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The Importance of Imagination – 12

‘Pirates, Solstice or zombies?’

Curt watched as Raz – as was tradition for these training sessions – deliberated over the point, whilst Stef and Raz’s boyfriend Troy shouted suggestions from the bleachers.

The program the sim room was running was one of the customisable options that sat in the open simulation database. Over the course of the training sessions, both he and Raz had made several alterations to the look and feel of the gym. In size, it was less than a quarter of the size of the main Field Operations gym, giving more the feel of a martial arts dojo than an American high school gymnasium.

They’d added a small set of bleachers – for those times, like now, when they had guests. There had been a set of windows added to what had been a plain wall, and they now showed a quiet suburban street – one with realistically revolving weather patterns, adding a small sense of realism to an otherwise fairly static sim in what was essentially the Agency’s version of the Holodeck.

The only other addition had been a set of inspirational posters – each showing a good-looking man with a different body type – swimmer-svelte, sensibly muscled, titan. Raz would, on days when his performance wasn’t what he wanted it would be, would turn to the posters, yell “this is for you, Godfrey/Jason/Idris!” and push himself harder.

Curt had immediately agreed to give Raz the training lessons – it had been such a small request, and considering the laundry list of favours he’d asked from Raz, it was the least he could do in return.

Raz had taken to the sessions with an unexpected fervor – especially as they had been originally spurred on by fear, rather than a considered desire to get into shape. Agent Taylor – who hadn’t been in his right mind at the time – had accosted Raz, grabbing him and throwing him to safety in what, to his glitched-out mind, had seemed to be the actions of a savior, not an attacker.

All it had really done – and Magnolia ensured him that Taylor was sorry, even if the man couldn’t express it – was make Raz feel unsafe in his own home, and had made him seek out help from the “Agent” he felt he knew the best.

‘Agent C?’ Raz said. ‘Zombies today!’

Curt nodded, surprised reactions at being called an agent long gone from his system – Raz was, like Stef, not a member of the neurotypical club, and it seemed to centre his world to think of him as an agent – and so long as there was no harm being caused by the belief, Curt wasn’t going to argue with it.

And he was probably more of an agent than some agents were; he shot a quick look at Stef, who was currently requiring small bubbles, and popping them, filling the air with a faint trace of blueberries.

Curt made a few quick selections on the tablet he held in his hands – the control interface for the sim room – selected and spawned a few inactive zombie opponents; each with a health/status bar above their head – the first lesson he’d learned whilst training Raz was that gamifying the experience made the recruit more likely to enjoy the experience.

And owing to the fact that he was far, far from the first person to make this realisation, all sim room models – friend, foe, hostage and NPC alike, had a number of stat sets that could be displayed.

The zombies weren’t as vapid a decision as they appeared at first – there were many fae whose bites would cause…problems if they occurred, so using the ubiquitous zombie as a stand-in was something that worked exceedingly well.

Raz required his night-stick – something he had assured Curt that Troy had made no end of innuendos about – and flicked it to extend it to its full two-foot length. It had seemed like a good starter weapon – jumping straight to the standard Field Operations 9mm pistol had seemed like a bad idea, but it had felt strange leaving Raz entirely unarmed. So in addition to the training sessions he was leading, he’d instructed Raz to do at least an hour a week with the sim instructor, to work on his technique. The sim instructors were among the best way to learn a new weapon – whether it was a firearm or something more physical – as the instructor wasn’t a real person, it literally couldn’t get frustrated, and would instead calmly correct their student’s form each and every time the student made a mistake.

Curt stepped back, and activated the first zombie – they always started with a single enemy, to assess how Raz was going that day, and whether or not it would be a string of single opponents, or if he was up to taking on two at a time.

He stepped back, and watched – with no small measure of pride – Raz move efficiently, if not quickly – around the zombie, each step taking him to a new position of safety, out of the way of the greying ghoul’s swinging arms.

Each time the zombie did manage to touch Raz, that section of his training uniform would change colour – starting from the standard recruit blue, to a bright yellow, then finally to red. Each time a section of uniform turned red, the enemy – along with Raz’s uniform – would reset, and the kill ratio for that session, as well as the ongoing total – would update.

Raz was a good student – and even if people didn’t improve over the course of a montage like they did in 80s movie, he’d shown definite improvement over the course of their training sessions. A soft, sad, traitorous feeling made him realise that in a lot of ways, Raz had made more improvements in his Field capabilities than Stef had.

Stef had the advantage of being an agent – so she had appropriate combat capability jammed into her programming – some dead agent’s entire lifetime of combat training and muscle memory – something the system did when making new agents, as skills that came from someone who had already lived seemed to integrate more naturally than the off-the-shelf version.

And whilst Stef could bust out those skills whenever she was threatened…they could only come out when threatened – the way her combat “autopilot” was set up was the opposite of “Han Shot First”, meaning that if she wanted to attack, it either had to be with an augmented skill – like taking a shot, as her HUD helped her aim; or she had to throw a punch, something she was still woefully shit at.

Sometimes, she joined in on Raz’s sessions – something the recruit delighted in, referring to her as “Player 2”, and insisting Curt up the difficulty, as there were now two dorks taking on the Pirates/Solstice/Zombies – ninjas had been removed from the list of options, as both of his students had lectured him that the all-in-black ninja was a pop-culture mutation of the traditional kabuki ninja – wherein someone wearing stage blacks – and therefore supposed to be invisible to the audience – would attack. The intended effect had been surprise, and not as an accurate representation of what a ninja looked like, which, like a modern spy, had been to blend in as much as possible.

Adding the Solstice to the pool of options, at least, gave them normal humans to deal with – even if they were the option chosen least. Beating up humans wasn’t as fun as pirates or zombies.

‘Newbie,’ he called, turning his head to look at Stef, ‘you joining in today?’

She waved her hand, a burst of required bubbles rushing in his direction. ‘I’m trying to get the macros for my Sailor Mercury particle effects sorted out,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to be the embarrassment of the party. I mean, geez, have you seen Sacha’s Sailor Jupiter getup? Telsa would have given up his vendetta with Edison to lightning effects that beautiful.’

The words were a forced kind of jocularity – the situation with the kid who had had fun stripped out of him by agents was fucking with her. The words were right, but he could see the stress and the despair behind them.

Stef was an easy book to read, once you had the right code to crack the hacker open.

Curt dropped his head into his palm. ‘Come on, Newbie.’

Stef turned to look at Troy, and after a short deliberation, she stood, huffed, and walked down the bleacher stairs. Raz made the hand movement that was the visual clue to pause the opponent attacking, and fist-bumped Stef as she came closer.

‘Player two entering game,’ she said, her voice flatter than normal. She beckoned to Raz, and they had a quick whispered conversation before they looked back at him.

Raz grinned. ‘Line them up, Agent C, we’re going for the record.’

Curt felt his eyebrows raise – this was unexpected. He nodded approvingly, then backed to the bleachers, taking a seat next to Troy. ‘One hundred zombies. Thirty minutes. Groups of no more than two.’ He pointed to the end of the room, where the windows were, and a countdown clock appeared. ‘Good luck, nerds. And…go!’

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