Chapter 3

“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.“

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Chapter 2

“As I look out here today, I see future doctors and lawyers and politicians and artists,” the principal began. “Though today is your last day at Lyceum, and your travels will bring you to faraway lands and meet interesting and new people, the experiences you’ve had here will follow you for the rest of your life. Some of you will be off to Basic Training to serve your community and keep our world a safe place to learn. Some will be going off to Gymnasium to further your education and provide for the common good. No matter where the gusts of life blow your sail, know that you will always have a home here at Lyceum.”

Jim shifted in his seat. The robes sat on his arm a weird way and it made him uncomfortable. The tassel on his mortarboards sat uncomfortably in his periphery and the seating had him cramped. Some students really liked the graduation ceremony. It was one of the few remaining vestiges of ancient preculture that survived the Collapse, and some of the students, particularly the academics, enjoyed the old ways. Jim, however, was not one of them. He had tried to dodge the ceremony, but his parents would have none of it.

“And now, as my last act as your principal, I hereby bequeath the honor of graduation up you all. Rise up and celebrate!” No sooner had the words left the principals mouths then did the students roar to their feet, throwing their mortarboards to the sky.

“Congratulations!” the random person next to Jim who’s last name also began with an “R,” said, extending a hand.

“Congrats to you, too,” Jim idly shook it as he began parting the throng in search of his hat.

“Congratulation, Jim,” from a voice over his left shoulder. He spun around to see who it was.

“Molly. Hi. Congratulations to you, too.” Molly sat next to Jim in Math lecture. Mousy little redhead. Sharp as a tack. Beautiful green eyes.

“Could you?” She said, extending a finger.

“Hm?” Jim snapped out of his reverie. He realized he’d been staring blankly at her. He followed her arm down to her finger and then to where her finger was point. It was her mortarboard. “Oh right, sure.” He picked it up and handed it to her. “Sorry.”

“I didn’t see you at my open-house,” She took the hat from Jim She held it in front of herself and looked deeply into Jim’s eyes.

“Uh,” Jim was entranced. Her gaze was locked firmly on him. She was remarkably pretty and Jim found himself very distracted. A few blinks and a shake of his head knocked his thoughts back into place, though. “I, uh, never got an invitation. Was I supposed to be there?” Jim finally said when he could find words, again.

“Oh, ha, I guess not. I must have forgotten to invite you. I would have liked to have seen you there, though.” She twisted her body side-to-side idly as she spoke, shrugging her shoulders and batting her eyelashes slightly.

Jim’s focus shifted slightly as he heard a subtle chorus of giggles over the cacophony of people milling about. Over Molly’s shoulder, a crush of girls were watching the two, no doubt laughing at the spectacle. He looked back to Molly, who was expertly ignoring her entourage. “I would have liked to have been there, myself,” Jim stuttered out. He knew where this was going, and was trying very hard to not mess it up.

“Well, If you want, a bunch us are going out tonight,” She gestured with her head to the gaggle of giggling girls, who giggled louder with the acknowledgment, “Tammy and them are bringing some guys along and they said I should ask you to come out with us, too. Do you wanna come?”

“Uh, yeah, sure. I think that’d be great. Yeah. Definitely. Yeah,” Jim was having a hard time maintaining composure. He felt his cheeks tighten, an uncontrollable smile filling his face. Molly’s backup saw and giggled loudly again, easily following the situation from afar. “Should I meet you somewhere?”

“We were gonna go to the diner. Wanna meet up there? I’ll let you know when we’re on our way down.”
“Ok sure, that’d be great. Sure. Ok,” Jim fidgeted with his robe around where his pockets would have been.

“Great, I’ll see you then,” Molly’s face was full of smile, as well. She turned and skipped away, over to her friends. They all huddled and chatted and laughed. You could hear muffled tones rise over the din of students rummaging around. Jim stood around for a while unmoved. Eventually the crush of girls moved along. A few idle people gave a “congrats” and extended a hand for a shake. Jim would robotically reply and instinctively shake hands, as well.

“James.” The low, feminine voice was unmistakable. It snapped him back to reality.

“Professor. Or should I say, General,” He turned on his heals to face Professor Cecilia.

“Not until you’re a soldier. Until then, you can call me Carol,” the professor was wearing her faculty robes and mortar. She was a decorated teacher, so she had on various tassels and medallions bespeaking her praise. “I haven’t heard from you. What’re you going to do?”

Jim opened his mouth a little, and then closed it. Opened again, and closed again. He had not been able to stop thinking about their encounter, her offer, since the coffee shop.

“I don’t know professor. I can’t make a decision,” Jim lowered his head sheepishly. It was hard to admit.

“Walk with me, Jim,” Carol turned and positioned herself next to him and made a gesture to walk abreast. They walked in silence a while. The thrum and buzz of students and their doting parents hummed around them as they eventually made it to the edge of the crowd. The ceremony was held on their outdoor sports field. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was cool and comfortable. A slight breeze was rolling through, and it fluttered their robes as they slowly paced the perimeter of the field. “Where are your parents, today?” Carol eventually said, breaking the calm. Most of the parents had watched from the stadium seating, but were now mostly on the field fawning over their children.

“My mom is a little sick these days. Nothing terrible but not just food poisoning, either. Makes it hard for her to travel. Dad picked up some extra shifts a few weeks ago at the factory. They’re operating way over capacity right now and are on a very tight deadline. I told’em it was ok. Times are a little tight for us, and the money for overtime is good.” Jim clawed at his hips, trying to find pockets to shove his hands into.

“I’m sorry to hear that, I know this is an important day for you,” the professor was looking at Jim intently. Casually batting her head forward occasionally to see where she was going.

“It’s alright, really. My family and I aren’t exceptionally close. Mom’s been sick forever and Dad is a busy guy. We make do with what we have.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, too, Jim.” Jim looked up at the professor as she spoke. For a second, he would swear a look of genuine sympathy flashed across her face.

“Ain’t nothing, professor. Really. I made my peace with it when I was very young,” Jim had contented himself to grip a handful of robe at his side. He shuffled his feet as he walked. He was a fair bit taller than the professor, so his average gate moved faster than she seemed to want to go.

“Isn’t, Jim. ‘Ain’t ain’t said by nothin’ but fools and yokels,’ my mom told me,” A smile crossed Carol’s face. She looked down at her own feet idly. “Jim,” the wistfulness vacant from her eyes again as she turned her head back toward him, “we need to know what you want to do. This opportunity isn’t one we can extend again.”

Jim looked up and locked eyes with her. They both stopped walking, near the far edge of the field. “I don’t know what I want to do, Professor. Carol.”

“Why not?” Her tone wasn’t derisive or condescending. It was inquisitive. Socratic.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out, Professor. To me, it’s a pretty big question. ‘Why don’t you want to do this,’ is tantamount to ‘what do you want to do with the rest of your life.’ You’re not asking me to choose what color socks to wear or even what career to take in my later years. You’re asking me whether I want to live a normal life, or I want to become a hero.” Jim was calm, but there was despair in his voice.

The professor turned to face Jim, “At least you get to choose. Many heroes don’t get that luxury. For most, the job is thrust on them, whether they want it or not. A thousand years ago, during the Collapse, Bartibus and Chaira didn’t choose to become the Shephards. But when the bombs dropped, they were the ones who went out into the streets and corralled survivors into the shelters. Tyson Dale didn’t choose to sacrifice his life to release the Adam bugs during the blasts. They were presented with a situation, and they acted. It’s calm now, though. We’re not the Nomads anymore. We’re working to rebuild our society. Repopulate. But this peace can’t last forever, Jim. You already know the people across the pond are restless. You do have a choice, now. The heroes of our time don’t have to be made from dire circumstances. They can be chosen. You’re right, Jim. This is a choice between a normal life and a life of heroism. And some people aren’t cut out to be heroes. That’s why we remember people like Bartibus and Chaira. That’s why everyone knows Tyson Dale. And that is a lot of responsibility, Jim. But, remember, for every Tyson Dale and Bartibus and Chaira, there are thousands of equally-heroic people living relatively normal lives. Tyson Dale didn’t discover the Adam bug and release it into the world on his own. He had lab assistants. He had friends to help him along the way. I’m not asking you to be remembered in history, Jim. I’m just asking you to make a difference in the world,” there was passion in the professor’s voice. Burning, undeniable passion.

“You had to make this choice, too, didn’t you,” Jim was unflinching.

“When I was a much younger woman, I lived with a man. We were both in the service together. I had rejoined as an officer after finishing a long degree in Gymnasium. He was a part of the CORE program, then in its very infancy. He pulled a few strings and asked me if I wanted in. I was confused myself on whether to join or not. He told me what I told you, and I haven’t looked back since, Jim.”

“What happened to him?” Jim pressed. No one had ever been so candid with him.

“We got into a fight and I left him. You’ll meet him if you enter the program. He’s quite a character. You’d like him,” Carol smirked, the wistfulness briefly in her eyes again.

“What’s a normal life like, professor?” Jim sounded very distant.

“I think you know the answer to that already, Jim,” there was a long pause between the two. “Can I count on you?” The professor put her hand on his shoulder.

The contact sent a jolt through Jim. He found a focus he hadn’t had before. Things seemed to fall into place. “How long do I have to say goodbye?”

“You’ll have time for your date tonight, if that’s what you’re asking.” Carol slid her hand down the side of Jim’s arm and squeezed his bicep before pulling away.

Jim blushed, “and my tournament tomorrow?”

“That won’t be an issue either. You’re making the right choice, Jim. I promise,” the professor turned and began walking back to the crowd to glad-hand and make small-talk. Jim stood for a while longer and eventually did the same.

“We’ll be at the diner in a few. Meet us there?” the message read on Jim’s standard-issue communicator.

“I’ll leave now. See you there,” he responded in simple text form. Another relic everyone seemed to say would perish with every passing generation of technology. Nothing, however, seemed to dethrone the simplicity of text-based communication.

Jim grabbed the keys off of his nightstand, slipped on his shoes, and headed down to the diner. He had his favorite shirt and slacks on, a rare opportunity for him to wear something other than Lyceum uniform and government-bought clothes. He made his way down the halls of the dormitories and over to the train platform a little way up the commons. He caught the train just as it pulled in. It was somewhat full, with no obvious empty benches. Jim decided to just stand at the back instead of sit down near anyone. A dapper man boarded the train just before the doors closed and appeared to have a similar idea. He took up the side next to Jim at the rear. Jim couldn’t help but notice the man’s black walking stick and feathered fedora hat. They were relatively plain affair, with the stick having a normal silver ball for a handle, and the fedora a black deal with a black grosgrain ribbon holding down two small purple feathers. The fact, however, that such a dashing younger man was sporting them was quite odd, as such items were typical on very old genteel men trying to hark back on a bygone era of history.

“I like your hat,” Jim said, after the young man caught him idly staring.

The man smiled, “Thanks, kid.” He turned and extended a hand out, “Standish. Standish Eli.”

“Standish Eli?” Jim grabbed his hand and shook. His grip was firm. His hands were solid as stone, but not hard and calloused.

“Alright, you got me. It’s Eli Standish. But everyone calls me Standish anyway, so it’s how I introduce myself.” Standish returned his hand to the handle hanging from the train and tapped his walking cane on the train’s metal floor. “I didn’t catch your name.” The man’s smile was enchanting.

Jim shook his head again, jumbling his brain back into function. “Ross. Jim Ross.” The train lurched to a halt as it pulled into station. “This is my stop. Nice to meet you, Standish.” Jim made his way to the large hatch doors on the side of the train.

“Hey, catch,” Standish hollered. As Jim turned to acknowledge him, Standish deftly threw the fedora at him.

“Thanks,” was all Jim could stutter out from the platform. The door closed as Standish winked a sky-blue eye at him. He turned the hat over in his hands a few times before trying it on. It fit perfectly.

The diner was just behind the train stop, and he could see a ghostly reflection of himself in the large plate-glass window. The hat matched his black slacks and purple button-down perfectly. Jim had even forgot to gel his hair, so the hat was a perfect addition. “I look great,” he unconsciously said out loud to his reflection.

“Yes, you do,” said a mousy voice from behind him as a finger jabbed into Jim’s rib.

Jim spun around. Molly, her friends, and their dates were behind him, their train having just pulled in behind his. “Oh Molly, I didn’t see you there. I wasn’t trying to, I mean, I wasn’t,” Jim stammered, trying to not sound like a self-absorbed jerk.

“I know, silly. But you do look great,” she smiled sheepishly.

That Smile, Jim thought. She was wearing an emerald-green, sleeveless blouse with frills along the front and chocolate-brown, high-wasted slacks. Her close-cropped hair was mussed and straightened and parted at the side like the pixie cuts the models of the time were wearing. She looked like a model, herself. The blouse brought out her eyes to make them seem even more sparkling and even more green.

“You do that a lot, Jim,” she said with a giggle, and put a hand on his bicep.

“What?” Jim shook his head again and snapped into reality. The hand on his arm made his heart skip a beat and his face turn bright red.

“That,” she said, pointing with her other hand, her other fingers wrapped around a chocolate-brown leather clutch. “Your eyes go all blank and you start staring. You did it whenever I asked you a question in Math class, too.”

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. Sorry,” Jim hung his head slightly and stuffed his hands into his pockets. He was a large bit taller than Molly, though, so he couldn’t really hide his eyes from her.

“Oh no, don’t be sorry. It’s really cute. I like it.” She started walking forward, spinning Jim a little, as she still had his arm, and and subtly urged him forward. Tammy, Molly’s partner-in-crime, and her boyfriend, who’s name Jim couldn’t remember, but he sat behind him in Chemistry, and Molly’s other friend Claire, who Jim wasn’t particularly familiar with and some other guy Jim didn’t recognize, all followed her in tow.

“It’s just. I just can’t help it. It’s just those eyes.” Jim stammered out again. He was having a hard time regaining composure.

“Oh, ha, I get that all the time,” she turned her head slightly and glanced deeply into Jim’s eyes, batting her eyelashes. She had a very pale complexion and was dusted ever so lightly with freckles across the bridge of her nose. Jim could tell she tried to soften them with powder, and he could feel himself wishing she hadn’t. She very subtly slipped her arm underneath his and wrapped it around his elbow. Walking abreast, even in what looked like heals that were a few inches long, She barely came up to his shoulder.

Arms locked, Jim felt his heart jump in his chest, again. He could feel his nerves calm, though. She felt so relaxed Jim couldn’t help but ease up himself. “Heh, then I don’t feel that bad, then, I guess.” Tammy knocked an elbow into her boyfriend’s rib and both of them chuckled a little bit. Jim spun his head around to take a quick peek, and both of them snapped into an overly-casual posture, an impossible-to-hide smile creeping into their cheeks as they tried to suppress it. Jim reached out and pulled the door of the diner open. He let everyone through and closed the door behind them. Molly went straight to a corner booth. The other four piled in first, leaving the end seats for Jim and Molly. Molly lowered herself into the chair. Jim softly sat next to her, making sure to not cause too much ripple in the bench pad.

Molly put a hand on Jim’s knee. The contact sent lighting through him. Her other hand held her clutch in her lap. Jim pulled a hand off the table and rested it on his thigh, the tips of his fingers brushing against the place where her thumb met her wrist. Molly pulled her hand back and threaded her fingers between Jim’s. His eyes were burning hot. The feeling sent a shiver through him, standing the hair on the back of his neck on end. “So Jim, what’re you doing now that school’s out?” Molly broke the silence at the table.

“I’m going into service, actually,” Jim said as he scanned his eyes around the table and eventually landed them on Molly’s.

“Oh, that’s nice. I was hoping you were going to make it to Gymnasium. Me and Claire made it in. You helped us so much, I woulda thought you coulda made it in easy.” Molly idly stroked the back of Jim’s hand.

Don’t say ‘Claire and I.’ Don’t say ‘Claire and I.’ Jim repeated in his head. He looked down at his other hand, which was fidgeting with the paper band around his napkin and silverware roll. “I, uh, I got in, yeah. But, I, uh, it didn’t work with what I want to do with my life.” Jim felt the nervousness creep back.

Molly, not missing a beat, felt his tension. “So, you’re going into the service, then? That’s cool. I like a man in uniform,” she interjected before anyone could ask any questions. The booth was a little tight, but Jim felt Molly press her shoulder a little harder into his, as if to say, It’s all right, I get it.

Jim felt himself ease again, but then blush at the comment. He chuckled nervously. “Yeah. It’ll help with my training more, and I think it’s just the right way to go for me.”

“Training?” said the guy Jim didn’t know across from him.

“Jim is a professional gamer,” Tammy said from the middle of the circular booth. “He’s won a bunch of awards or something. I read about it in the school paper.” Tammy had long, straightened, brown hair with baby-doll bangs and brown eyes. She nodded a little acknowledgment in Jim’s direction.

“Oh wow, that’s pretty cool there. So you on a team and stuff?” Tammy’s boyfriend asked.

“Yeah, I…” Jim began.

“He plays for the national team,” Molly cut him off. “He’s like super good. Didn’t you win like a prize or something when you were younger that was a really big deal?”

“Mhm,” Jim began. He paused a beat to make sure no one was going to cut him off again. “I won the Gold medal in a pretty major event at the Global Digital Games when I was 13. At the time, I was the youngest person to ever hold the title.” Jim could feel himself relaxing more, and leaned back into the pad on the bench.

“You don’t look like much of a gamer, Jim,” Claire said with a bit of a scoff. “You’re, like, not skinny as a rod or super fat.”

“Well, most professionals are actually in pretty good shape. I mean, I won’t be running a marathon any time soon, but I work out a few times a week with the team and eat a pretty strict diet. You need a strong heart and really fast twitch reflexes to be a good gamer, especially some of the more physical ones that don’t use traditional interfaces.” Jim felt himself starting to get really technical. Whenever he got started on games, he knew he could talk forever about them, so he often tried to derail himself. Not everyone was passionate about games like he was.“But yeah, that’s why I’m ok with joining the service. It won’t be too hard physically and they’re gonna let me be a pilot or something.”

Just then, the waitress came up. “What can I get ya,” she said in a very casual tone. No one really needed to look at the menu, they’d all eaten there enough to know everything on it. Everyone placed their orders. The waitress jotted everything down on her notepad, “I’ll put that right in for y’all.”

“So, Roger,” Claire said to the guy sitting next her, who Jim didn’t recognize. “Are you heading to Gymnasium?

“Oh no, I’m joining up, too. I didn’t get enough grades to get in.” Roger shrugged.

Molly laced her fingers through Jim’s again. After she had woven her fingers into his, she pulled up and rest Jim’s hand on her thigh. Her focus was forward on the group, but she gave Jim a sidelong glance and an impish smile. Instinctively, Jim began to idly caress her leg.

The conversation carried on for a bit. Jim would occasionally throw a word in here or there, ask a leading question, or answer a simple one. At intervals throughout the night, Molly would escalate physical contact with Jim, and Jim would respond in kind. She clung tightly onto Jim’s shoulder, never moving her eyes away from the crowd, except for the casual glance back at Jim, a wily blaze burning behind those deep emerald eyes.

When the food arrived, Molly disengaged from his shoulder, and Jim took the opportunity to drape his arm behind her. Molly responded by snuggling against Jim’s chest, resting her inside arm across his lap, her hand idly stroking the side of his thigh. The position forced Jim to eat with one hand, though with an omelet and sausage, it wasn’t that hard. Fork-eating bacon looked a little weird, though. Molly caught it and snickered. From the shelter of Jim’s frame, she, looking mousier than ever, took her hand out of Jim’s lap. “Open up,” she said as she fed him a strip of bacon with a giggle.

As the night wound down, Roger and Gracie, Tammy’s boyfriend, decided to head off to the bathroom. Molly and Tammy also took the chance to duck out, as well. Jim and Claire remained at the table.

“She’s really into you,” Claire said in hushed tones when everyone had left. “She’s kind of had a crush on you like all year. Tammy and I told her this might be her last shot.”

“Really? I never knew,” Jim scratched the back of his head under the fedora. “I’m not really good with that stuff. I’m in kind of a special program for the military, so if she hadn’t caught me today, it really might have been her last shot.”

“Oh, then she like really lucked out,” she looked up quickly. Molly and Tammy were almost back to the booth. Claire leaned in close, “You should totally kiss her tonight. Just saying.” She leaned back in the booth. “Hey! I’m gonna go to the bathroom quick, myself.”

“Really? You know, I kinda wanna powder my nose, do you have a compact?” Tammy rocked her weight onto her other hip as she and Molly approached the table. She had on a dark blue, flowered-print dress with white lace trim and a small yellow cardigan. Her legs were clad in black tights and some low-slung black ballet flats finished the ensemble.

“Sure do, let’s go.” Claire hoisted herself out of the booth and followed Tammy to the back of the diner, winking not-so-subtly at Jim before Molly sat down next to him.

“Gracie stepped outside for a cigarette. He and Roger were talking about baseball or something so he’s out there with him,” Molly plopped down next to Jim. Jim lifted himself up over the back of the booth and craned his neck to make sure the other girls were out of sight. “I’m not much for sports, myself. Never could understand…”

Molly couldn’t get much more out, though. Mid-sentence Jim placed his hand underneath her chin and leaned down. His lips connected, and a shock went through them. It traced back along his sinuses and into the part of his head right behind his eyes. His friends had said his first kiss would be hot and wet and sloppy and weird. It wasn’t anything like that, though. On the lips, it didn’t feel much different than any other kiss he’d given. To his dog, to a trophy, or on his mom’s cheek. But the way it made his body feel, well that was a different story. It gave him gooseflesh all across his body. He could feel a slight breeze from the ventilation duct above the table on the back of his neck. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest and finger tips. He could feel his eyeballs on the back of his eyelids. His whole body tingled like the split-second before you pass out. There were sparkles dancing in the darkness behind is lids. But most of all, he could feel her lips under his. He could feel them twitch and wiggle and pucker and suck and flex. It made him kiss harder. He used his tongue to wet his lips mid-kiss, and felt her tongue meet his. He felt his hand move from under her chin to behind her head. He felt her hand thread behind his back and up to the side of his face. He could smell her. Deeply. He could make out every note. From the cosmetic smell of her makeup, to the fruity scent of her shampoo and hair pomade, to the soft vanilla scent of her body soap. He didn’t want to stop, and Molly wasn’t giving any indication that she wanted him to. Jim turned his head and brushed noses with her, kissing again when his head was angled the opposite way.

After what seemed like both the shortest and longest instance in his life, Molly pulled back and slid a finger between them, resting it on Jim’s lips. Jim took the hint and pulled his head back, opening his eyes to stare deeply into the bottomless pits of hers. “Claire told you to do that, didn’t she?” She said, a longing smile filled her face.

“Yeah,” Jim said simply. He rested his forehead on hers, knocking the fedora back slightly.

“Have you ever kissed anyone before?” Molly’s mousy eyes hid a devious visage.

“No,” Jim blinked, remembering the shock, the feeling.

“Me either,” Molly closed her eyes. “Tammy said it wasn’t anything special.”

“I thought that was kinda special,” Jim said, reaching his hand up and softly caressing her cheek.

“I didn’t say she was right,” Molly said, that impish grin crawling ear to ear.

“I’m telling you, Terrance Filopino was the greatest catcher, man,” Roger was gesticulating wildly as he and Gracie approached the table.

Gracie was fidgeting with his lighter and gesticulating in return. “No, no, no, that title belongs solely to Jake King. That guy is legend, man.”

“Jim, who do you think is better, King or Filopino?” Roger asked when he and Gracie reached the table.

Jim had since resumed a more casual repose. “Honestly? I have no idea who you’re talking about.” Jim was still running high from his kiss. He couldn’t get the shock out of his mind. “If we’re talking about games, I could go for hours, but I don’t have time to watch sports.”

“Bummer, man. No big, though. You’re still cool by my book,” Gracie’s sleeves were rolled up slightly, revealing a tattoo-covered arm as he extended a hand to Jim. He locked thumbs and wrapped his fingers around its back, a much more casual version of the standard handshake.

“Yeah, you’re alright,” Roger mirrored in kind.

The girls arrived back from the bathroom just then, as well. “We good to go?” Claire questioned as she returned. She had her bleach-blonde hair in a tight pony tail with side-swept bangs almost covering one of her hazel-brown eyes. She had on a blouse with a low-cut sweater overtop, the white collar casually undone a few buttons down, tight blue jeans and tan stiletto heels. She casually swept the bangs away from her eye. “I’m good.”

“We just gotta settle up,” Roger said. He and Gracie made their way to the cashier by the door.

“Yeah,” Jim made a motion for Molly to get up so he could make his way over.

She lowered her head and leaned into Jim, “Are you sure?”

“Definitely. Don’t worry.” Jim said in a confident tone. Jim lifted himself out of the booth after Molly let him free with a defiant stare. Jim made a fair bit of spending money in prize purses from his competitions. He gave a lot of it to his parents to help with his mom, so it wasn’t anything he could go crazy with, but it let him enjoy some luxuries from time to time.

The tabs settled, they all stood in a semi-circle outside waiting for the next train, each girl clinging to their respective man. Jim’s train arrived first. “This is mine,” he addressed the group. Molly walked him to the edge of the platform. Jim waved goodbye to everyone, and everyone waved goodbye back. “I had a really great time tonight, Molly. I’ll talk to you later, ok?”

“You’d better. Or I’ll hunt you down,” she stood on her tip-toes and pull Jim’s head down by his collar. She kissed him on the cheek and whispered goodnight in his ear before letting go. The train buzzed and she stepped back as the door closed, eyes locked on each other until they were out of site.

“She’s cute,” a voice said from behind a broad newspaper sitting on one of the benches behind him. “Be careful. Redheads have a temper.”

“You’d have to say something pretty wicked to piss off Professor Cecilia, Standish,” Jim said without turning around.

“Trust me, it’s a lot easier to get her going than you think,” Standish dropped the newspaper to his lap. He had on a new black fedora, this time with a red ribbon and black feathers.

“Do you just like to ride the trains, or are you following me?” Jim turned now to face him. He had the same cool smile, his rich peanut butter-brown skin eerily offset by his almost-white blue eyes

“Truth is on the trains, Jim,” Standish raised the newspaper back up without saying another word.

It was past curfew when Jim finally got back to his dorm. His roommates were already in bed, so he quietly slipped into his closet-sized compartment in the quad, hung his clothes up and crawled into bed. Jim replayed the night over and over in his head before finally drifting off to sleep.Molly…

Chapter 1

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The professor paced the front of the classroom. The floor-to-ceiling displays were covered with equations, pictures, diagrams, and theorem. The attendants in the lecture, numbering in the hundreds, all sat on the edges of their seats, hanging on every word.

“The Adam Bug,” she began “anyone know what it is?” There was a brief pause as the class discerned whether the question was rhetorical. An intrepid youth raised his hand. “You. Mr. Ross. What is the Adam Bug?”

“The Adam Bug is a custom-developed bacteria invented by Tyson Dale in the late twenty-second century.”

“Good, and what does it do?” The professor turned on her heels and paced the other direction. Everyone in the class was intently focused on the young man.

“Well, I don’t know exactly. It eats radiation.”

“Well done, Mr. Ross, thank you. For today’s lecture, we’re going to talk about exactly what radiation is, and how the Adam Bug, as Mr. Ross so astutely put it, ‘eats radiation.’”

Jim sat back down and began jotting down notes as the professor talked. Occasionally, she would stop to ask a student a question. Occasionally, like Jim, the student got it right. Most of the time, however, the student would get it wrong, and Professor Cecilia would pull up some diagram, or swipe away some other formula so she could craft another one on the display.

Jim really liked Professor Cecilia. She was firm, but kind, and very intelligent. She gave great lectures. They were interesting, easy to understand, and he always felt like he learned something. Advanced Chemistry was often the only class at Lyceum that he cared about attending, even if he didn’t particularly care about, nor was he necessarily good at chemistry. He had already taken all the other science classes she offered. Physics, Engineering, Biology. Chemistry was the only one left, sadly. As this was his senior year, however, he’d be shipping off to Basic for his compulsory military service after semester. He’d been hoping to get into pilot’s school, but his grades weren’t necessarily up to snuff.

As class wound down, Jim started to pack his bag. A.Chem was his last class for the day. “Mr. Ross, can I have a word with you?” Professor Cecilia boomed, her deep-but-feminine voice carrying over the din and shuffle of students. Jim finished packing his satchel, threw it over his shoulder, and made his way down the lecture hall to her.

“Mr. Ross. It’s getting very close to graduation time,” the professor said, not raising her eyes from her desk as she shuffled her notes around.

“A few weeks, ma’am,” Jim shifted his weight to his left foot and adjusted the satchel to hang across his body.

“Indeed. Will you be attending Gymnasium after your studies here?” The professor paused from adjusting her notes and looked up at Jim over her slim black-frame glasses. Her tight ponytail was curled up and the pencil holding it in place poked up over the back of her head.

“No, sadly, Professor Cecilia. Me and my parents can’t afford the buy-out, so I’ll be heading to Basic right after graduation.” The professor was standing straight now so she could look at Jim directly.

“’My parents and I,’ Jim. And that’s a shame. Have you talked about a program with your recruiter?” The professor crossed her arms and began to idly chew on tail-end of a pen she had been holding. It showed signs of previous chewing.

Jim gaped a little bit, his eyes slightly widened. He’d been in Professor Cecilia’s lectures for the better part of three years now, and this is the most he’d ever spoke to her. “Uhh, no. I…I wanted to be a pilot, but the recruiter said that ‘with my grades that probably wouldn’t be a program I could make it into.’ I think I’m probably going to go into an engineering role though. My dad was a mobile platform mechanic when he did his time. It doesn’t sound too bad. I was going to talk to my recruiter after class today and see what I can do.”

The professor shifted her weight to her other leg. She wore very plain clothes. Looser-fitting jeans, a plain white tee-shirt and a shimmering blue brocade vest. White flats and a digital watch finished the outfit. She shifted her folded arms and flashed the watch in front of her eyes. “Little too late for that. If you left here, you wouldn’t make it to central recruiting in time. “

Jim looked at his own watch, a cheap gold analog timepiece. She was right. Even if he had left right after class, he’dve missed the shuttle down to central recruiting. “Darn. Well, I don’t have a lecture tomorrow afternoon, I’ll just go then.”

“Are you busy tonight, Jim?” The professor unfolded her arms and put the pen she’d been chewing behind her ear. She leaned back down and went back to shuffling her notes into her briefcase.

“Um, uhh, no. That was all I had planned, why?” Jim stood still and started fidgeting with the flap of his satchel. What was she playing at?

The professor finished shuffling her notes into her briefcase and snapped her fingers loudly. The text on the display zipped into a brightly colored box labeled with the date at the bottom corner of the display. “I want to talk to you about something. Do you have time to meet with me at the coffee shop?” She hefted her briefcase and moved to the front of her desk, directly in front of Jim.

“Yeah, OK. Yeah. I can do that.” Jim only had a lab and a lecture tomorrow. It being the end of the semester, there wasn’t a whole lot of homework to be done. “Do you want to meet down there?”

“That works,” the professor turned sideways and glanced over her shoulder at Jim. “Be down there within the hour,” and walked away.

When Jim walked into the coffee shop, Professor Cecilia was sitting at the table, sipping what looked like a very large latte. She had a laptop open in front of her and was skimming a datapad. She was young, but it would be pretty hard to mistake her for a student. In addition to eschewing the modern fashion trends, her features were that of a woman, not the children that seemed to surround her.

“Professor Cecilia,” Jim said as he approached the opposing side of the table she was sitting at. He pulled the chair out and slowly lowered himself into it.

“Jim. Good.  Thanks for coming,” she didn’t look up from her datapad. A blue glow from its screen reflected off her glasses. “So. I wanted to talk to you about something.” She looked up from her datapad, finally, setting it down next to her laptop and touching her finger to her temple, resting her elbow on the table. “You’ve followed my classes for the last couple of semesters, even when you don’t get great grades,” She paused, indicating she expected a response.

“I like your teaching style. It clicks with me.” Jim, still a little bewildered and confused, responded.

“Do you board here or are you or do your parents have an apartment on campus for you?” The professor shifted her hand to rest her chin on her fist.

“No, professor. I live in the dorms. The apartments are a little out of my range. My dad works in the factory maintaining the printers.” Jim shifted in his seat. “I live in a quad with five other guys.”

“I see. What do you plan on doing after Service?” she settled her face into a neutral gaze.

“I dunno, professor. I never really thought about it. If I can land a gig in engineering, I guess I’ll probably follow my dad to the factory. It’s honest, stable work. My dad was home every night before dark. It wasn’t hard, and you’re mostly surrounded by robots and other mechanics, so it’s pretty low stress. The pay isn’t bad, either. Could live off it pretty well, I think.”

“What about going to Gymnasium after service on a soldier’s package? Have you thought about that?” Her gaze remained unchanged. Neutral, unjudging. Inquisitive but unobtrusive. Her typical undynamically dynamic face.

“Yeah, but 22, 23 for me, is a lot older than 18, to be frank. And service changes you. A kid I grew up with back home tried it. Did a year and never went back. Was too different. Just didn’t feel right. And, if he couldn’t take it, I know I couldn’t. Civils don’t make that much more, anyway,” Jim fidgeted with his hands. He never knew what to do with them in a conversation.

“Pragmatic. Civil Engineers get to program the printers, though. They get to be creative, make things. Don’t you think that’d be a lot more fun?” she prodded, her gaze still unflinching.

“Well, my parents taught me that work wasn’t supposed to be fun, professor. You go to work to be productive and make a living, so that when you come home, you can have fun there.”

“What do you do to have fun, Jim?”

Jim paused for a long time. “I’m in a tournament league for my video games, professor,” he said sheepishly.

“Oh?” A slight smirk crept across the professor’s face, “That would explain why you’re doing so poorly in my class.” She winked at him. A moment of genuine bemusement.

“Very funny, professor,” Jim responded in a playful tone. “That’s why I wanted to be a pilot. One of the guys on our team just joined up. He said it’s just like the game, except you’re really there, not just pretending.”

“I see,” the smirk had faded from professor’s lips and her neutral gaze had returned. “What disciplines do you participate in?”

“Well, I actually qualify for the Renaissance Man competitions. I usually compete in all 3 events in the digital sports leagues. My specialty is Digital Decathlon, but that makes me good at Military Triathlon and the Fantastic Five as well. I’m the captain of our team. We’re top 5 across all disciplines in the world,” Jim was trying to be modest, but the pride was hard to hide in his face.

“You’ll have to excuse me, I’m only passingly familiar with the scene. What do the events entail?” The professor truly was a master of the unmoving face. If not for the smirk, Jim would have sworn her face was cut from stone.

“Well, there are only about a dozen truly competitive games in the world. Most of the rest are either too simple or too complicated to be worthy of play. Think of chess. It’s not mired with a lot of rules, but it also isn’t tic-tac-toe. There’s enough variance to make it easy to grasp, but hard to master.

“Military Triathlon simulates what a high-ranking soldier would encounter if he stayed on through Service as a Lifer. There’s a run-and-gun event where you’re in first-person simulating a soldier. Then there’s the tactical event where you have to plan out armies and attack plans. And lastly there’s the vehicle simulations. You have to pilot the various military vehicles through different missions,” Jim was getting very animated. He loved talking about his sport.

“In the Fantastic Five, you participate in 5 fantasy-orientated games, but they play on 5 common tropes. There’s gladiator combat where each of you pick a fighter, and then duke it out in a series of rounds. In similar vein, there’s the battle arena, where you and your team pick champions and wade through hordes of monsters to destroy their main headquarters. There’s a platformer, where you have a linear level you have to navigate through on a time-trial; a siege defender, where you have a group of monsters march through a path, and you have to set up defensive structures to defeat them before they make it to base, and you receive a score based on how efficiently you did it; and finally a puzzler, where pieces move along a track and you have to fit them together in a constrained space. When you get the right fit, the shapes eliminate and you get points. As you complete shapes, the track moves faster. High score wins.

“Digital Decathlon is all of those plus a rhythm game where you have to synchronize movements and button presses with music, and a  resource management event where you are given a set amount of time and starting resources, and you have to meet specific city-building objectives. The person who has progressed the farthest with the most resources at the end of the time frame wins,” Jim was leaning forward, his elbows on the table.

The professor jumped on the brief pause and interjected, “Jim,” she leaned back and put her hands flat on the table, “or should I say Daybreaker.”

Jim leaned back suddenly, his mouth agape, eyes wide, “You know my handle,” he gasped out.

“What do you know about the CORE project, Jim?”

It took Jim a bit to recover. “Uhh…CORE project. Same thing everyone else does, no doubt. Secret military program. Cutting edge military weapons. Secret projects.  All very hush-hush. They order parts from my dad’s plant from time to time. Actuators and big steel plates, mostly. No one really knows what it’s all for. I’m guessing vehicles or missiles or something. The news has it on good authority that the reason that math prodigy from Gymnasium dropped out was to join CORE.”

“You shouldn’t trust the news, Jim.” A big, beaming smile had crossed the professor’s face.

“Word also has it that the folks across the pond have their own CORE program going along, as well. And that you guys are scared that they won’t be as judicious as you will with whatever it is.”

The smile left the professor’s face. “To put it simply, Mr. Ross, the CORE program is the most interesting and exciting thing our nation has going for it. I want you to join it.”

“Join it? Who are you to it?” Jim looked very confused now. “How do you know my handle? What’s going on here?”

“I work for the CORE program in talent acquisition. My job is to locate, track, and vet possible candidates for the CORE program. We’ve been following you for a while, now, actually. About 5 years, actually.”

“You’ve been tracking me since I was 13?” Jim was still pressed to the back of his chair, arms on the table, eyes wide. He relaxed slightly, “Since I won Gold at the Global Digital Games in Military Triathlon.”

“And placed in the top ten out of two thousand in Digital Decathlon,” the professor finished. The smile had receded, but only slightly. “We watch the games very closely. We’ve been watching you very closely. When you started taking my science classes, we became more interested. When declared intent toward Service, instead of Gymnasium, we became more interested, still. When you applied for the pilot’s program at central recruiting, we knew we’d found our man. It’s hard work. It’ll push your limits, both physically and mentally. If you question whether you’ll be up to it, you probably aren’t. Jim, you strike me as someone who wouldn’t be content in engineering. Living a normal, boring life. We want you on the team, Jim.”

“Slow down. Do I need to choose now? Can I think about it? You’re kind of rocking my world here, professor. It’s a lot to take in.” Jim shook his head, trying to knock the thoughts into place.

“I get that a lot,” she said with a wink as the smile grew across her cheeks, “You have to have a final declaration of intent into Central Office before you graduate. I can wait until then. Mull it over Jim, but I implore you. Don’t pass this opportunity up.” With that, the professor stood up and closed her laptop. She shuffled it and her datapad into her briefcase. She laid a card down on the table in front of Jim, “Don’t be a stranger.” Jim folded his hands in his lap and stared down at the card. The Professor put her hand on his shoulder, and then walked away.

“General Carol Cecilia, Covert Recruiting, Special Forces Division,” Jim read aloud, picking the card up and twirling it in his hand. “General?” he mused.

“Will he do it, you think?” Standish reached out and grabbed Carol’s bicep. “Ross. Do you think he’ll do it?” The train was just pulling into dock. Standish was leaning against an exposed steel girder under the platform.

“Hard to say. You don’t get where you are without being competitive, but he’s quiet. Keeps to himself. No one really knows him very well, even his friends and teammates.” Standish released Carol’s arm. She brushed her sleeve straight and turned around to face him. “Trench coat? Scarf? And a fedora? Really, Eli? You’re supposed to be discrete. You look like an ancient movie villain.”

“He didn’t seem to notice me,” Standish said, standing straight and smoothing out his trench coat.

“I did. And so did half the people in the coffee shop. You looked like a bloody rapist, Eli. They’re kids; they don’t get your ‘retro classic sense of style.’” She scoffed at him and turned around to face the train. “And yes, I think he’ll do it.” The doors to the train opened. Carol stepped inside, turning to face Standish again. A smile crept across her face again, “You really should take that fedora off. You really do look like an idiot.”

“You used to like my ‘retro classic sense of style.” Standish took a few steps forward and removed the fedora.

“I also used to like cats,” Carol said, the smile beaming cheek to cheek, a touch of sneer running across her lips.

“Cold, Carol. Cold,” Eli said, putting the fedora back on. “Good night, ‘professor.’”

“Good night, Eli,” she chuckled as the train’s doors closed.

The weeks slipped by quickly. Finals kept Jim busy, but training was also picking pace. Next week, the day after his commencement, was a major tournament on the circuit. Qualifiers for this year’s big national competition. If he wanted a shot at next year’s Digital Olympics, his team would have to earn some serious circuit points at nationals. Jim usually did a good job of carrying the team through Decathlon, but most competitions weren’t multi-disciplinary. Next week was team strategy. That meant he and two others from his team, Shamz and Deka, needed to score in at least the top three to make it. Shamz and Jim were strong in strategy, but Deka, one of their Fan-Fivers, was subbing for their other primary TriMil guys, Guns. Getting Deka up to speed had eaten up just about every waking free hour, and some hours that shouldn’t have been waking.

“Dek, make up some heavies, I need you to flank the ping with air support as well. Shamz, manage base D and build up some ubers. I’m going to sweep the mat deposit.” Jim swiveled his head left and right. He had on a set of Heads-Up Display glasses, various game statistics populating the outer rims. A yellow reticule tracked his eye motion on screen, highlighting what he eventually rested his gaze on, giving him on-demand stats. There were 4 displays, three forming a semi-circle around him, and a 4th, transparent display that he could reposition as an overlay. With deft hand gestures, the stats from the HUD glasses would fly onto the overlay. With the twist of his head, the overlay would rest atop one of the screens. His right hand was home to a button-covered mouse. People had been proclaiming the “death of the mouse” for centuries, but it never seemed to happen. His left hand housed a hand-shaped keypad with various switches, dials, wheels and buttons. Though most things were speech- or gesture-controlled, sometimes nothing could beat the fine control of a dial or the quickness a macro could afford.

“Break, recon is showing scouts about to approach your sweep. You may want to pull back and keep them dark,” Dek’s deep voice calmly advised from the surround-sound speaker system.

“Good call. We dropped a recon beacon. I bet they make a play for the deposit,” Jim made a few more clicks on his mouse and his unit, represented in the top-down 3rd person view by various clusters of gun-toting soldiers and mobile weapon platforms, hid just out of sight from the now-incoming scout.
Just as Jim had expected, the scout was tailed by a small contingent of troops. Jim ambushed the detachment. With furious mouse-clicks, he selected various troops and commanded them to attack the enemies. He specifically micro-managed his troops to make sure that they attacked the units that they were strong against, and danced away lower-health units and units being struck by attackers they were particularly vulnerable to. With lightning-quick, precise and well-rehearsed motions, his units obeyed every order, and his ambush executed perfectly, not even one unit lost. “Expanding onto the deposit,” Jim narrated to his teammates. With a flick of the wrist here, a head twitch there, his worker units descended onto the deposit and began constructing transport facilities and extracting the materials.

“Break, I’m in trouble,” Shamz voice tweeted. “They’ve got a horde slamming our base.” A quick peek at the campaign map showed a big red blob colliding with their central base.

“Recon out. That’s their primary force, Break. It’s a Hail Mary.” Deka’s voice boomed through.

“I’m going to make a play, guys. There’s a canyon with a choke that looks like it feeds right into their base. Deka, back up Shamz.” Jim began moving his troops along the back canyon. As expected, the geological choke point was blanketed in turrets and anti-air installments. Jim repositioned his anti-siege troops and mobile weapon platforms, and with some careful bombardments and controlled rushes, was able to clear them out. Deka and Shamz were doing a great job of baiting and rebuffing the enemy. By keeping them just enticed enough, the enemy army was committing to the fight, but with skillful dancing and unit positioning, the two were keeping casualties to a minimum while still keeping them at bay.

“Better make it quick, Break, we can’t stall them forever.” Deka hailed.

“I just entered their base. Game over.” Jim’s forces crossed the threshold of the canyon and filled the central sanctuary. He began by eliminating resupply stations and unit production facilities, hamstringing their ability to create defensive units. Next on the agenda, Jim began systematically dismantling their internal defensive structures.

“They’re retreating. AA gone?”

With a few clicks and a few flicks, Jim’s anti-siege units took out the last remaining anti-air turrets. “You’re all clear, Deka.”

Deka’s flotilla cut across the campaign map. The big red blob was pulling back toward their sanctuary, with Shamz’ troops in hot pursuit. It was too late, however, as once Deka’s aircraft arrived, they brought swift fiery death in their wake. As the last structure crumbled and burnt to the ground, the surrounding screens cleared and a big blue box flashed in the center of Jim’s displays, “Victory!”

“Good job, Deka. Way to keep your head on a swivel.” Jim took his HUD glasses off and dragged his palms along his face. “If you keep that up, we may make it to Nationals.”

“Well, we will. You’ll be shipping off to the top-secret CORE project, to, I don’t know, club baby squirrels and develop weaponized salsa,” Shamz squeaky voice pestered through his speakers.

Jim chuckled loudly. “Burn you greasy Devil! Die a tomato-filled death, yarrr!”

“Seriously though, Day. Are you gonna follow up?” the sub-woofer made Deka’s voice rattle his room.

“I haven’t decided yet. I don’t even know what I’ll be doing. For all I know I really will be clubbing squirrels and trying to make tomatoes into bombs.” Jim thumbed his nose and rubbed his eyes.

“Just do it, man. How many times do you think an offer like that will come along? And trust me, clubbing baby squirrels still beats the hell out of Basic.” Deka was the oldest on the team. “I’ve been off Charter for almost a decade now, but not a day goes by that I don’t remember that drill sergeant screaming at me to do more push-ups. Hell, if I hadn’tve met Cross my second week in, I don’t think I could’ve made it.”

“Heh, something about the thought of you doing push-ups, Deka, is hard to believe,” Shamz prodded.

“Hey, I may be carrying around a little extra weight now, but it’s just because I was too strong before and needed a challenge.”

“Good one, Deka,” Jim quipped. “But guys, I’m going to get some sleep. I have my last class tomorrow. Don’t want to be late.”

After a chorus of “Goodnights,” Jim slipped out of his chair.