ready for you.” The door opened to a large hallway. There were multiple closed, windowless doors on the right and left as she walked Jim to the one at the end. It opened up to a large reception room. There was an older looking woman sitting behind a desk, multiple filing cabinets and shelves behind. To the right of the desk was another door. There were austere benches and more filing cabinets encompassing the perimeter of the room. “Merril, this is the new recruit, Jim.”
Merril, the receptionist, pulled out a datapad with a stylus chained to the top. “Fill out these forms while you wait,” her voice lacked any form of animation, dead and soulless. As if she had done this a million and a half times.
Jim took the pad, “Thanks, ma’am,” and sat down on one of the uncomfortable-looking benches. He began filling out the form. It was your generic personal questionnaire. Name, date of birth, parent’s address, that sort of thing. It then progressed into more and more private questions. Physical health, mental state, family medical history. It then delved deeper, still. Assumed athletic ability, relationships, academic record. After pages and pages of increasingly personal questions, he, quite uncomfortably, finally finished the “sexual activity” section and the form itself and returned it to Merril.
“Thank you,” she took the datapad from him and began leafing through the pages. “Looks good. I’ll put this through to central processing.” She pushed a button on her desk, “General, you can take him through, now.”
The professor emerged from the door to the right of the desk, “This way Jim.” The door led into another hall. At the very end was an elevator. “We’re going down,” the professor pointed to the back of the hall, mid-stride. “Are you ready, Jim?”
Jim, “I don’t know. I feel sort of numb. I don’t even know what I’m ready for,” Jim tried to bury his hands deeper in his pockets. He had taken his lucky coin along and was thumbing it around his fingers in his pocket.
The elevator ride was long. The elevator didn’t feel like they were going slowly, either, so Jim surmised they must be going very far down. The elevator finally came to a sliding halt, and with a ding, the door opened to a large steel corridor. The General led him along, and eventually to a dead end. Before them was a large black expanse, and a gated platform with a large red-lit control panel in the center. The General approached the panel and Jim followed suit. With a few button-presses the platform they were on lurched into motion and sent them deeper yet along a diagonally-descending path. As they descended, track lighting along the bare rock above head clunked on and then off, the lights necessary to keep the platform illuminated being the only ones on. The spotlights cast an eerie shadow as they slid further still into the bowels of the planet. Jim almost felt compelled to ask to where they were heading, but felt that would extinguish the dramatic tension that the General was attempting to build.
The platform eventually clanked to a halt at the end of its track and alighted next to a train platform. There was a tram car waiting on the tracks, leading into a large black tunnel. The car’s door was open, and Standish, walking cane in hand, leaned against the side of the entrance. He was wearing a grey fedora that matched his suit, with a black flannel-patterned ribbon to match his belt and cuff links, and a small blue feather to match his tie. He cut a dashing figure, by every definition of the statement. “Your chariot awaits,” he said, obviously disinterested in maintaining the auspice, as he erected his shapely frame, making a sweeping gesture with the arm not holding his cane. The General scoffed at her dramatic slight as she boarded past him. Standish made a wink at Jim as they met eyes on his way by. “Nice hat,” he whispered to him in hushed tones, commenting on the fedora Jim was wearing. The one he had given him. As they both entered, the General took a seat on the far side of the cart, motioning Jim to sit next to her. Standish assumed a seat across from them, casually sprawling himself across the bench, legs and arms wide, cane resting precariously against his inner thigh. The train’s gullwing door lowered shut, and quietly shot forward into the black abyss.
“I always seem to meet you on trains,” Jim began, a grin creeping across his face.
“You know Eli?” the General sounded thoroughly aghast.
“I caught him on the train a few days ago. He gave me this hat before my date,” Jim took off the fedora and held it in front of himself, studying the ribbon and feather.
“And here I thought you two just had the same horrible taste,” the General flippantly crossed her legs and arms, casting Standish a gaze withering enough to melt a Redwood.
“What do you know about the Old Times, Jim?” Standish casually shifted focus to Jim, completely unfazed by her glance. “Give me the 5-minute version, if you could, too. We’re on a tight schedule,” he winked again.
His odd blue eyes penetrated Jim. He shook his head, snapping himself back to the present moment. “Uh, a while back, there were a whole lot of people on the planet who really hated each other a lot. They developed nuclear weapons, bombed the hell out of each other, and destroyed just about everything and everyone. A few governments had set up programs to ‘preserve humanity,’ and a bunch of important and intelligent people got locked away into bunkers and the like to ride out the post-war fallout, and eventually rebuild. A few others, herded by The Shepherds, found a way to get underground and defend themselves in caves and the like deep in the belly of the earth. In the bunkers, a guy named Tyson Dale developed a bacteria that could eat radiation, released it topside, dying shortly thereafter from the extreme radiation exposure. A long long time after that, we returned topside. Natural disaster, the Adam Bug’s inherent caustic properties, and time had more or less leveled the world and returned it to a feral state, ruins still present, but the world was mostly lost. We rebuilt, learned from the governmental and emotional mistakes of our past, and have lived a mostly peaceful existence for the last few hundred years. That about good?”
“Very good. Thorough,” Standish closed his legs together, pulled his arms into his lap, around his cane, and leaned forward onto his elbows. “Right now, we’re traveling down one of the tunnels those ancient people did. This lava tube leads to a giant natural geofront. Now, Jim, what do you know about Bio-augmentation?”
“Woah, woah, woah,” Jim put his hands up and leaned back in his bench. “That is some, like, seriously sketchy stuff there. That’s where they like, flood your system with nano-machines that link up to your brain, right? That stuff is super experimental. Really, really dangerous stuff.”
“Experimental? Sure,” a big grin crept across Standish’s face. All of a sudden, the lights in the train clicked off, and they cruised along in darkness. “Dangerous? Not so much. What do you think it would be like, Jim, to have a heads-up display without the glasses?” Standish continued through the dark. “To be able to see frequencies of light hitherto fore unknown to man’s vision?” Across from Jim, two white-hot dots glowed. “What if you could hear electromagnetic waves? What if you could smell light? What if you could think something, send it to a computer, and have it return that information to your mind in the blink of an eye. What if, Jim, what if you could become a computer?” The two white dots disappeared and the lights on the train clicked back on.
The General scoffed again. “Always with the theatrics, Eli.”
“General?” Jim’s mouth was hanging open. He was batting his attention between the General and Eli, who had resumed his cavalier posture, a wicked grin beaming across his face.
“Eli is an Aug, Jim. Patient number 1, to be exact,” the General uncrossed herself and turned in her seat to face Jim sidelong. “As you know, when the Nomads emerged from underground, they had with them millennia of technological advanced stashed away in computers and information repositories from before the Great Collapse. The specific site we’re on our way to was a top-secret military cache. The government found the Aug program and decided to resurrect it. Eli was a Post-Doc just out of service at Gymnasium when he got tapped to be the first member of the CORE program. He and I were living together, and he had me transferred.”
“And the light thing? How’d he do the light thing?” Jim’s mouth was still hanging open, his eyes still wide with disbelief.
“Practice,” Eli smirked across from them.
“Your brain is a glorious device, Jim. It learns to integrate any device it is capable of utilizing into its structure. I’m sure you’ve heard the ‘10,000 hours’ rule, right?” the General folder her hands into her lap.
“Yeah. We talk about it at the training center. As a rule of thumb, you need like 10,000 hours of diligent practice to become a grand-master at something.” Jim was trying to maintain his focus. His head was swimming and a few shakes weren’t bringing him back to reality.
“Correct. Your brain is why that works. That’s how long it takes to fully integrate something into your logic circuits. So, when we flood your brain with the nanomachines, they don’t just instantly ‘work.’ They take a long time to train up. If the light isn’t controlled by a switch these days, it’s controlled by a computer. Essentially, what Standish did was hack the train’s computer and control its light matrix. It took him months to master that party trick.”
“And it was a party trick,” Standish said with a large wink and a finger-point to the General. Carol made a face at him, and turned her attention back to Jim.
“Augmentation has its ups and downs, Jim. We’re not going to ask you to get Augs,” the General put her hand on Jim’s knee.
“Well, I am,” Standish interrupted with a hand wave.
“The government isn’t going to ask you to augment, Jim. We have you slated for a different mission. I would be lying if I said that being augmented wouldn’t help, though. It would be a serious help. But we have a few trainees in your program at the facility who are not augmented and are doing very well.”
Jim leaned back into his seat and slumped his head and shoulders forward, looking at the ground in front of his feet, “And what program is that?”
“Pilot,” Standish said as he assumed a more traditional sitting posture.
“I was rejected from the pilot program,” Jim looked up at Standish, correcting his posture and sitting up in his seat, squirming a little with uncomfort.
“Not planes or mobile platforms. A different kind of pilot. A Core pilot. That’s what the CORE project is all about ‘Core Operator Recruitment and Education’ Program, or CORE program as we call it,” Standish’s voice had a leading quality, as if to invite the next question.
“And what’s a Core?” Jim was still gawking.
“Bipedal hominid battle structures,” the General squeezed Jim’s knee, drawing his attention.
“You mean like giant person-shaped robots,” Jim squinted at the General.
“Like, giant person-shaped robots, dude,” Standish parroted mockingly.
“Like, from the video games and cartoons and sci fi type things?” Jim addressed Standish with a far more mocking tone. Standish scowled a little.
“Yes, Jim. Though, not nearly as elaborate or theatrical. These are highly-developed and extraordinarily powerful pieces of battle equipment,” the General let a bit of silence hang, waiting for a response.
“Why,” Jim said picking up the cue, “why not tanks or planes or whatever? Why use bipeds. They fall over and stuff. They can’t be better,” Jim furrowed his brow deeper.
“These things are huge, Jim,” the General began, after a small moment to ponder a response. “Bipeds can traverse dicey and incongruous grounds easily. Their primary form of locomotion is assisted by gravity, so they utilize power output more effectively. They offer higher vantage points to assess battle situations and aide in battlefield dominance. Because they maneuver in a way that humans like us understand. Because they are intimidating.”
“And you want me to pilot one of these machines?” Jim couldn’t help feeling like he’d wake up at any point in time.
“That’s the general idea, yeah,” Standish’s snark was unmissable.
“And that’s why you pick gamers,” Jim said, his eyes widening with realization.
“The interfaces we designed for our Cores very closely resembles the feel of a video game,” the General affirmed with a soft, approving tone, “when we put our interface in front of test groups, we discovered that gamers tended to pick up the interfaces the quickest and perform the most efficiently under duress. We do recruit from other fields of discipline, but our most successful pilots have so far been professional gamers.”
“And how many other people are there?” Jim was curious if any of his gamer friends were secretly recruited.
“There are 6 pilots right now, and about two dozen people are fulfilling various supporting roles in the program.” In front of the tram, a light started to grow in the distance. “We’re almost there. I’ll introduce you to the group when we arrive.“