Planet Foxtrot-435 aka Fountain.
Gorbol Training Academy.
Group B Barracks.
After the trainees had been split into two groups, Figaro returned with the others to Group B’s dormitory. He wasn’t assigned a bed here, although one was available, but he wanted to connect with his group. He wanted them to see him as one of them.
The room was clean and basic. A lot more basic than his. Each bed had a device in the wall next to it that monitored the trainees while they slept. It was a little intrusive but would give valuable biomedical data for the Guild. There was no such device in his quarters.
He sat on the empty bed and watched the rest of his squad settle in. Friendships were already being made. Not all of them sincere, but at this stage it made sense that people would be cautious.
There were loud talkers among the group, trying to impress, and then there were those who listened and nodded and wanted to be liked. The ones with fighting skills were studiously checking out the competition, just as he was doing.
Looking around the room, only two of them struck him as capable fighters. And even those two lacked experience, although he was hardly one to talk. For all his training, his real-life battle experience was non-existent.
That was why he was here, to get real-life experience, but there was all this other stuff he had to deal with. How did you get to know people? They had always wanted to get to know him.
As he scanned the room, his eyes came to rest on the man with the scar who had tried to accost him earlier. He was still suspicious of Figaro but no longer willing to confront him. He was on the other side of the room and seemed unlikely to come any closer if he could help it. That wasn’t good. Figaro wanted to bring everyone closer together, not push them out to the edges. He should have handled that better.
He stared harder, trying to discern something about what the man was so desperately trying to hide, which had the effect of making the man even more flustered. He turned around and pretended to be busy unpacking the things he’s already unpacked.
Figaro sighed. He wasn’t good at being subtle. He’d never had to be before. No one in the palace would have admitted he made them uncomfortable. He wondered if he had.
He looked elsewhere. Of the two decent fighters, one was tall and heavy. He looked like he’d had weapons training, knew how to use shields and armour. His stance was that of someone who had been thoroughly drilled, every day, over and over, until his muscles spoke the language of the dead who did not fall.
Figaro had been through a similar regime between the ages of five and eight. He remembered it with no fondness. Perhaps they could connect over a shared experience?
No, he didn’t think so. The man had an unwelcoming posture. He was the other person Figaro had pegged as hiding a secret. Whatever it was, the man was sending out clear signals that he wanted to be left alone. Those around him were throwing the occasional question his way, but he was deflecting or responding with grunts. Figaro would have to wait for him to feel less threatened before approaching him. Confronting people about their fears hadn’t really worked out for him so far. He looked across the room again, startling the man with the scar who had been looking his way.
Figaro turned his attention to the other fighter, a younger man wearing light robes. He has an air of warmth and geniality about him, but it was mostly faked to hide his insecurities. He was by far the most nervous person in the room. If Figaro was gentle, he might respond to a friendly greeting.
Figaro rose and walked over, keeping his steps light and unthreatening. His youthful face and unimposing manner might actually work in his favour for once.
“Hello, I’m Fig Matton.”
There was a flicker of panic, and then it was buried under practised serenity. “Greetings, Brother,” he said. “I am Bryan Yakulto from the city of Thnem-Thnong on the planet Molecule in the Third Quadrant. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Oh, Molecule. M-223.”
“You’ve heard of it?” Bryan’s eyebrows rose in happy surprise.
“I’m from the Third Quadrant, too. Enaya.”
“Oh, yes. I’ve heard of it.” He smiled and nodded enthusiastically. He didn’t even seem nervous anymore.
This was going well. They’d already found something in common. Bryan was older, but didn’t speak down to Figaro.
“I thought I noticed a touch of martial training in the way you moved. Karvol or maybe Judesha?”
“Yes, Karvol,” Bryan said, shocked. “My parents are both masters and trained me from a young age. But if you were able to tell just from seeing how I moved, you must be an adept, too.”
“Not in Karvol. I was just shown the main precepts so I could recognise the forms. I was mainly trained in Ri.”
“Ri? I don’t think I’ve heard of it.”
“It’s not very popular. The main focus is in trying to hit people in the face as quickly as possible. Haha, my teacher wouldn’t like me describing it like that.”
“You must show me the forms, I would love to broaden my horizons, that is why I’m here. Do you know much about my homeworld?”
“Um, Molecule was settled by scientists, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Bryan, his features tightening a little as though some unpleasant memory had occurred to him. “It was meant to be a utopia of science and logic. Rigid ideologies never work out the way people hope, though. Forced genetic ordering and elimination of the weak and different was what we ended up with. Thanks to the advent of the organics, we were able to overthrow the scientocracy, but we are still left with massive inequality and power in the hands of a few. My parents are both monks, they spend their time feeding the hungry and helping the poor. I want to aid them, but it is like swimming against the tide. The army, the police, the security forces, they are all the toys of the rich and the powerful. I hoped that maybe by coming here, if I am fortunate enough to be considered worthy…” His impassioned speech had been quiet but intense. He had a strong reason to be here, a deep purpose.
“It sounds like a lot of work for one person,” said Figaro.
“Yes. But one person is where everything starts. Everyone should be treated equally, don’t you think? Allowed to make their own choices.”
“I think every person’s life should carry equal value,” said Figaro. “But it will never be possible to make each life equal in content or responsibility. Not everyone can be captain of the ship. Not everyone can have a say in the direction the ship flies.”
“Why not? Why can’t decisions be made jointly?”
“Because not everyone wants to go the same way. Too many voices drown out reason and common sense. Sometimes decisions need to be made quickly.”
“So the swift decision of a madman is better?”
“No. The madman can at least be overthrown. It’s much harder to overthrow a million people arguing endlessly. My thoughts on these matters are still evolving, though. Perhaps we will have a chance to discuss them further. It’s the execution that ends up being lacking, whatever the intention.”
Figaro wasn’t sure he’d been right to challenge Bryan’s beliefs. He had only spoken in hypothetical terms, but to Bryan it was an active situation on his homeworld. It was understandable that he would be heavily invested in his own point of view.
“Interesting,” said Bryan. At least he wasn’t offended. “I guess we are both here to broaden our horizons.”
“Gentlemen, if I can have your attention.” Group B’s supervisor, Lombard Uvavo, was a short man with a round belly that looked like it was solid all the way through and a mouth that opened more than it needed to when he spoke. He was standing in the door with a small drone, a flat disc, floating just above his head like a halo. “This is Drone B, your personal guide and information point. When you are needed, this drone will tell you and lead you to the designated location. You will obey the drone, you will follow the drone. Mr Wailu, please come forward and try to grab the drone out of the air.”
The trainee nearest to the supervisor reached for the drone. A bolt of electricity arced between him and the drone, dropping him instantly to the floor where he lay shaking.
“Do not touch the drone,” continued Supervisor Uvavo, like nothing had happened. “Drone B, update.”
“Group B is expected in Medical Bay 1 in one hour,” said the drone in an unemotional voice.
“You have one hour to get changed into the greys provided to you,” said the supervior. “Be ready when the drone leaves.” He turned and left. The drone remained hovering in the doorway. Wailu, still shaking, got back to his feet, shooting a dark look at his unrepentant attacker.
“Looks like our journey begins,” said Bryan. “I wonder why they split us into two groups.”
“The simulation machine only has twelve portals,” said Figaro. “I assume that’s the reason.”
Bryan looked at him oddly. Perhaps he shouldn’t try to answer every question posed. It could seem like he was showing off.
“I better go get changed,” said Figaro. He headed towards the door.
“Where are you going?” asked Bryan, looking over at what he’d thought was Figaro’s bed. He only just seemed to realise there were no clothes, no bags.
“Oh, they put me in a separate room. Upstairs.”
“Ah, I’m not sure. Because I’m younger than everyone. It isn’t really necessary, but…” He tried to make it sound like it wasn’t a bit deal.
Bryan looked confused, then something in him seemed to change. “Enaya. I think I’ve heard things about that place. It’s run by an elite class, isn’t it? Almost like kings and queens.”
“No, not really. There’s a senate and a general assembly. But it isn’t perfect. I think there are a lot of the same inequalities as on your world.”
“But you’re… from one of the elite families?”
Figaro hesitated. Should he lie? He was already pretending to be someone else, he could easily downgrade his status. But it would only trip him up at some later point.
“I suppose you could call me that. I don’t have much to do with it though. I came here to face life without privilege.”
“Yes, in your private room.” The change in Bryan was quickly taking hold. Figaro was losing him and didn’t know how to stop it. Things had been going so well, but now it was all coming undone. Equality and fair treatment for all wasn’t so easy, in either direction.
“I’m not who your fight’s with.”
“I hope not.”
“Well, we’ll be here for a while,” said Bryan. “Each of our true natures will be exposed, most likely.”
“I agree,” said Figaro.
“Perhaps when there’s time, we can train together, exchange a few moves. I would like to see how my Karvol measures up against your Ri.” There was an edge to the invitation Figaro recognised only too well.
“No, I don’t think so. Karvol has three critical weaknesses that are easily exploited. The Ga-sha, which exposes the rear to reverse sweep attacks, the Dead Breath technique, which can be caught mid-exhale and cause suffocation, and the hidden ceremonial dagger you carry which can be turned against you while still in its ki-ta. The poison is too acidic and weakens the stitching.”
Bryan looked horrified at the sudden influx of accurate information — information no one outside of his clan should know — but Figaro took no pleasure in it. He’d wanted to use a less blunt approach, but sometimes inequality was there for a reason. A leader occasionally needed to remind people why they were the one to lead.
He left the barracks and went back to his room. Again, his words hadn’t provided him with the result he’d wanted. He would have to prove his worth in the simulations, it seemed. Fewer words would be required.