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  • Writer's picturematthewsveum

Fighter Pilots: Noble Intent (Full Sample Chapter)

Updated: Jun 3

Those interested in representing this project may contact Matt Sveum. This is book 1 in a planned trilogy. The first two novels are already completed, and manuscripts are available upon request.

Fighter Pilots Act 1 Chapter 2 Operation: Shoothouse

The briefing room was filled with awkward smelling bodies, and just enough of that same accursed red light to drive Smith insane. It was like nails on a blackboard, but for his eyes. Rows of raised seating stepped up toward the exit in metal blocks, and each station had a terminal for shipmates to take notes.

Colonel Jackson droned on against a background of holographic screens. Smith had already been burned with a lecture, so not much worse could be done to him, but this was overkill. Honestly, he could understand making others learn from his mistakes, but his burning neck and back, along with his sore head and everywhere else, were perfectly good lessons learned.

“Sloppy,” The commanding officer kept saying. It stung every time, even though Smith’s ego wanted to play it cool and pretend he wasn’t listening. “If this hadn’t been a training exercise, we could've been down one operative, and though we could easily spare this operative,” Jackson made a speared gesture in Smith's direction, “the mission briefing clearly stated that the intel this captive was carryin' was of the utmost importance. Interrogation drones are ruthless, ladies and gentlemen; she eventually would’ve cracked.”

“I’m sorry.” The recording onscreen played back Smith’s words. The room erupted into shameless laughter.

Even the Colonel chuckled, and the aura he put off usually made his audience careful not to breathe too loudly. He spoke again in his grisly, drawling voice. “Maybe if the operative hadn’t been trying to make a move on his objective, so to speak, there would have been less room for error. Trust me, son, training dummies do not make good dates.”

The crowd was roaring now.

So now he’s a freaking comedian, Smith thought. His eyes must’ve rolled unintentionally because the Colonel’s tone sharpened.

“Destiny! Please tell Matthews here the proper thing to do as you all have been instructed.”

Everyone quieted instantly, terrified they’d gone too far. Internally, Smith quoted the teacher’s pet verbatim before she stood up to speak in her flat alto.

“Don’t panic when there is an Assassin mech in your vicinity.” Destiny lightly tossed a strand of wavy, blonde hair from her satisfied face. “You should always have Flashbangs and EMP grenades on your setup, which should either illuminate the target if the surroundings are not well lit, or disable its cloaking systems temporarily.”

Krystina Donna Madison was a textbook guru, a by-the-numbers girl, and one exemplary operative. Because of that, she was the first in Smith’s regiment to earn her callsign, the fact she was recently transferred in from Epsilon Branch notwithstanding. Even in this bland lighting, her peach-colored complexion held a confident glow. But Destiny had good reason to be confident. No one doubted she could defend the callsign she had earned, be it protocol, tactics, hand to hand, marksmanship, piloting—Smith sighed.

“Thank you, Destiny,” Jackson praised. “Now, Matthews, just for your information, the next time I tell you I want ‘Shock and Awe’ during an operation, I am most certainly not talking about that performance. Do I make myself clear?”

Like he even cares about the answer, Smith glowered. He just likes hearing himself talk.


Smith could’ve jumped a mile out of his skin, but he didn’t—did he? None would dare laugh again after that display of authority. The jesting Colonel Jackson from a few moments ago had died along with Smith in the theatrical presentation of the simulation. “Sir, yes sir!”

“Good. Dismissed,” Jackson concluded. Most got up and left at “Dis-” while others stayed after, hurriedly finishing up their notes.

Colonel Alexander Lionel Jackson, callsign Bearstone, took his seat at the obsidian, magnetically levitating table. Those kids are something else, he thought, rubbing the top of his buzzed hair.In spite of the fact that it was suspended, the table was dense and sturdy. Gray, lackluster metal walls lent a certain gravitas to the mood, but it would’ve been just as dank and oppressive if the room had stuffed Flafftet wallpaper.

Other top dogs of the Space and Atmosphere Force that were gathered in this obscure room, tucked away on the massive Capital Ship, The League, looked like living statues—heavily decorated, with austere facial expressions. Three or four of them were inhaling medicated vapor from micro cylinders and exhaling the smoke in style.

“Shall we get down to business?” Hazarded Bearstone.

“That would be wise,” Captain Mulligan responded.

“Very good then,” a grave looking Admiral with a dome-shaped balding spot and a deeply wrinkled forehead took charge of the meeting. “We had another failed operation two cycles ago. Our operatives on the inside managed to escape without much of a trace, but they raised the alarm nonetheless, and lost their officer in the process.”

“'Lost'? You mean like what happened to Zarada—” Bearstone cut himself off before he broke a crucial confidentiality protocol by speaking that precious name. Anyway, the molten glare that shot back answered his question, and Bearstone nodded somberly.

“I fear the Sovereign Ministers could easily suspect something from us if we don’t change our game plan,” The Admiral said. “At the same time, we need a reliable replacement to be our new hands to gather information, or else we’ll never be able to pull off this coup before the Tacticals storm this room and strike us from the record.”

“What about some kind of mercenary or outlaw?” A droopy-eyed major suggested. “If they were caught, they’d just be assumed to be doing it for personal or lawless reasons.”

“No, that won’t work,” whined a pasty Bufnoid. “Mercenaries work according to the highest bidder. If they were promised a decent profit, they’d sell us out in a microsecond.”

A sly-looking, middle-aged Vulpirian, who had been listening intently, spoke up. “Hmm,” he purred, flicking his pointed ears. “What of these recent Trials? Does anyone have any promising...underlings?” His black, slicked-back fur sheened as he turned his snout from Noble to stare down Colonel Jackson.

“Well, I uh...imagine it would be pretty dang risky to use a soldier from my own unit, but I do have one solid candidate,” Bearstone appeased their hopeful stares.

“Ah, yes I believe I saw her most recent exam,” mused the Admiral, stroking his chin. “Destiny, was it? She seems very capable and intelligent.”

“Well, she does everything by the book, so to speak,” Bearstone acknowledged, “and I’m not sure exactly what goes on inside her pretty little head at times, but she has no problems submitting to authority.”

“Sounds like my kinda girl!” spewed a thick-boned Latvalian nearest the back corner of the room, pounding a scaly, green fist on the table. Hot blooded laughter slithered through the room.

Military leaders weren't often known for poetic language, but Bearstone held innuendo as the lowest form of such language.

“Yes, yes we get it.” The Admiral briefly shook his head in an ‘I’m surrounded by idiots’ fashion. Yet, Bearstone caught an impish smile fleeing his face. “She will do perfectly. Now, onto the next order of—”

“Hold your horses though. Destiny wasn't the one I was talkin' about,” Bearstone intercepted, drawing many head turns his way. “Yeah, she submits to authority, but aren't we tryin' to do somethin' about the current authority?”

If the Admiral's taut frown was any indication, he did not like to be interrupted, and he hated being shown up. “Maybe,” he drew the word out deliberately. “However, she is easily the most qualified.”

“I agree, but Bearstone does have a point,” Major Droopy weighed in, fumbling to relight his cylinder. “She would be the obvious choice, but also the first suspect. I saw one other recording of a boy that was quite impressive; my memory is escaping me lately; I don’t recall his name, and he didn’t have a callsign. S-something. Oh, what was it?” He trailed off, eyebrows twitching in concentration.

“The most recent training record for ‘S’ shows:” Sly Guy brought up his holocomp and diligently hit a few keystrokes. “Sams, Satyr, Sellenger, Smith, Sve—”

“Yes, thank you. I remember now: Smith Matthews.”

At this point the Admiral burst out laughing and gave the whole table a discrediting look. When he realized he was getting ice cold stares and expressions that questioned his sanity across the board, he cleared his throat and folded his hands. “Matthews? Were we looking at the same playback? He outright failed.”

“You weren’t lookin' close enough, Admiral,” the Colonel scolded wryly, while steepling his fingers. “We all have off days, but this kid thinks on his feet. He's got good intuition, tactics, and determination. Did you see the massive toll he took on the enemy force? With the enemy's own resources and a couple bullets, no less. That's not someone readin' out of a book all the time, I’ll tell you that much.”

“A couple bullets?” Admiral scoffed. “No disrespect to your protege, Colonel, but this 'Smith' just sprayed and prayed on more than one occasion. It's no surprise he hasn't earned his callsign, not like Destiny has.”

“I’m not sayin' he’s perfect now; we were all Buck Privates once, Admiral, even you,” Bearstone defended, half-standing up in his chair, ready to lunge over the table at a moment's notice—his soldiers were his honor; he didn't care the rank of the person bad mouthing them. Smith in specific had been under Bearstone's wing since his days as a cadet.

“He's not a Buck Private anymore; he's been promoted at least twice, by you!” the Admiral shot back.

Bearstone offered a pacifist's gesture with both hands, but he held his ground. “All I’m sayin' he has a lot of potential, and a never-say-die attitude. He stood up after takin' a nasty hit, and finished what he started. Not to mention he's off everyone's radar. Sure, I bust his chops all the time, but he's never lacked effort or determination. A little guidance, and he could be exactly what we need to reinvent this crooked government in our own image,” Jackson concluded by looking out the starry porthole, seeing his plan unfolding perfectly in the constellations' gleam.

“I still don’t quite see what you’re getting at,” Admiral Noble scorned. “Smith is a loose cannon. A total screwup. Moreover, he has family ties, which Destiny does not. For a plan like this to work, we can't have any loose ends. I shouldn't need to explain this to you, Colonel.”

“Matthews's parents may still be alive, but I've read his file front an' back. He hasn't had any contact with them in seven kronos. Last I heard, his father's an outlaw somewhere on the Back Nine, and his mother's lodged at Envale Mental Institute. No other family to speak of. And yes, he's unassumin', maybe even a bit clumsy; I'll give you that. But that works to our advantage. He has the skills. Hell, the kid has a heart of gold. He'd choose the right path, no matter what any law says. He's our boy.”

“Your favoritism toward him is thinly veiled, Colonel, and it could be your undoing,” Noble threatened.

“I’ve said all I can,” Bearstone interrupted, again pushing his luck to its limit, even waving his hand in a dismissive manner, which he knew was not appropriate behavior for an inferior rank. “But I'm not an unreasonable man. A special operative needs a wingmate anyway. Why not have 'em work together? That way they can balance each other out.”

A chorus of affirmatives went around the table. Bearstone's natural charisma and longtime training in negotiation was turning him the upper hand. Yes, the Admiral could pull rank, but this society didn't seem as interested in the status quo as they were in appealing to their mutual interests. As well they should, considering any of them could face court-martial or worse if caught. Though he wouldn't admit it, Noble needed their resources and perks of their positions. The outlanders especially had sway over multitudes of their people.

“Very well,” The Admiral assented, though his forehead looked like the aftermath of an earthquake. “However, instead of playing games with all this meaningless rhetoric, I propose a plan to test our candidates further. Put them into a situation that does not have any easy answers. That way, we can actually see where their skills truly lie, and start getting places.”

“What'd you have in mind?” Bearstone growled his suspicion.

Always the worm, the Admiral redirected. “All we need to do is call another innocent training exercise. I have a feeling you’ll all see exactly what I’m talking about in regards to this Smith Matthews.”

Jackson was the newest inductee to this secret society. Though he wasn’t used to keeping his mouth shut, he knew choosing his battles would be crucial to his success here. This meeting seemed to go well enough. Loyalty was something he could count on from Smith, who could both be his eyes and ears, and keep everyone else honest. Since transferring in, Destiny had repeatedly astounded him with raw talent and execution. It was the push Smith needed, but it raised all kinds of flags. The officer they'd mentioned losing was Captain “Deacon” Crozwel, a long time colleague of his, and the one who'd transferred Destiny to his sector just over two arcs ago. More important was confirming what had happened to Jackson's partner after she disappeared in the same time frame. Bearstone still didn’t know exactly how far in over his head he was, but he could infer from experience this was only the tip of the iceberg.

That being said, Bearstone would still have to do his best to hold his tongue whenever it was necessary, to quietly watch and learn until all the cards were on the table. Although his pride was a hard pill to swallow, he had to keep telling himself that ignorance was deniability, and being anything but discreet could make him—or worse, those in his charge—a target. Destiny was a great asset to have, but he feared the possibility of her being corrupted by Noble because of his position and influence. Thus, he didn't object to the Admiral's plan, even as his better sense told him to be wary. The gentlemen all nodded and got up simultaneously, and the room was dark within 50 seconds.

Smith traced the scratches along the wall. His bunk was standard, but he'd earned it. No longer a Private, the space allotted to Non-commissioned Officers was large enough to contain the essentials, and he didn't have to share. Though he would easily bonk his head on the ceiling of the capsule if he got too excited. The bed was the most inviting thing in it, and not just when he was tired, which he certainly was as he collapsed onto it. Gray, nondescript metal surrounded him on six sides, but there was no escaping that in any portion of the ship.

In its coarse reflection, Smith's gold hair shone under the focused light, and fringed out to darker strands on the edges. It looked like King Midas from the ancient folktales had ruffled the top of a raven black head. His blue eyes had qualities of a calmed sea. On his back, his hands studied his bare torso over as if it it were a stranger's. His neck felt all sorts of wrong; black and blue, flaring up with reds and yellows. Burn lines crawled out of murky, dense cores dotted along his chest.

Next he checked over his stomach and arms. Gently rippling abdominals and biceps greeted his fingers, before he looked down at his palms. No longer did Smith see the stranger, but himself. Here was the person who, through dumb luck alone, had survived an encounter with multiple mechs designed with the sole purpose of killing in mind. Had they been programmed to use lethal force, the guards would have surrounded him after he went down, and finished him off. Maybe “survived” wasn't the best word, but “spared.”

Thoughts, noises, pain—all swam through the deep tank of his mind. This level of performance wasn't good enough to make Spec Ops. Lately, he'd grown weary of heedlessly pursuing that facet of his career, despite father's glorious military history. Seven kronos later, and it seemed he hadn't made any progress, even under the tutelage of a seasoned veteran like Bearstone. Smith didn't know how much longer he could hack it in this cruel, military existence of hard labor, grueling training, and public ridicule.

And what was there to gain? The threat of an attack was low, given the Empire's commanding presence in this sector, but his father would have scoffed at that too. Inside his room was quiet, but inside his head echoed all the voices who'd told him to quit, who'd stripped bare his inadequacies. Eyes shut, his eyebrows pressed down fiercely. Fingers squeezed at his temples, trying to release the noise, but the pressure pounded in his ears, as if—someone was knocking on his door.

Smith looked at the holographic camera feed which had folded into the space across from him. What could she possibly want? He got out of bed, found the nearest balled-up shirt, and threw it on. Gesturing at the panel next to the door caused it to slide open.

Destiny’s icy blue eyes were suddenly staring two inches up into Smith’s face. Startled, even though she was the one who knocked on his door, she quickly turned on her confidence. “Sorry to bother you, Petty Officer Smith, but I have two things to discuss with you.”

“Sure thing, Chief Petty Officer Madison. Fire away.”

“What exactly were you thinking out there?”

“Out…where?” Smith was almost certain of what she was talking about, but he hoped it would be something else. He'd already had his share of lectures today.

“During the exam. What was going through your head?”

Smith dragged a finger along the doorframe above him. “Not much, I guess. I just reacted.”

“Are you just that much of a rebel? We’ve always been taught ‘A good operative always carefully analyzes the situation and prepares an appropriate response.’”

“An ancient lyricist once said, ‘There’s no feeling any greater, than to shoot first and ask questions later,’” Smith countered, imitating his debater’s technique, but not really answering her question because he'd rather not play the role of the dead Mullhorse, and it would be rude for him to dismiss her.

“Ah. Tupac?”


Destiny gave him a strange look, cocking a well-groomed black eyebrow, but said nothing.

“I know what you're thinking.”

“Do you now?” Destiny stepped back, appalled at his audacity.

“You're thinking I'm the strangest person you've ever met.” Smith poured on the melodrama, but a subtle smile couldn’t help but appear at the corner of his mouth. “Sure, it isn't easy being a societal outcast, always getting into trouble. But I've learned to make the most of it. It can even be enjoyable sometimes.”

Destiny responded to his satire with an indignant squint, before tactlessly homing in on Smith’s half-visible neck wound. “You enjoyed that?”

“Depends on what you mean. Why, is this the other thing you wanted to talk to me about?” Smith asked, gingerly thumbing the bruise.

“No, I—” Destiny paused with a quick huff, and then started over. “Did you hear about the training exercise tomorrow?” She was flustered. It couldn’t have been Smith’s imagination. But why? Her expression was constantly on ‘I’ll kill you’ mode, or occasionally it was on ‘I could kill you if I wanted to, but your insolence is very entertaining.' It was immutable; her voice never wavered. Smith wasn’t intimidated, but she had been so predictable up until a minute ago.

“No, I’m not involved in the Commissioned Officer Discourse Community like you are, but it doesn't surprise me with how disorganized things are around here.” Smith eagerly waited, seeing if he could get another reaction out of her. Maybe he could get her going on another tirade. After all, she outranked him. Having her pay him a visit was practically a cataclysmic occurrence. Anything to keep her here—if she started arguing with him, he could get some kind of vicarious revenge on all the judgmental tyrants he'd had to deal with.

“Well I just received an order to attend another mandatory Special Ops Trial tomorrow at .80.” Destiny announced. “I was told to relay the message to you that you've advanced to the next stage along with me. You should really check your VM,” she chided, matter-of-factly.

So that was why she'd sought him out. Not quite the response Smith was hoping for, but it was a longshot to begin with. Plus, he never would've expected he'd pass his Trial, which seemed like a major source of annoyance for her. “I don't have time for trivial things like voice messages. Obviously I'm a top Spec Ops prospect, on par with the great Destiny herself.”

“Oh absolutely. That perfectly describes you, Mr. Shock and Awe,” Destiny replied wryly, but there may have been some genuine kindness behind it.

“Well jeez. If you think you’ve already figured me out so well, then you must be smarter than I thought.”

“I know I am; why are you telling me this?”

“Just to test your reaction. Is there anything else I can do for you, milady?”

“Are you making fun of me?” Destiny protested, her facade almost completely cracking, if only for those brief moments.

Smith just laughed, which automatically brought out his full smile. As fascinating as she was turning out to be, he knew better than to push his luck. “I'm not; I promise. Have a good sleep. If you need me, you obviously already know where to find me.”

Destiny nodded sheepishly, then turned to leave, eyes flicking back to him once last time.

After she had made it a few steps down the hall, Smith closed the door by motioning his hand over the panel. As the single spotlight in his room was cut, he hopped in bed once more, got reasonably comfortable, and his overworked brain eventually tired itself out.

Lights were set to come on every morning at 0.6, accompanied by the bunks' alarms to start the shift. Annoying as they were, if they didn't activate, Smith could easily sleep through the working hours. Day and night were a luxury that been taken from him long ago, before he lived on massive starships, neo-organic bases and settlements in outer space. Time was arbitrated by the person in charge now, not the beautiful sun and moon of his sheltered childhood.

Two and a half steps separated his bed from a slab counter. There sat an unappealing box of meal bars, and he grabbed one. Odd shrink wrap surrounded his breakfast, thus he was forced to conquer it. Frowning at it for a few seconds, like he did every day, just in case it decided to turn into something more interesting, he downed it. Not that he didn’t mind plain food. After all, it's not like it tasted terrible, per se.

Grabbing his multicom off the table, he tossed it on his bed and started getting dressed out of his sleeping clothes. “Messages, please.” The ‘please’ was unnecessary, but Smith was a polite person—and also sarcastic. It was a miracle the machine didn’t crash from trying to figure out which way to take the order. A 3-Dimensional rendition of some old coot in a broad-shouldered white uniform came on, and started yammering away at something Smith was supposed to listen to, or else.

“Matthews, Smith. You are required to participate in a mandatory Special Operations Trial first half of working hours, starting at Point Eight-O in Technical Applied Combat Training and Exams.” Smith took a good look at the old man. The wrinkles on his forehead were like astronomical mountains and valleys. “Should you not be present, there will be consequences. That is all.” And he was gone—no more messages.

“‘Should you forget to wear clean underwear, there will be consequences!’” Smith mocked in a deeper voice, scrunching his forehead in the holomirror for his own amusement. With a haphazard flourish, he finished straightening up his digital-gray, collared uniform shirt. For the finishing touch, he tossed his hair in into place with one, controlled movement, fixed a single strand that was sticking up, and then he was out the door, strolling down the hallway of numbered doors.

Smith had a pretty good memory, but his sense of direction wasn’t always the best. Luckily, there were signs posted all over this massive ship that knew exactly where he was at any given time he was looking at them. 'You are HERE.' Man, the technology these days! He found his way well enough, a few turns, lifts, and pointless moving walkways later. His arrival to TACTX was exactly at .80. Everyone knew it was rude to be late, but no one liked arriving early and waiting. Being precisely on time, however, required intense calculation and time management. Therefore, he felt it was highly classy for him to do so.

The first room beyond the entrance functioned as a waiting room, all expenses spared. It was bright, but not vibrant; cold, but not freezing. The room was gathered with more people than usual, each one of them huddled around projection screens.

Shock was astounded. First, he'd gotten one of the worst verbal beatings of his career, then the teacher's pet made a private stop at his dorm to tell him he'd actually passed to round two of Trials, and now, there was a crowd assembled in the TACTX lobby to watch him. Something peculiar was going on.

Behind the armory register desk sat a Nikto woman, whose name escaped him. Smith offered her the usual friendly wave and informal salute, then walked through the door at the back. Off the rack, he grabbed his two pistols. They'd missed him almost as much as he'd missed them.

Eventually, he wound up in one of the large, reconfigurable training bays, called shoothouses. There, a tiny artificial courtyard had been constructed at the entrance of an imitation building. One of the enduring mysteries of the universe was how anyone could make all this equipment fit into one fully functioning cruiser, that could still travel through outer space at speeds no one could make lousy jokes about.

“Smith?” A CO was on duty taking names. That, or the Colonel’s standup routine had made him infamous to complete strangers.

“Yes, sir; that’s me.” Smith flashed an ID projection of his face and specifications. Upon receiving a nod of approval and seeing the man go back to managing his information tablet, Smith swirled the hologram between his fingers. Idly, he swiped at the image with his fingers, trying to distort his features into a comical expression. Eventually, he realized people were probably staring, and sealed the screen. Placing his hands in his pockets, he asked, “Orders, sir?”

“Oh right,” the guy in uniform woke up, and assumed a stance of authority. “Our intel suggests that there may be hostages inside this structure. Your job is to get them clear, eliminating all necessary opposition to the success of your mission, who may be heavily armed.”

“Sounds easy enough. Anything else I should know?”

“Uhm…” The officer fumbled. It was clear his attention was being taxed—was he on comms with a third party? “Yeah, actually. I need to confiscate your weapons for the time being,” he said finally.

Smith began to protest, nearly blurting something about being protective of his women, before his brain caught up with him, and he hit himself in the head. Fishy as everything was, it was best he cooperate. So, he unclipped his belt, hoping this man didn’t start wondering how a wacko like him hadn't been stripped of his carry clearance already. Warily, he handed over his twin holsters, his hand reluctantly sliding off of the sleek assembly of the Vipers, in a sad farewell caress. Then his expression hardened. “Alright, let’s get this over with.”

“Just a moment.” The guy turned away and failed terribly at discreetly talking on an earpiece, except that Smith could not a hear a word he was saying.

Smith’s better sense was yelling at the top of its lungs, the acoustics inside of his empty head making it even louder. There had to be something wrong here. Has the magnetic field of the ship switched polarities or something without me noticing? Is there a gas leak for Pete’s sake? He didn’t know who Pete was, but it’s not like he could turn around and walk out now, not without “severe consequences.” Plus, they had his ladies held for ransom.

The officer turned around one final time. At a glance, Smith scanned from the suspect's head down his uniform, just in case he’d have to hunt this creeper down for not giving back what belonged to him. He picked up a Captain insignia, and a callsign: Mulligan. Otherwise, there were no distinguishing features on his face or body to work with.

“You’re good to go, Matthews,” Mulligan affirmed. “The clock will start the moment you do.”

“Sweet. Ehm, sir.” Dissatisfied, Smith walked over to the entrance to the structure. Like an athlete, he crouched low. His left hand lightly planted on the floor, he raised his right hand, fingers open, in a calm, hushing gesture, to quiet the audience that was obviously anxious for him to begin. Ominous, like a monolith, the double door towered over him. The metal was darker than what his eyes had become accustomed to seeing—dirtier. Fingers instantaneously closed into a fist, giving the signal. Legs exploded forward. He was on the clock now, and on a crash course with the front door of the training building.

Off the top step he sprung, and reached for the short roof. At 3.8 seconds in, Smith rolled onto the makeshift covering, out of sight. There was no other option but to move slowly and quietly, because anything could scare terrorists into doing something impulsive, even a nice guy like him. Here should be perfect. Reaching for the knife at his waist yielded nothing. Panicked, he reached with his other hand. Where the freak is—something thudded inside his mind, which projected an exasperated expression out onto the roofline. His tools were on his belt with his weapons. Plan B then.

Gripping the side edge of the roof, he swung his legs down and through a first story window. Smith rolled and stood, grabbing a broken shard of the translucent compound on the way up. The inside was dark, and smelled of mold and dust. On either side of him, there was a room. Crouched low, he scanned down the hall to the opposite end, just in case he had to convince anyone coming to investigate that they hadn’t heard anything. In his head, he counted slowly to twenty. Nothing moved. Every last particle in the building was deathly still.

Smith chose the door on the right. Holding the shard in his right hand, he pressed his ear against the icy metal. It slowly slid open and Smith slipped in, checking the corners with his improvised weapon. Dust and shadows stirred, but it was empty. Clear. Smith backed up towards the door, turned around, and started the same painstaking routine over again for exiting the room, and then entering the opposite room. Upon the rear wall was a map of what he presumed to be the building. After studying it the best he could in ten seconds, he made a mental route of all the sections he needed to sweep.

Clear, clear, and clear. That left only the large, central room, and four more rooms located down the main stairs in the basement. Smith spotted them and started making his way in that direction, moving between the cover of desks and piles of useless parts. Not one person had come to check. Even more surprising, there hadn’t been any guards in the first place. With all the surprises lately, Smith was surprisingly not surprised by the surprising lack of expected surprises.

Maybe they knew he was here, and they were just waiting for him. Smith was aware he was being watched, but that was the examining committee. The opposition couldn’t possibly have access to the same cameras. But if there was anyone trying to stop him, the only thing they could be doing right now is waiting for him. Smith was at the top of the stairwell now, peering down. Shadows shifted at the bottom landing, the darkness coagulating thickly at the corners. Briefly, though, he saw light peeking under a closed door at the end of the hallway. Cautious, he took his first step, second, third.

Air moved behind him. Smith whirled around on high alert, but found nothing. He continued down the stairs, not turning around to face forward until his foot felt the bottom. Twisted to an awkward degree, his ankle caught on something hard. An unforgiving clang echoed across the entire complex as he fell prone. More observational humor material for Jackson, Smith lamented. He's going to get his own comedy show because of me.

Still on the ground, Smith waited, just in case one of the terrorists heard him. Yeah, right— just like they had “heard” him when he came in through the window. After thinking for a few moments, Smith sighed. The only thing he could do was approach the room, like a Bogfly drawn to a death lamp. But it was that or take a nap in the dark. Or maybe trip a few more times.

Crouch-walking to the glowing outline, Smith created a small slit in the doorway, and let the light feed his mirror. There wasn’t much to see, thus he couldn’t be totally sure of the room's contents. Opening it any further would be a dead giveaway to anyone occupying it, but it looked clear enough. Shoving the slab into its recess in the wall, Smith rolled off the jamb into the room. There he found no human shapes, but his sight came to rest on another reason to hate red light. He swallowed, and almost choked. A timer, attached to wires, attached to a reason to hurry the hell up.

Hostages in the vicinity meant Smith couldn't take the explosive device offline right away, or the terrorists could harm them. Hyperoptic mechanics wasn’t really his thing, and he didn’t exactly enjoy being blown up. That would have to be his backup plan—defusing the device, that is. Glass gripped tightly in hand, he turned around and barreled out the door. He checked every other room on the basement level, but couldn't find a single trace of anything living or remotely resembling hostages.

At the end of his rope, Smith closed his eyes and studied the map in his mind. Some parts had been smudged by his memory, but he was certain there were no other areas he hadn't already covered. Frustration wouldn't be of any help to him, but he was totally stumped. Was he given incomplete intel on purpose? That thought would have to wait, as he had already killed an unhealthy amount of time. Smith ventured back to the room housing the explosives. About to turn in, his reflexes stopped him cold, and put him in a fighting position. The dark, slender enemy standing in front of him didn’t miss a beat.

It swung its front fist in an outer arc, and followed in the same circle with a fierce roundhouse from the rear leg. The offensive wasn’t as blunt as it was swift, but it had a heavy impact on Smith’s guard as he was forced backward into the cluttered room once more. Analyzing his adversary, he noticed it wore a black, form-fitting model IS10 infiltration suit. Part metallic, part synthreads, with an opaque visor covering the eyes, the helmet-mask covered the head and mouth. The metal was only in places where it counted—knuckles, tips of shoes, knees and elbows. This suit was all about offense, and it had worked so far. Smith shook off the dull wave of pain from his blocking arm. So that’s how you want it.

He chucked a scrounged piece of metal at the figure as a decoy, which forced it to shrink back, then leapt forward, closing the distance with a flying front kick. Of course, his surprise guest had already recovered, and struck out at his leg to deflect it. One merciless round kick was good enough for one day, so Smith was happy to be in close. Quick slashes flew from his makeshift shank, never aiming for the same target twice. Whatever this thing was, it was on defense and it was staying that way.

Closer and closer to the wall, Smith pushed it back, but he was getting alarmed. Not a single one of his strikes had hit the mark; they’d all been blocked or parried. This thing didn’t look quite like a biomech, but there’s no way any human could successfully block that many random attacks in a row. He’d heard rumors of newly advanced biomechs that had additional humanlike characteristics—the few human qualities that would gift it an advantage over the computing models, but why unleash the prototype on him? It's not as if he'd asked for a second Trial. Did they really expect this much of him? No, they just thought it would be funny to watch me get trounced by mechs again. Growing angry, he swung upward at the unit’s abdomen.

His extra force was diverted out to the side. Desperate, Smith redirected back at the target, this time putting all of his strength behind a head-level swing. Admittedly, it may not have been the best move, but he was still disappointed when his poorly equipped hand was parried in the same direction. His only hope of a weapon slipped clean out of his hand, before it clattered off the wall onto the floor several steps away. Scarce as time was becoming, it wasn't worth retrieving. Against this lone defender, whatever is was, his fist could do the job just as well.

Out-maneuvering the beast was becoming the real problem. Smith was surprised when his opponent escaped his pressure trap by driving its shoulder against him. What he needed was another approach. With the distance between them reset to a neutrally advantageous state, Smith acted quickly to avoid getting a mouthful of metal studs.

Lunging forward and stepping through, he threw a straight right jab at the defender’s head. It easily stepped out of the way, and moved to the inside of Smith’s guard to set up an offensive assault on the plethora of targets located down the centerline. From the old Imperial sparring tapes, Smith knew that he had just as many openings on his opponent, and his arm was still extended behind its head. Locked in a tight grip at the neck, both of his arms yanked the head down as he plowed his knee up into the visor, managing to get a second knee in before the shocked rival pulled itself out of Smith’s grip. Standing up to its full height, it now positioned itself on Smith’s right.

The deeply cracked visor gave his foe a furious, inhuman expression. In the broken reflection, Smith could see the numbers of the countdown. Even in their fractured state, they did not look like high numbers. The beeping of the timer was starting to nudge at his sanity.

Left foot grounded to the rear, Smith now turned, locking onto Dark and Grumpy’s center and thrust his knee forward to gain forward momentum in the air. Visor Face adapted to this movement which was similar to the flying kick he’d thrown earlier, moving to the side to avoid the straight-on technique sure to follow. But Smith knew better.

In its final moments, his jump trajectory changed. Outside of his challenger’s guard, Smith had led them right into the path of an airborne roundhouse, which ended with them taking rib-full of shin. The fighter’s sleek body crumpled. Smith moved in for the finish with his elbow raised high. He shouldn’t have blinked. The slim silhouette sprung from its coiled position, a plasma blade brandished in its hand. Smith felt the heat hiss at his face just centimeters away. Milliseconds before he was impaled, his instincts took charge of his hands, which got any kind of grip they could on the attacker’s arm, and shoved the blade clear.

For a mech, its adaptive capabilities were dangerously advanced. Smith got as much distance as he could in those few seconds, then waited for the weapon’s wielder to commit to an attack. It wasn’t long. The knife came on an inward swing meant to slash across Smith’s chest, but he stepped back. The blade stopped at the end of its empty swipe, only to come back the other way.

Jetting inside, Smith stopped the knife before it could gain any devastating momentum. Secured at the weapon's hilt, he transferred his grip to the wielder’s wrist, and mercilessly torqued it toward the outside of the assailant’s body. The skilled antagonist finally bowed to one knee, but it wasn't giving up of its own free will. Finally, Smith jerked the wrist further into the awkward position. It snapped. Relinquished from the grip, the deadly weapon was now in free fall.

That didn’t sound like mechanical joints. And, now that I think of it, it isn’t a mechanical response to go to one knee. That only happens as a result of…Pain.

Smith scooped up the handle of the proudly lit blade, and threatened the worst as he held it close to the downed being’s neck. A manufactured tool like a mech could be finished without a second thought. It was expected of him. And although its convincing helmet was still on, Smith was positive now it wasn’t just an “it.” It was—

“Destiny!?” Her cold unmistakable eyes met his, as he pulled the helmet off her frizzy blonde head. But the tiny smirk her lips usually made was locked into a deathly straight line. “I-I didn’t know,” Smith stuttered. “I’m really sor—”

Destiny's face ignited with a war cry. She sprung forward to her feet. Smith’s acquired plasma knife faltered in surprise as she unloaded on him in pure fury. Despite the fact that her right hand had been rendered unusable, she was nothing to scoff at in a scuffle, and Smith’s guard was late. A left hook sliced his lip, her boot not far behind as it thrust dead-center into the charred spot on his chest. It'd been in his best interest not to have that mace wound woken up again, but it had just gotten thrown out of bed.

Smith grunted and went down hard on his back, the pain so great his vision was lost, and the knife with it. Now he was double teamed with pain from front and back, and had a crazed warrior lady mounted on his chest, raining down heavy blows with whatever body parts she had left. He managed to steal a distressed glance at the clock: 0:45.

Destiny was winding up to drop another brick on Smith’s helpless head. Just as her weight was coming forward, Smith threw his hips up. To avoid landing on her face, Destiny braced her good hand straight out against the floor. Smith used this opportunity to reach up and around her arms, trap them against his sides, and roll her over, ending up inside her open guard. Knuckles made contact with the inside of her thigh. She cried out—something Smith had never heard, or even thought possible.

The displayed 0:32 told him he needed to go. Kicking off the ground, Smith took off toward the room’s gateway, but he had a feeling he shouldn’t have turned away to get there. It was confirmed when another bellowing scream hit the back of his head like a hauler.

Strong as ever, Destiny came at him hard. Even though the nerves on the inside of her leg were shot, there was no indication of even the slightest limp. Smith turned his head to look at her, then the clock. Distance between the two of them had been eliminated at lightning speed. Already, she had a technique fully loaded and was a foot out of range, when Smith chambered a back kick and dropped it on the thigh muscle above the kneecap.

It was meant to act as a check, to immobilize her. But her total commitment meant that the impact was multiplied, bending her knee the wrong way completely, and she hit the floor. There was the explicit sound of bone snapping: a godly crack of thunder followed by a spectacular scream. It resonated in the desolate silence between ticks of the clock. 22 seconds remained.

Smith hoisted Destiny to his shoulder. It was still sore from carrying the weight from the last training exercise. And the weight of the guilt he felt from hurting her. But he was a slave to time now; it changed from :18 to :17 as he bolted out into the hallway and up the stairs, skipping two steps at a time.

Second by second, Smith could still hear the sound of his master calling, its tempo ingrained in his inner recesses. Were the beeps getting louder as it got closer to zero? Back in the large main room, he passed the beacon of bright light coming from the window on his left side, but that’s not what he was aiming for. The front door he had bypassed earlier was now the only way he could get both of them out in time. All he had was the hope he would have another miraculous experience. Or that he'd bulked up enough to blast through a tristeel double door with just his body weight.

The last few seconds throbbed in his head. Behind him he heard a distant roar, but soon the sound of chirping birds was erupting and filling the space behind him like flood waters. The door inched closer. Preparing for impact, he moved his good shoulder forward and his package away. I'm not going to make it. The sound was too loud. The sparks too hot. But he was so close. And just then, from between the cracks of the exit exuded a white radiance. It was so beautiful that even time itself seemed to slow down to appreciate it. Now the seal seemed to be opened more, greeting the two weary travelers. Smith closed his eyes and his shoulder went numb.

The front door rushed open and his extra energy stumbled out with him down the front steps. He stopped resisting gravity and used it as a tool to get him out of the main stream of lightning waves, making sure he took most of the heat in place of Destiny. As soon as the air returned to room temperature, Smith rolled off her, but remained sitting on the ground. He looked down. The pain in her eyes fueled the proud rage in her stare as she clutched her wrist. But Smith calmly looked at her and was relieved to hear the all clear horn over the loudspeaker. Time.

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