Ten Months Later
The instructor walked out and handed Hailey a piece of metal and polyplast. Hailey immediately did a weapons check to make sure the safety was activated and the chamber was clear. It wasn’t. Hailey popped out the round, and the instructor gave an approving nod. In the last ten months of training, Hailey had grown accustomed to the mind games her instructors liked to play. They’d throw a wrench into the most routine task every once and a while. It all reinforced their mantra of adaptability.
She was not that same Hailey that had entered the academy ten months ago; physically or mentally. Like any organization that was seriously investing in its employees, Putinski Family Holdings wanted to make her better. She’d been given a series of enhancements based on her career track. She’d gone from 165 to 181 centimeter and put on fifteen kilos as the procedures reinforced muscular and skeletal structures, but she wasn’t some heavy infantry solider like in the holos. Her carrier still needed for her to be a lean, mean, sex machine, so she’d only been upgraded to what a world with 120% Earth-normal gravity would have. She was now stronger than average, but couldn’t take on someone with serious enhancements. Overall, strength was not the objective of her upgrade. The objective was speed.
Everything about her had been designed to be faster than normal. Her cognition, reflexes, fast-twitch muscles fibers, and just about everything else in her body had been heightened. She couldn’t punch through polyplast walls like some people, but she could draw a pistol with the galaxy’s best gunslingers. Or get a guy off. Rumor was that the enhancement was a similar one to what they gave fighter pilots in the military, but with a few proprietary tweaks.
For Hailey, the operation itself wasn’t hard to get through, but the recovery was. It was tough for her mind to grasp how everything around her moved a little slower than it did before. If her adrenaline started pumping, and her fighting reflex took over, stuff around her almost seemed to slow to a crawl. It was surreal, and a true mind fuck. Coping with that while still keeping up with all of her course work was a real challenge; especially for someone who was not academically inclined. Luckily, the academy had a fix for that.
Madame Desroisiers hadn’t been kidding during that first meeting. She said their clients wanted more than a pair of perky tits and a firm ass. Sure, everyone at the academy was instructed in the arts of seduction, reading body language, the whole ‘come hither’ shebang, as well as a thorough course on the Kama Sutra, but there was a lot more to this career than that. Their clients wanted intelligent women they could actually have a conversation with before taking them to the bedroom. The academy educated their students on all the big topics: politics, economics, social issues, and military matters. Some took to classroom learning and had a slightly longer tenure at the academy to get legitimate degrees in their courses of study, but most, like Hailey, weren’t those types of learners. That was what data dumps were for.
Through visual cerebral programming the academy was able to dump a chunk of knowledge into a person’s brain. It was an extremely uncomfortable procedure, that left the student with a two-day migraine, but it got the job done. On top of being uncomfortable it was also controversial. Legitimate universities screened for people who’d received data dumps because they saw it as cheating on top of being a health risk. There were neurological markers to indicate if a person had the procedure which didn’t dissipate. On top of that, just having the procedure didn’t mean the knowledge stayed around, and there was no guarantee against side effects of having knowledge unnaturally poured into your brain.
Hailey underwent monthly health scans that would continue for the duration of her time with PFH. At first, she’d thought the data dumps would stop her from doing any work, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Data dumps fell into that ‘if you don’t use it you lose it’ category. You couldn’t just dump foreign information into your brain and retain it without work. So, despite having a Master’s degree’s worth of military and economic knowledge uploaded to her mind, she still had nightly retention homework she needed to complete. For Hailey, that just meant having to buckle down and study after an exhausting day of her specialty focus. She was a proud member of the AP track, and that didn’t stand for advanced placement.
Asset Protection (AP) was the reason Madame Sourd had singled her out at the audition for cutting off the junkie’s dick. Madame Sourd was the head AP instructor at the academy, and she saw something in Hailey. Something Hailey herself didn’t see. Now it was ten months of training later, and Hailey had to show what she’d learned.
The instructor tossed her a magazine for the weapon and walked out of the large, plain white room. Hailey inserted the magazine into the weapon and checked the readout. <Twenty rounds.> That wasn’t a lot, and it immediately set off her internal alarms.
“Your mission is to eliminate all hostiles until your pick up arrives in…eight minutes.” The instructor’s voice announced over an unseen speaker. “Simulation beings in three…two…one…” The room dissolved around Hailey and was replaced by an alley you could find in any PHA on Earth.
The first thing to hit her was the smell. She doubted she would have noticed this a year ago, but she’d been living in a place with fresh air and where people routinely showered. Her nose had adapted faster than the rest of her to the luxury. With a gulp, she quickly pushed the nauseating aroma out of her mind and moved to find cover. The only thing in the alley was a dumpster with a big PROPERTY OF THE PUBLIC HOUSING AUTHORITY stamped on it. She put her back to the metal, ignored the sticky sensation, and waited. There was no countdown clock, but she’d learned to keep count in her head.
The muffled step of a person approaching was her first indication that something was wrong. If not for the wrapper the guy stepped on, he might have been on her before she knew it. She whirled around, everything seemed to sputter as her enhancements kicked in, and she brought the guy on target. He looked like any other Rat: dirty, dressed in rags, hungry, and pissed. Hailey put him out of his misery with a round through the heart. He crumbled to the ground and disintegrated as the simulation registered him as a kill.
<Nineteen,> she counted the expended round. <I need a better position.> The dumpster was in the center of the alley, which left her vulnerable to both sides, but at the same time, leaving the cover it provided would make her vulnerable.
A bottle sat next to her, so she picked it up and tossed it. The sudden motion drew out another PHA Rat. The crack of his chemically-propelled round resounded through the alley as he fired on the bottle. The bottle hadn’t even smashed against the far wall before Hailey had gone down to a knee and pivoted around the edge of the dumpster. The Rat noticed his mistake too late and tried to reacquire Hailey, but he moved like he was stuck in quicksand. It gave her plenty of time to put another round through his heart.
She wheeled away from the dissolving man and sprinted toward the back of the alley where there would be better cover. A third man appeared around the corner less than ten meters from her. She immediately went into a slide, and felt the man’s bullet pass over her. The near miss made the hair on her neck stand up, but she didn’t let it get in the way of putting another round in the man. This one missed his heart due to her slide, but it blasted apart his throat, which the simulation registered as another kill.
She got to the bend in the alley and looked for move cover. To her left was a dead end, and to the right was another opening to the street. Another smaller dumpster sat next to a building on the dead-end side, which she quickly dove behind. A round pinged off the metal just as she took cover. She recovered quickly, rose, and shot the shooter dead.
She looked around for anything to give her a view of the alley without compromising her cover. There were no windows or reflective material she could see, so she grabbed another clear empty bottle, and smashed it on the ground. It didn’t give shit for details, but she could see if something started walking down the alley toward her.
In less than thirty seconds, a dozen figures appeared and rushed her. She knew the instructors wanted to see how she performed under pressure, and there was no better way to test that than when the bullets were flying. She dipped, dived, ducked and dodged in and out from her cover to get shots on the advancing Rats. She took out the ones running first, and then picked off the more cautious ones.
<At least there wasn’t any cover or concealment down that way.> Hailey thanked whoever built the simulation for that. She’d expended twelve bullets in the rush. It felt like an hour had passed, she’d lost count in her head, but it had to be over soon. <Four rounds left.> She took beep breath to bring her heart rate back down.
The crunch of a man stepping on something brought her out from behind her cover to put another round through a man’s chest. No sooner had she done that, than a spike of pain and burning sensation spread through her left shoulder. She didn’t even notice the man taking cover behind the wall of the building blocking the second alley. The new Rat fired again, but Hailey had already spun away. The round impacted the building behind her and sent concrete chips flying painfully into her head, but she got a bead on the man and fired. He went down and dissolved.
Logically, she knew this was only a simulation, but that didn’t mean the pain in her shoulder was any less real. She tried to raise her other arm, and it didn’t respond while blood leaked down and dripped from her fingertips. She figured she had ten minutes before she started getting light-headed from blood loss and twenty before she passed out.
She looked around for anything to plug the wound, but nothing presented itself. She considered opening the dumpster, but a round pinging off the metal dissuaded her. She rose up and fired her second to last round. The Rat went down, and behind him, she saw a car pull up against the curb. That had to be her ride. She had one round left, so she assumed one more Rat was going to jump her, but she had to get to that car. She pushed off the ground at a run and hugged the wall.
Just as she thought, when she was halfway down the alley to her ride, a woman stepped out around the corner with a gun in her hand…and then a second person followed.
<Fuck!> Hailey only had one round left. She juked hard away from the wall when the first woman took her under fire. The speed of Hailey’s movement saved her life, but didn’t solve her problem. Fortunately, thinking fast was what she’d been trained to do.
A plan coalesced quickly, and she bet it only had a fifty percent chance of working, but that was better than being dead, so she went for it. The two women were reacquiring her, but Hailey got her shot off first. She aimed higher and blew the first woman’s head open in a shower of gore. Since the round itself had less to go through, it continued through her head and into the side of the building. Just like what had happened to Hailey, concrete chips flew off the building as the round made contact. The second woman, who was following closely behind the first woman for cover, got a face full of blood, brain, and concrete shrapnel. Those made her flinch as she pulled the trigger. Her round went high and impacted harmlessly against the wall above Hailey.
Hailey didn’t have time to marvel at how her plan had worked, because that was only step one. She still needed to disarm and eliminate the woman, and she was now out of ammunition. Thankfully, AP training had turned her body into a weapon. Hailey sprinted forward as the woman tried to rub the blood and grim from her face, lowered her good shoulder, and drove it into the woman’s chest. She was twenty percent tougher than the average human, so the other woman must have felt like she was steamrolled by an NFL linebacker. She bounced off the wall and collapsed in a heap, but Hailey didn’t let up. Aggression was the name of the game, and Hailey proved that by repeatedly bringing her foot down on the women’s neck and skull. On the third blow something crunched and the woman dissolved.
The car gave a beep of its horn, like the driver was an impatient cabby. Hailey gave it the finger, but walked over to it. She stuck the gun in her pocket before she hit the sidewalk, and used her free hand to cover up the wound and control the bleeding. She collapsed into the interior, and the simulation dissolved.
She was lying on the polished, white floor of the testing room. The sensors in her smartcloth deactivated and the pain vanished. She was still exhausted and wired at the same time from the simulation, but got up, controlled her breathing, and patiently waited for her grade.
“Pass…ninety-five percent,” the instructor stated.
Hailey didn’t let her disappointment show. <I killed twenty-one hostiles with twenty bullets. You’ve got to give me a break on getting shot.> But the grade was final, and ultimately it didn’t matter. Hailey had passed.
One of the walls dissolved to show Madame Sourd standing there expectantly with her arms crossed behind her back. Hailey knew that look, and she hurried to exit the room and report to the AP lead instructor. Once she reached the larger woman, Hailey fell into a respectful stance and waited for the woman to begin.
“I’ve seen worse,” the larger woman stated after a moment of silence. Then a grin pulled at her lips. “One more test and you will graduate the AP program.” She handed Hailey an old-fashioned manila envelope.
Hailey didn’t need an explanation. This was the logical next step. PFH needed to make sure she could make the leap from shooting holograms to shooting real flesh and blood. Whoever this was, they’d pissed off the wrong people, and Hailey was the organization’s response.
“You have thirty days to complete your mission. Your time starts now.” Madame Sourd stated before turning and walking away. The AP instructor was a woman of few words. She preferred her actions to do her talking for her.
Hailey hurried after her while pulling the information out of the envelope. She nearly tripped over her own feet when she saw who her target was. Staring back at her from the top sheet of paper was the smiling face of Walter Cooper.