Gargoyle Web Serial

Interlude 3 – Knuckle

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4.7.2018

 
“Welcome, everyone who joined us here today.  Your cooperation with these exercises is a vital cornerstone in our strategies against the enemies that threaten us all.”  The director opened his arms to encompass the audience, probably a move taken directly out of a public speaking guide.  He indicated the gigantic clock on the wall above him, it showed a countdown in numbers five feet high. 41 days:16hours:12 minutes: 41 seconds.
 
“As you all know our best and brightest minds work day and night to monitor and evaluate the movements and activities of the Forerunners.  However, despite what the clock says I must warn you all.  The countdown is not absolute, it is an approximation of many minute factors reduced to an average.  The danger of an incursion or an outbreak exists at all times.”  The director held up a small booklet of bright cheerful yellow, probably something else he learned about in ‘Introduction to public speaking’
 
“You should have all received a booklet when you signed in, on page one will be the team number you have been assigned.  Please keep the attached badge with you, you will need it to get access to the events and the catering service.  For the remainder of this course you will be working with your team.  Please refer to page two for the event schedule.  Some of you may notice that the special event is not listed on the schedule.  That is intentional.  It could occur at any time today or tomorrow.
 
“You will not be forced to participate in the scheduled events, if you opt out you can still join in the special event.  However, seeing as how you paid to be here you might as well take part because these are valuable skills that could one day save the lives of yourself or others.  
That’s all of your time that I will take.  The first item on your schedule will be starting in fifteen minutes, the signs on the doors will show the event within and the participating teams.  Look for the badges being worn by event staff if you require assistance.  Thank you.”
 
He gave a small bow and stepped back from the podium.  Immediately the dull roar of several hundred people talking at once swept the auditorium.
 
Steve checked his booklet.  Apparently he was on team six, and the first event was “Rope Use” in room B-7 and would be one hour in duration.
A look around the crowd revealed that there were at least ten teams, and that each team had it’s own schedule of a bewildering variety of events.  Team one would be testing their mettle in “Microgravity combat”, and team nine would be cutting their teeth on “Blades in confined spaces”.  
 
From a rough estimate of the people in the crowd it seemed like there would be maybe thirty people in each class.  Possibly more if there were latecomers or others who skipped the speech.
 
Quite a few attendees had come in groups, and were loudly expressing their opinions on the unclear pattern at which some groups were broken up into different teams and yet others were all given the same team.  A few enterprising individuals had started scalping badges, and seemed to be making a good bit of profit.
 
Steve didn’t bother trading his badge, he didn’t know anyone here so it didn’t really matter what team he was on.  He recognized a few of the mainstream folk, but none that he knew personally.  Closer to the podium a crowd had gathered around Mekzor, whose mechanized reptilian body had been downsized to fit into the auditorium, but still stood head and shoulders above the crowd.  Showoff.
 
The rest of the crowd was a motley mix of costumes, uniforms, and disguises.  The quality of such ran from one extreme to another. Some attendees looked like homeless beggars wrapped in unidentifiable garments, others clearly had professional tailors and fashion designers.  Steve’s uniform fell somewhere into the middle, being of a mass produced variety that was just good enough to look respectable but not so expensive you couldn’t throw it away and buy a new one.
 
Speculation was rampant about when the “incursion” would occur, with teams comparing past experiences from prior years.  Sometimes it happened first thing, one time it happened at 11:59 pm on sunday night and lasted fifteen hours straight, ruining travel plans for most participants.
 
The group responsible for hosting the special event consisted of Paraform, who could divide his body into multiple clones capable of limited independent action, Splice, who could selectively mutate the clones into an approximation of the Infected or various civilians, Constructzor, the brother of Mekzor who could create temporary constructs to fortify the battleground, and Rey-psy, whose powers of illusion could polish the performance until it appeared to be any environment imaginable.
 
The group would prepare an area, typically underground, and fortify it enough that the participants could get an approximation of the ferocity of an incursion.  Very rarely did the arena survive the battle, as often victory was won through scorched earth tactics.  The primary objective is to neutralize the Infected, secondary objectives are to rescue the “civilians” and to minimize damage to the battlefield.  Many of the real incursions have resulted in complete destruction of the battlefield or the creation of a Dead Zone considered unfit for future habitation.
 
The aim of the exercise was to help develop effective combat strategies beyond simply nuking the site and putting a wall around the rubble.
 
Others would be standing by, teleporters and healers, ensuring that no one suffered lethal harm, but short of preventing you from dying they would stand aside.  During the battle you had yourself and your team to rely upon, no guardian angel could be assumed to swoop down and save you.
 
Steve pocketed his booklet and badge and headed towards  his first event.  Maybe it would involve rappelling, that could be interesting. 
 
Room B-7 already had a small crowd outside, with some people loudly complaining that no one told them they would  need a badge to get in.  The group of complainers walked away, leaving about a dozen people loitering around outside.  Overall it was a fairly tame group, just a bunch of guys in varying types of camouflage uniforms, with the exception of a woman dressed in cowgirl leathers with a rope that coiled through the air around her.  Her badge marked her as event staff.  Naturally, she’d drawn a crowd, partly because of her obvious ability, and partly due to the tight leather outfit.  
“Oh, I think everyone should use rope a lot more often.  It’s pretty much one of the most useful things you can have, and it’s so easy to carry.”
“For you maybe, but do you really think we would get an benefit from carrying around some rope?”  The guy who spoke wore a small pack with an antenna that stuck up a foot above his head.  Some type of raygun was holstered on his thigh, with a variety of tools on his belt.
“Of course.  Just about everyone, from brawlers to tinkers, can benefit.  Now it’s time for the class, and I’ll show you exactly why.”
 
The staff at the door checked the badges of everyone trying to get in, turning away a few people from other teams, and telling them their class would be later.  The room was about fifty square feet, half occupied by chairs and half empty floor.  Various props were against the walls or dangling from the ceiling.  Sections of what looked like metal balconies, ladders, sections of stairs, and something that looked like a jungle gym.
 
“Good morning everyone, my name is Mariette, and I’m here to teach you about ropes. Good for more than just tying people up.”  The cowgirl opened a box and pulled out several loops of rope. 
“As you can see here, there’s more than one type of rope, or cordage,  and each has it’s own specialties.  What I will be using today is this green one, parachute cord.  Paracord, for short, is a very handy rope.  It’s small but strong, more than capable of holding five hundred pounds or more.”  The cord twitched and jumped upwards, the tip wrapping around a rafter and looping down to tie onto the other loose end.  To prove her point Mariette jumped up and grabbed the rope.  She flipped herself up and stood in the loop.
“As you can see, even a ten foot length can come in handy, as I’m sure you can all think of times when it’s good to not be touching the floor.”  She pulled a small device off her belt and brought a new cord out of a pouch.
“However, not everyone has my ability, so you need some way of getting your cord up there.  Something quicker than tying the cord to your shoe and trying to throw it over a rafter.  This is a magnet with a loop on it so I can attach a cord.   It has up to four hundred pounds of holding force, and it’s only two square inches.  Handy, right?  Just tie the cord onto it, or loop the cord through and throw it towards a magnetic surface.  Keep in mind that it is a magnet, it sticks to metals.”  
With that she spun the cord twice and threw it across the room.  With a clang it stuck to a rafter and she quickly pulled it taut and swung over, using her momentum to carry her within reach of the metal balcony.  Nimbly she climbed onto the balcony.
“Now you’re off the ground, and that’s great except when you need to exit.  Some people can just fly away, or jump down without worry, but the rest of us have to deal with things like gravity and breaking our legs when we hit the ground.”  She produced another length of cord, tying one end to the balcony and dropping the rest over the side.  A slightly larger gadget was produced from her belt, large enough to grab with both hands.
“This is a clamp, you can pull this small lever and it opens up, then you clamp it over the rope.”  She attached the clamp to to rope and hopped off the balcony.  The clamp held tight as she dangled from it.
“A good clamp like this will hold more than your body weight, and does it without needing to hold down a lever or anything, so you can hold on with only one hand if you need to.  Then when you want to descend you squeeze this large trigger and the clamp loosens.  Squeeze it lightly and you’ll slide slowly, squeeze it tight and you’ll slide faster.”  With increasing rapidity she slid down until the touched the floor.  A separate clamp was produced and she attached it to the rope as well.  
“One is fine for holding onto a rope, or descending, but two let you do something like this.”
By sliding the clamps up one at a time she started climbing the rope, supporting her weight with one while moving the other up.  Once on the balcony again she put the clamps away on her belt.
“That’s all good and all, but who even carries something like that, right?  Most people probably never see one of those, and fewer would carry them around.  So what do you do if you need to descend quickly and safely without any special tools?  You use the rope itself.  This involves friction, lots of it.  The leather is more than just a fashion statement, you’ve never had ropeburn until you’ve rappelled down a three hundred foot drop.  It’s better than flapping your arms on the way down, but not much.”
 
She wrapped the rope around her legs and body, then stepped off into the air.  Falling quickly, the rope rubbed loudly against the leather.  It wasn’t quite as fast as falling, but it was pretty close.  Nevertheless it was enough to let her get to the ground without injury.
“Don’t try that one without training, wrap the cord wrong and it’s useless, wrap it really wrong and it might end up around your neck and you’ll hang yourself, or it catches your foot and smashes you against the wall.
“One more demonstration, then I’ll teach you all how to actually do these things.”  She grabbed the cord and it untied itself from the balcony.  Another magnet was brought out of her belt and she attached it.  She started spinning it.
“Ropes are for more than just getting around, they can also be used for combat.  These magnets as well.  They don’t weigh much, but they do come in handy in a pinch.  Completing a spin she released the cord, the magnet shooting out to slap onto a metal box.  With a quick pull she brought the box sliding across the floor until she stopped it with her foot.
 
“Tada.  All of the tools used today are for sale.  I’ve got spools of cord or precut lengths, and a bunch of clamps and magnets. Let’s start with how the cord is made, as you can see from this cut section there are seven inner braids, each is made of three threads.  It’s lightweight and compact, very sturdy, but it’s not very cut resistant and it can be burned fairly easily.  For cut resistance I recommend this other type, but it’s not quite as flexible or as easy to tie.  This copper coloured one is conductive, like a wire. It has a rubber sheath but to be honest it cracks open more often than not.”
 
Steve left the class without buying anything, though he did take a product catalog.  It had been interesting, but the lineup to buy anything was pretty long and he wanted to look around before spending his money.
 
Next on the schedule was Pistols in Range 2, and then “Escape and Evasion” in A-3, then lunch.  On route to Range 2 he passed a crowd at the first range.  A man in combat fatigues was excitedly talking about exactly what a fifty cal does to a watermelon.
 
At range two there were four event staff members checking badges and distributing eye and ear protection for those who had not brought their own. 
“Hello, I am Turner.  For the next hour I am your supreme deity.  If you behave I will teach you some small bit about pistols.  If you’re acting like an idiot I’ll kick your ass out.  Yes that means you, chuckles, it’s not a joke.  That’s strike one for you, sit still like a good boy.”  He pointed at a guy towards the back of the room, who was miming shooting other people in the crowd for the amusement of his friends.
“Lesson the first, don’t point it at things you aren’t ready to shoot.  Aren’t many guns that can hit what they’re not pointed at.
“Lesson the second, keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.  Aren’t many guns that can shoot without having a finger on the trigger.  Some guns have safeties that prevent the trigger from moving, that is not an excuse to have your finger on the trigger!
“If you point the gun at anyone here, or especially me, I will kick your ass out so fast you’ll taste the back of your own head.  If you point the gun at someone with your finger on the trigger I will shoot you.”
 
The first forty five minutes of the class was devoted to safety, learning how to handle and how to not handle handguns, followed by how to operate them, and how to aim.  For the last fifteen minutes the class was split into four groups, each one taking a bay and giving everyone a chance to shoot a magazine worth of ammo.
 
It was a good time and passed quickly.  At the end of the class the instructor gave out business cards to everyone, and extended invitations for further classes.
 
Steve got a horrible feeling almost immediately upon walking into the Escape and Evasion class.  Hovering in the air was an urban model pacifier drone.  Lightweight and nimble, what the drone lacked in flight distance it made up for in agility.  A bright yellow stun gun was slung underneath the drone’s body.  The stun gun wouldn’t kill you, or knock you unconscious like in the movies, but it could make you wish it did.
 
The classroom was large, the size of a football stadium.  It was a wreck in all senses of the word.  At one point it appeared to have been modelled after a cluster of suburban houses, but now holes gaped in walls, windows had been smashed, and ruined vehicles lay strewn about.
 
Was it supposed to be like this, or had a previous class trashed the room?  The dozen new arrivals looked at each other suspiciously.  Where were the event staff?
 
“Hello.”  It wasn’t immediately apparent who spoke until the instructor waved.  He had been camouflaged so perfectly in the rubble as to be almost invisible.  Mottled grey paint covered his skin, and irregular clothing broke up the outlines of his body.  For all the world he looked like a pile of rubble until he waved.
“I know this must look odd, but it should be familiar to many of you.  The smashed windows, the collapsed buildings, the abandoned vehicles.  This scene has been repeated countless times in countless battlefields.”  The instructor stood up, sweeping his camouflaging poncho over his shoulders to reveal a uniform not much different than the average.  The camouflage pattern was a mix of exaggerated pixels and more organic splotches of colour in a range of earthy tones.
“My name is Timid.  Time is limited, so I’ll get right to it.  This is not a glamorous subject, this is not going to get you flashy headlines and movie deals.  A hour isn’t a very long time to teach these skills, but maybe you’ll learn something that can help you survive.  I’m going to teach you how to run away and hide.  We will make our way to the far side of the room, and then turn around and come back.  On the way back this drone will be looking for you.  If it sees you it will chase you.  If it catches you it will stun you.  The only rule for this class is to escape and evade.  Let’s go.” 
 
An hour later Steve slunk out of the room, legs still a bit wobbly from the stun.  As Timid had said, there wasn’t much that could be taught in an hour, and of that precious little would stick with you.  Being stalked by a superior opponent really taught you something about yourself.  Neutral AI be damned, that drone was sadistic.  It had come from all directions, using senses keener than a human’s and it’s ability to fly to the utmost advantage.
 
Even with twelve people in the class, it had seemed one sided.  Through it all, Timid had offered quiet advice telling them where to step, when to remain motionless, and when to throw caution aside and sprint for safety.  Two guys had made it back to the entrance without being caught by the drone, at the expense of letting the drone stun the rest.
 
There was no easy path.  Glass and gravel would crunch underfoot, metal sheeting would echo and screech, unstable rubble would topple over.  The course of crossing the room had left him muddy, smeared with soot, and generally sweaty.  For how little strenuous movement there had been his heart was still pounding.  Nothing like being electrocuted to get your blood going.
 
Out in the hall a steady stream of people was headed towards the food court.  Some were immaculate, not a hair out of place or a wrinkle in their clothing.  A few others, those with mud stains and sweat glanced at one another and maybe exchanged slight nods.
 
Steve cut across the crowd to get to a washroom and get cleaned up a bit.  After that he followed the masses to the food.  Seating was haphazard, the original layout of tables and chairs had not survive the arrival of several hundred people.  Some tables had been pushed together into groups, other had been separated further from the others.  Steve ended up sitting next to some sort of magician who was apparently trying to reanimate a chicken thigh.  He ate quickly, suspicious that the special event would happen during lunch, or that his lunch would become ambulatory.
 
A teenaged girl and young boy on a flying carpet floated above the crowd, hawking cans of pop for two dollars to support youth camps.
 
Steve’s schedule after lunch was “First Aid” in room A-2, “Physical Training” in B-1, “Duelling” in A-3, and “Public Relations” in C-1.
 
First Aid and Physical Training were both familiar subjects, as they were two of the core subjects recommended for contractors.  They went by quickly, leaving him anxious for some duelling.
 
There was a full group clustered outside room A-3.  It figured that a combat class would draw the largest crowds.  There were at least thirty five people in the crowd.  Inside the room was a number of circles painted on an otherwise bare floor.  Four circles in all, each twenty feet in diameter.  No less than six event staff with medical badges were present, some of whom he recognized from the first aid class.
 
“Hello, hello.  As you all should know my name is Buster, host of Midwest Physical Superiority.  Four rings here, I will be pairing you up and you will have ten minutes to defeat your opponent.  Winner stays in the ring along with the next two names, and they fight it out until only one remains.”  Immediately after that he began calling out names.  None of the names were familiar, until Steve heard his own.
“Knuckle, ring four, versus Suncrusher!”  Buster did a double take, as though he had read the wrong name, then he looked up and shrugged.  Steve followed his gaze into the crowd.  There at the back of the group was an unassuming middle aged guy in blue jeans and a button up plaid shirt.
“Guess I’m busted.”  He said with a chuckle.  Without his costume he hadn’t been recognizable at all, even though he was as big a name as Mekzor.
“I’m really just here to watch, we don’t actually have to duel.  Unless you want to?”
Steve thought about for a moment, then swallowed his heart from where it was trying to escape in a sudden surge of adrenaline.
“Sure.  Let’s do it.”
Suncrusher cocked an eyebrow, a slight grin on his face.
“Knuckle, was it?  Let’s see what happens, eh?”
 
The two entered the ring, followed by cheering and catcalls.  The other duels had been momentarily postponed by the proposition of seeing a celebrity like Suncrusher fight.
 
The two men took opposite sides of the ring, eying one another.  Steve’s blood thundered like lightning, sending faint pins and needles racing through his limbs.  Suddenly the hairs on his arms were brushed by an invisible wind and Suncrusher’s fist clenched.  Pouring every bit of energy he had into speed Steve dashed forwards.  In the space he occupied a second ago there was an inrush of air followed by a burst of heat.  The compression pulled at his clothes.
Another invisible force appeared ahead of him so he rolled to the side.  He saw this one, a visible sphere of subtly distorted air that compressed down to a point and exploded outwards with a burst of flame.  More appeared, blocking off forwards movement.  Steve leapt upwards, diving over the spheres.  Another sphere, the largest yet began to form in the center of the ring.  The inwards force pulled at him even as he sprinted around the periphery.  He dashed in, seeing Suncrusher’s eyes widen slightly.  Steve went into a flying tackle, and was only inches away from Suncrusher when the pull of the sphere dragged him back.  The explosion threw him out of the side of the ring.
 
Steve rolled to a stop, staring at the ceiling with his ears ringing.  Suncrusher came over and offered him a hand up.
“Pretty good go.  You almost had me there.  You’re faster than you look. “
“Thanks.”
 
The rest of the class resumed as Steve found a wall to lean against.  Damn if that wasn’t bringing a fist to a cannon barrage.  It highlighted the main weakness of being a brute.  All the strength in the world wouldn’t help you if you couldn’t get close enough to punch.
 
In short order Suncrusher dispatched the next few groups of opponents.  After the first group the others stopped fighting each other and focused only on him.  Through it all he scarcely had to move a single step.  Even though he was using the low end of his power, he still crushed thirty opponents with ease.  Steve watched every fight, tracking every move.  The divide between powers was enormous, unreal.  Unacceptable.  There had to be something missing, some knowledge, some training that Suncrusher and the others like him had.  Why would he have oceans of power when people like Steve hit such an early plateau?  Was it just experience, the benefit of having wealthy sponsors and personal trainers, or was it some secret wisdom?  Could anyone do it, was it just a matter of all the pegs lining up with all the holes, or was Steve stuck with a square peg and a round hole?
 
A voice broke his reverie, 
“You did pretty good kid.  Don’t feel too bad, he’s something else.”  Buster stepped over with a bottle of water in each hand.  He offered one.
“Thanks.  Did you ever go up against him?”
“Yeah.  Once.  About ten years ago, and it wasn’t pretty. He humiliated me.  I barely even made it one step before those damn bubbles of his pulled me off my feet and threw me clear through the roof.  I had some time to think, laying up there.  I realized something about him, and you look like you might have figured it out.”
“We’re missing something.  Me, them, even you.  There’s something different about him.  It’s too easy for him, too powerful, too natural.”
“I thought the same thing back then, but then I realized how it really was.  I’ve known him for almost two decades now, and most people will just say I have a sore ego, but he hasn’t gotten any stronger in all that time.  Maybe it is my ego, and sure he’s gotten worlds more skilled with his power.  He can lift a kitten out of a tree and put it gently on the ground, and then use that same power to rip the tree out of the ground and turn it into splinters.  That’s skill, not strength.  I’m talking about real potency.  Fifteen years ago he could create so much pressure and heat that he could create a new element on the periodic table.  Now he can think of a lot more uses for his power, but he can’t produce any more pressure or any more heat.
Fifteen years ago I thought I was strong when I lifted the back end of a car off a lady’s leg.  Now I can lift that car right over my head.
Maybe it is just me trying to make myself feel better about it, but I don’t think that they’ve got anything we can’t get.  They start out in the lead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t catch up.”
“You really think so?  That’s not just a line to sell more protein shakes?”
“It true, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sell some product at the same time.”  He laughed and took a swig of water.  “I get a good feeling from you.  You’ve got potential.  If you’re interested, I think you could really benefit from our program.  Maybe in fifteen years you’ll be able to throw that smug bastard through the roof.”
“I never really planned on beating up old men, but it’s something to look forward to.  Yeah, that sounds like a great opportunity.”
“Good to hear it.  I’ll get together a package for you at the end of class.  Now I’ve got to get back to it.”  Buster tossed his empty bottle into the can by the door, then jogged out into the centre of the room.
“Alright, you, enough showing off.  I’ve got a class to teach here.”
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