"Much as I appreciate your enthusiasm, you need to stop this nonsense. If you walk up to someone, if you distract them for a second and then manage to take them down, you kill them on the spot. That's what you do. Okay? If you absolutely have to leave a personal mark, you find something lying around and shove it into their eyesocket. What you do not do is let them get up and make a run for it before throwing a knife into their backs. Let's be professional about this. And stop crying."
Draea, standing in a crouch and breathing heavily, looked up at him and said, "I'm not crying."
"That ain't sweat."
"Little runt kneed me in the groin. It sets off the tear ducts."
"Told you she had balls!" a teammate shouted to them.
Alad leaned his head back and rubbed his eyes. "Alright!" he shouted. "Session over, thanks, go away, people! Dinner's at seven." On command, the holograms in the area faded out, shields blinked into oblivion, and various pieces of cover, hurdle and barricade collapsed into themselves and slid silently down into slots on the floor.
Alad extended a hand to Draea, who accepted it and stood up. One of their victims was lying on a bunch of black paper-maché rocks nearby, snoring.
"I'm getting a little tired of this, Alad," she said.
"Are you, dear?"
"No, actually, scratch that. I'm getting so utterly sick of it that I could vomit blood. If I have to go through one more stupid exercise with one more stupid fake victim where I push a rubber pin against their gut and tell them they're dead, I swear on all that is holy, I'm going to shove this pretend knife through my own eye until it rattles inside my skull, let the last beats of my dying heart carry it through my body, and pull it out my ass."
She sighed. "Also, the martial arts sessions are stupid. Nobody does small-joint manipulation anymore."
"I'm glad you're opinionated." He caught her glimpse. "No, seriously, I am. It means you care. And I'm glad that you care, because you're being promoted."
She stared at him. "What, just like that?"
"You've been on countless recon missions, completely unsimulated, protecting our interests in all sorts of situations. You've shown a remarkable ability to stay alive and to ensure that others ... well, don't. And your IPM index-
"Int-Per-Mem, dear, don't interrupt. It shows quite amazing numbers through the entire scale, mental and physical. I'd be scared if I knew you were on my heels."
The victim got up, yawned and started walking away. "There's another group coming in," Alad said to him. "Where are you going, Placx?"
"For a smoke," Placx said without slowing.
Alad watched him go, then turned back to Draea. "Follow me."
They walked through the compound, passing the exercise rooms, the altered states chambers and the torture vaults. Each was designed to test the subject's physical, mental and spiritual tolerance, to find their breaking points and how they would react when pushed to that level, and even, for the torture vaults, what they'd do to others. A team member prone to murder everyone around him was as much a liability as one who'd go catatonic.
They moved down to a lower floor, passed through corridors Draea rarely traversed, and at last came to an unremarkable door that she had never even noticed before. She stood in front of it, but it didn't open.
"Special access only, dear," Alad said.
Draea raised an eyebrow. There were no visible scanners or locking mechanisms in front of the door. Nevertheless, when Alad stood in front of it, the door hummed softly and opened. The space inside was almost pitch black, with only one cone of light shining down brightly on a metal chair a few steps into the room.
"Don't worry," Alad said. "You've already passed."
Draea shrugged, walked in and sat on the chair. Behind her, the door closed, and what little outside light had been flowing in was cut off.
She sensed someone nearby, but she did not feel threatened.
A voice, issuing from a speaker high above, said, "You are alone in this room."
"You lie," she said. It was not a rebuke; it was a statement of fact.
The voice, sounding pleased, continued, "You have now been promoted to task force operative."
The voice fell silent for a moment, in quiet expectancy. Draea said, "... thanks?"
"Do you understand what it is that the operatives do?"
"Killing people is a given," Draea said. "The rest doesn't really matter, does it?"
"That depends," the voice said. "Before we continue, you should know that you will never be allowed to speak of this to anyone not on your own task force. You do, however, need to know a few things if you're to do a decent job for us. Does the name Book of Emptiness tell you anything?"
"Not really. Sounds Amarrian, but that's about it."
"It was. Supposedly a lost holy book, one that would bring immediate ascension to the reader. It is now the chosen codename for a machine that we're after. Set at low power it has the capacity to heal some mild psychological issues. On high, it has the power to brainwash people."
"Ah, so you want me to get it for you."
"No. We want you to destroy it."
"Are you serious?"
"It is a non-negotiable part of our arrangement. We have spies out right now, various scouting forces. Once we get a positive lead, we'll send out one of the task forces."
"So why me?" Draea asked.
The voice replied, "You have excelled at what you do. You've gotten this far and managed not to die, and our nanomachinery tests prove that you have a natural aversion to the Book's effects. Aside from this curious obsession of yours to hit people at range with ridiculous weapons, you are one of our absolute top performers. Not only that, but in your previous life you showed a remarkable acumen for flying under the radar. We need agents who can work on the edge without falling off or bragging to everyone who's watching."
"Do I at least get to know who you people are?"
The voice laughed. "If you want, though it won't make much of a difference either way. We're a special section of the Society of Conscious Thought. We're operating on behalf of the Hyperconsciousness agenda." The voice paused again, and when Draea registered no expression, it continued, "There is a final test. We know you're capable of committing atrocious acts both in cold blood and in the heat of battle."
"Damn straight," Draea said.
"But it's one thing to do it against an enemy you dislike, and quite another to do it against someone who hasn't done anything to you."
Another light turned on, shining a bright cone down a little way from Draea. It illuminated a small metal table on which lay a knife with a very long and narrow blade - a knife useable for both slitting throats and stabbing hearts - and a woman in a chair, tied and strapped in, wearing only underwear and a bra. The straps were so tight and numerous that her body and head were absolutely immobile, and both her throat and her wrists were exposed, the latter strapped to the chair's handles. She was gagged, and there were streaks of tears and snot running down her face.
"I like how you let her wear a bra," Draea said. "Otherwise this'd just be so undignified."
"Personally, I wanted to strap Placx in there, but they overruled me," a different voice said from overhead.
Draea looked up and grinned. "Alad?" she said.
"I swear, that man's played victim for the last time. We just cannot have people slouching around here.
"Should I do it, Alad?"
"Do anything you like, dear. But do it to the hilt."
"If we're all ready here-" the other voice said.
"Oh yes, by all means. Let's treat this with the reverence it deserves," Alad said with exaggerated seriousness, then went quiet. After a few seconds he added, "No pressure."
Draea slowly walked to the woman and the table, where she picked up the knife and weighed it in her hand.
"What's her name?" she asked.
"Irrelevant," the nameless voice replied.
"That's for me to decide," Draea said. "And besides, since you're so concerned with cold blood, I hardly think it'd make things any easier for me if I knew her name."
The voice said, "Still-", but Alad cut in with "Inibjer."
"Thanks," Draea said. She looked Inibjer in the eye and said, "If it helps, I've done this before."
She tossed the knife in the air a couple of times, then leaned down to Inibjer and whispered, "I'm not going to kill you. Don't worry. I'm going to walk away slowly, and they'll have to find someone else to do the job. I might even be able to get help, put a stop to this."
Tears started running down Inibjer's eyes, and Draea said, "Be strong." Despite the restraints, Inibjer tried to nod, but all that came out was a tremor.
Draea slowly walked away, then, in one swift motion, she turned, raised the knife and threw it with massive force. It whizzed through the air and sliced just past Inibjer's head, grazing her right temple and bouncing off the wall beyond.
There was a sigh from above.
Frowning, Draea walked past Inibjer and picked up the knife, then stalked back to her, said, "Sorry, dear. I lied," and leaned over the prone victim. Inibjer trembled and shivered for a moment, then gurgled and went slack, maroon rivulets trailing down her arms and chest.
Draea smiled, stroked Inibjer's hair and cheek, then absent-mindedly wiped her hand on her shirt. Behind her, the outside door slid open with a metallic hum. She turned and walked towards it, but hesitated at the exit. "Alad?" she said.
"What would've happened if I'd refused to kill her?"
"Oh, we'd have filled the chamber with poisonous gas."
"Are you serious?"
"What, you think I'd want to go in there and do it personally? You've got a knife, you psychopath."
She left the chamber, laughing loudly.