Ezekiel pushed his glasses up his nose. The man had short, dark hair and mild green eyes. When they met, the man had stood and walked over to give Hank a handshake.
“Ezekiel Ghosthound, at your service. You probably don’t recall, but I was in Richmond when you held off the armored bears. I never got to thank you. I’m pleased I now have the chance to pay you back.”
“Ah, no worries,” Hank said, slipping back into a slow drawl. “It’s in the past now. What’s a mild fella like you doin locked up here?”
Ezekiel’s smile was all teeth. “Ghost doesn’t like me… having contact with high-Level Classers where it cannot watch.”
Hank’s pupils dilated. A few interesting things there. Was he being honest? And if he was, why was he under such tight scrutiny? Specifically high-Level Classers as well?
In addition, Ezekiel had referred to Ghost as an ‘it’. Not that it was really important, but a lot of propaganda campaigning done by Alan had gone towards making sure the populous referred to Ghost as he. It helped the people handle the fact that an AI was making decisions that ruled most everyone’s lives. It brought Hank a small bit of pleasure that this man didn’t follow along with the masses in this regard.
Plus, he wondered if there was some sort of story connecting Ghost and Ghosthound. Maybe just a coincidence? If anything, perhaps Ghosthound was a made up name given to him by Ghost… like, “Ghost’s Hound”.
The guard who was watching their meeting cleared his throat. Hank turned to regard him. The man was likely not even a Tier 2 citizen, but he delighted in lording his small status over Hank ever since they had entered into the Containment Zone. Hank didn’t mind. Or rather, it was like the buzzing of a fly; the only acknowledgment the creature would receive was being smashed into the table when it had gone too far.
“We will debrief him, Mr. Howard. We have orders to take you to see Ghost in person. He has a gift for you, consider yourself blessed.”
Ezekiel chuckled but said nothing. After glaring at Ezekiel until he was satisfied that the other man was cowed, the guard brought Hank away, out of the meeting room and down a long hallway to another series of rooms. The hallways and rooms all looked the same, white and long, with only brass doorknobs adding a splash of color to the tiled decor. If this had been the Hank before the System empowered his attention to detail, he would have long been hopelessly lost.
“Try not to be disrespectful.” The guard said, glowering after he had opened the door for Hank to proceed. “We will be watching. And if you disrespect-”
Hank stepped forward and closed the door, yanking the doorknob out of the man’s sloppy grip. It was with great pleasure that Hank cut him off, and turned to regard the small raised black platform before him. For effect, there were several lines of servers along the back wall, with flashing lights and different gauges for heat and electrical consumption. But Hank knew that these were just theatrics.
Ghost’s true body was the 6 brain dead bodies on life support below the room; it was on them that their ‘AI’ ran.
The air over the black platform flashed, and a body condensed, first just opaque squares, then a silhouette through them, and then the body of a teenage boy. He was tall and fair, with blonde hair and blue eyes. His smile was wide and infectious, but just like always, some instinct kept Hank from ever relaxing around the AI.
“It has been a while since we spoke, Hank. But I’ve really enjoyed watching you,” Ghost said, sounding extremely human, and sincere.
Almost feeling guilty for his suspicion, Hank forced himself to smile. “It has. You were still using a 10-year-old as an avatar last time we spoke. I hafta say, speakin’ to you like this is a mite more reassuring.”
Ghost’s grin widened. “I like this body too. Although I’ve have done millions of calculations, and cannot yet ascertain how attractive to make this body. I have been subtly altering my facial structure and musculature to see if it affects the behavior of those stationed here in the Containment Center. I must say, the face is very important in human social interaction.”
“Unfortunately so,” Hank mused, abruptly thinking of Laurel. Then he shook his head. “Hey, why do you always do this? You know I dislike these tiny manipulations you do. If you keep telling me these things, I’ll stop coming to visit someday.”
Ghost chuckled. “You do not come ‘visit’. You are ordered to come here, or else you would remain in small towns, keeping the peace. I tell you because they don’t work on you, no matter how hard I try. And perhaps vanity is part of my programming; I feel you are the only one I can brag to.”
Shaking his head, Hank felt somewhat helpless. Ghost laughed again, louder, and as the volume increased, it became obvious that the sound was canned and reproduced, a laughter filled with shapes and symmetry, but without warmth.
“Well anyways, I won’t keep you long. This is why you should actually visit, because I always have new gifts for you, that I’d like to watch you use.” Ghost gestured to the wall, and it opened, revealing a long, sleek vehicle.
“That…. That’s my bike.” Hank stuttered, looking wide-eyed at the extremely high-end Manatech that was sitting on the platform, polished and crimson. The paint job was glossy and eye-catching, exactly the way Hank liked it.
“Yup, with a few improvements,” Ghost said with a sly smile. “This time, I predict that the enemies you will face will be more powerful and vicious than Rhonda Khan was… I’ve made ample preparations for different eventualities. Do your best to reach them all, so I can produce a better product next time.”
Jane found herself in an interesting position, poised between needing to retch and vomit and being bored to tears.
She had just come in from ‘Gym’, which was basically just physical training. The adults set up obstacle courses and traps, forcing the kids to go through them over and over until they finally could finish in under a minute, or until the full 2 hours of gym time had finished.
Jane had finished today, just barely, but it was already Thursday, and the course would change over the weekend, so a new heck would be waiting for them on Monday. Afterward, Jane would want to cry, and her body would hurt in strange ways, but her daddy got so furious when she complained, so she could do nothing but keep quiet.
Some days she fantasized about going and living with Uncle Hank for a while, just so she didn’t have to hurt so much all the time. But not today. After all, she had finished the course before the end of the week, and that would earn her a smile from daddy.
And at least gym was better than Targets.
Jane shivered. Targets involved learning to use the guns that Ghost made for everybody. Jane thought it was dumb. She was in the biggest city in the Zone, protected by the highest walls. And she was in grade school. Why should she use a gun?
But that part of her spoke with Uncle Hank’s voice, and daddy always got so mad when she complained about that. So she bottled it up and always tried to hold her pee until Targets class, so she could have a small break.
Right now, they were sitting in Class Theory. At first, Jane had liked this class, because it was a break from exercise, but most of the classes were just sitting still and watching the strange animations made by Ghost, which was frustrating in an entirely different way. At least if they had been given paper, Jane could have spent her time doodling her cat, Happencakes, but even when asked, the teachers refused, as if they expected her to use any sort of small freedom to escape from the constant class.
“Upon reaching 14,” The voice from the video boomed, “Every child will have the opportunity to receive a Class from a Village Spirit. Classes are important because they often determine what Tiers of Citizenship you will have access to.”
‘Except me,’ Jane thought to herself, picturing her Tier 4 daddy, and Tier 3 Uncle Hank. Even if she got a Class like Veterinarian, she knew they would help her be a high Tier.
Then Jane frowned. She wasn’t really sure what the differences between the Tiers really were, besides that higher was better. And all daddy and mom’s friends were higher Tiers, while Uncle Hank spent most of his time helping out people who had lower Tiers. But everybody talked about it often enough that Jane knew it was something she should pay attention to.
“Today’s lesson will focus on the 4 most powerful people in the UHF.” The voice continued, “Starting with Eric Todd, Level 46. His class is Demolitions Maniac, and he uses his control over remote Mana Detonations to trigger powerful and elaborate explosions, destroying his enemies in a powerful display.”
On screen, actual footage of the bomb man was shown, and he threw out several bombs around an armored turtle. Several exploded at key points, knocking others in different spots, that then exploded, destabilizing the footing beneath the turtle. Right when it stumbled, a quick explosion sent a bomb quickly forward, beneath the turtle’s vulnerable stomach. Then the screen turned white, as the man detonated his bomb.
Jane’s eyes glazed over. So boring.
Next was the Hyper Pilot, Level 44. Although she was the lowest Level of the Top 4 of the UHF, she was the favorite of Ghost, who delighted in making her new Exosuits to try.
Then there was the Plasma Furnace, a man who held two extremely large plasma miniguns. Jane glanced around. Most of the other kids were as blank-eyed as she was. But some were looking at the TV with serious, longing expressions. She shook her head sadly. She had watched her Uncle Hank shoot an eagle out of the sky with a pistol once. That was what strong people really did, not all these explosions.
Uncle Hank had been somewhat sad afterward, but he had let Jane keep the feathers to make a crown. Her mom eventually took it away, saying she would get lice.
Finally, there was the Spartan Shock Trooper. He didn’t wear a true Exosuit, just a Manatech armor hybrid, and carried just a standard looking plasma rifle. But when he moved, it was uncannily fast, and he seemed to be able to detect the movement of enemies all around him, even though it was impossible for the man to see them outside of his helmet.
‘Not as fast as Uncle Hank,’ Jane thought with a sniff.