Ch 4: War Games
See Ch 1 for disclaimer.
Section’s motto was comply, or be canceled. What else was there to understand? I toed the line on occasion but I played a good mouse. I kept my questions few and tried to find other means to learn about my new way of life.
As more time passed, the pattern of my life became routine, matter of fact. My world was the whole of Section, its indoctrination process had become rule of law. I got used it. I stopped openly resisting and I'd lean red that if I truly wanted to survive, I had to do everything with more thought, a more vicious frame of mind in which every action, reaction and cause had to thought of as a direct relation to the optimal advantage it would afford me in the future. But I had to do silently, behind a facade of compliancy. At times, I felt so out of depth of the chess games that were constantly underfoot that I felt like I was just looking like a fool, and failing. However, I now felt I had a better understanding about my situation that made me endure Section and its bullshit agenda with less rancor but though by no means would I ever accept it. I was a prisoner; I had no choice; I knew that would never change until I learned to get smarter and that meant consuming every detail of everything I was taught, and take it for what it was: a tool.
The routine changed as I advanced from one level to the next. I learned a variety of primary subjects, like geography, math, science, history, technology, languages, psychology, politics, anthropology and other sundry subjects—not exactly my cup of tea and I was by no means an apt pupil but I held my own.
But my real strength was in anything to do with the physical. Swimming, running, sparring, climbing—only one other excelled at the level I exhibited within my class, even in my more paltry display. I was also pretty handy with a gun, knives, batons, anything to do with hand-to-hand combat. I had started to formulate this idea that maybe, in my past life, I hadn’t been so different from the form that I was currently being molded into but hopefully of my own choosing. Maybe a little better.
I learned about all kinds of weapons and explosives, field tactics, what I called cloak and dagger techniques that would have come from a spy movie. I also learned that normal terms like ‘entry’ and ‘exit’ were now ‘ingress’ and ‘egress’. The filter in which I know lived was in the technical; in code; clinical explanations and descriptions. Colorless. Mandates. Always a mission, every discussion, an art of lying and being absolutely convincing. The hierarchy in Section was absolute and unforgiving. People’s lives were collateral damage. The enemy was everywhere and stealthy, hidden and many times, unknown but pushing at all sides.
Slowly, through my formal education, I was learning what Section was about, and I wasn’t sure what to think. Section was, for all intents and purposes, an entity that existed to thwart evil and to prevent the innocent from undue, unjust harm. By any means necessary. At Section One, the means justified the ends. The world was on fire, in constant chaos and turmoil, even I knew that was fact, whatever I couldn’t remember of myself, I knew the world had always been a trial and harder than it should have been. Countries were at war, openly but mostly, behind the scenes. One atrocity for another. One kill to stave off thousands. More important, I learned, and did what I was told. I still had my moments of rebellion which I reveled in, to remind myself, and Section, that I was no drone, all of which Vincent made sure he disapproved by showing me with actions and very little with his words.
My schedule varied greatly on a day to day basis though the curriculum was constant, always filled with some thing. Section was vast, with nearly 20 levels but there were no windows looking out toward the world, as though they were worried about who might be looking in but I had a feeling that it was more like who would be looking out. Class 5 operatives, like Michael and Vincent, had their offices on Level 1. I’d generally floated between Level 4 to 10 with Level 7 as housing for recruits like me and my classmates, including the cafeteria, communal bathrooms, a library with study stalls, and other rooms. On occasion, I’d been to Level 3, where Systems and Comms were located, when I had to meet Vincent for meetings on my progress. What lay above those and below the lowest level I had access to, was beyond me and a constant question.
I saw my fellow recruits randomly. It seemed, as I was leaving DR & V, one of them was going in to get their one-on-one with Birkoff or heading out of Walter’s pen as I was heading to my room. I was pretty sure that it was meant to limit our contact with each other.
However, I usually managed to share a meal with one of them here and there. But not this time. Not today.
During Second Meal, Vincent disturbed my solitude to tell me the afternoon’s agenda. I didn’t bother finishing my meal. No point.
Me and the other recruits were rounded about to troop down to a lower level where most of the physical training took place. There lay the largest gym ever to be behold. The massive room was partitioned by glass walls and everyone visible from one end to the other. The walls came down from the ceiling and locked into the metal ground, which was covered by black mats. It allowed the gym to be divided up anyway an operator wished, like now, where it was big enough for three groups of two to duke it out.
But at least, I’d gotten to know the other recruits in my ‘class’.
Like Henry here. He was my usual training partner and I'd gotten to know him quite well, that is, his fighting style. He wasn’t that much taller than myself but lean with shoulder length hair, reddish gold and wavy. He kept in a ponytail but otherwise left it loose when I'd seen him other times. He had pale skin and rather delicate looking with his high cheekbones and cleft in his chin. His lips were always at the ready for a smirk or a sardonic smile. He had hazel eyes, hard at the edges but not so hard they weren’t, at appropriate times and unseen by anyone but the person he meant to relay that emotion, sympathetic. Like everyone, he was guarded and hesitant, but he wasn’t a drone either.
I thought he was okay, and from what little I knew of him and had heard from others, he was okay. All I knew for certain that he threw a mean right hook. He was holding back. So was I. For the first hour, we’d just been tapping each other. Testing our reflexes. His weary expression had quickly waned when I punched back, hard, and smiled. And let the kiss of my gloves split his left check open. The first time I'd done that, and saw that by an hour’s end his skin was smooth as ice, I’d known that he and I were of the same ilk in more ways than one. It made me look at the others a little differently too. What made us each so individual, and yet, special? Together? What talent did each of us possess that Section coveted, exploited, honed to a finite point? From that moment of realization, I hadn't had much of a chance to find out.
‘You hit like a girl, Buffy,’ said Henry, egging me on. But with an easy smile and a bloody face. So I hit a little harder. He reciprocated in kind.
Then it’d been kind of fun.
Ultimately, after two hours, it’d been a tie. Sweaty and red, Henry shot me a slight smile as Vincent dismissed the class except me. I never knew what to expect from Vincent but as my mentor, it was expected that he would parcel out his own form of education to me. I tried not to be nervous. His range of emotion bounced between neutral, perturbed and back to neutral. I’d never seen him smile. His voice was cold as ice. His eyes were inflexible but steady, focused but remote thought he managed to spear me looks that always made me hold my breath for a fraction before letting it out. He was not, in any sense of the word, classically handsome. His features were too rugged for that. He kept his hair brutally short, which didn’t help, and his outstanding personality rounded out an otherwise perfect imitation of a human. I’d thought of him as an android, replete with only the basics in human emotions and behaviors. His blue-green eyes were disarming, and he a nice mouth that probably could have completely transformed his face. I’d wondered if he even knew how to smile and if he smiled, if his eyes remained as dead and black as the expression he emitted at all times.
After everyone had left, he’d gone by the door, waved his hand off to the right. A second later, a neon blue square appeared on the glass surface with a blue squares. I realized it was a key pad though there were numbers or letters on the blue squares and the squares didn’t highlight as his fingertips softly went about the keypad.
I could hear the door lock into place. Then the glass went black. The camera in corner went from red, to white.
After enclosing our glass room into a private cage, he’d taken off his expensive black suit jacket and tossed it aside like it was a rag.
Next, his shoes.
Had we not done this tango before, I would have been leery about his next move but Vincent wasn’t into anything untoward. However, he was a physical guy. He also liked hitting girls. Or just me. And he fought a dirty, no holds bar fight that had, on more than on occasion, landed me in Medical for a few hours each time. If he ever got into any trouble for it, I never heard.
And he hit hard, as hard as I did. He hit without concern that I couldn't take it. He knew I could, that was the point.
He put on new gloves. Then he’d commanded me to attack. He even entreated me to try to kill him. His expression told me that I didn’t have a chance of even sweeping him off his feet. He was calm about it, arms at his sides, completely relaxed. Just waiting.
And so it began. I circled the perimeter of the mat. He watched me, still standing and waiting. I pondered. How hard should I hit? I knew how much of a beating he could take, and vice versa.
After two additional hours, I was about done in for. My head hurt, my muscles were quivering on their bones, and I had a cut lip, a cut on my forehead, jaw, shoulder and my knee. I also knew that in less than a day, all my wounds be healed up, as though nothing had occurred. But right now, I felt myself on the near end of tether but I parried and dodged, tried to get my breaks where I could.
I had never seen Vincent in action, but I had some idea. I knew that if I wasn't careful, the only thing I’d be pretending was playing dead. And with my current sparring partner, he’d sooner see me dead than vice versa. Personally, I wasn't okay with that and I wasn’t a quitter but sparring wasn't a death math. It was just an exercise but Vincent hadn't gotten the memo, or he just plain ignored the rules. What spurred me on was my wish to get that goddamned look off his face, like he was the victor; getting pummeled near death would be worth it. However, he was not a man that enjoyed losing, or even contemplating the concept and while he gave it his all, I didn't. I couldn't because what if I did unleash myself upon him and I went too far? What if I killed him? I knew I had that ability within me, like I had done it before. And not just the damage I supposedly went on before Section stopped me, and took me for their own.
I did a roundhouse quick, using my shin to slam into left side. I felt his fingertips nearly grab onto my ankle before I flipped away from his reach. He made an immediate strike, landing a gloved fist into a kidney, jabbing three times faster than was normal. Two seconds later my entire torso was screaming. Wincing, I rolled away as his other fist was coming from the opposite direction. Pain flared like fireworks with every breath and move. I gritted my teeth, swiped at the sweat rolling off my face. My body was crying for mercy. But I didn't stop. I immediately rolled right back toward him, rushing him as he resettled his balance over the balls of his feet. I got up and close just enough that I could pivot on the ball of my and perform a low, spinning sweep kick.
He went down like a mountain. But he recovered beautifully and was quickly back up by the time I’d rolled away again and back on my own two solid feet. ‘Landing needs work,’ I chided, trying to control my breathing from a pant to an even in and out. I smiled, fists up. ‘And who says the woman can’t sweep the man off his feet, right?’
He gave a grunt, letting beads of sweat roll down his face, his eyes never leaving me. I’d learned several martial arts techniques since I’d been with Section, combining it with what my muscle memory seemed to have retained from my other life. I’d found my particular way of fighting that tended to surprise in a most unexpected way. Like now. I used Vincent’s own body weight against him, letting him think he could aim a hit at me, only to dodge it by millimeters and not only letting me help off balance him, but also nearly break a limb.
When he’d come in for the kill, I’d grabbed his right wrist, clamping my fingers and digging my nails into his skin. He gave a low growl, which pleased me. My move had slowed him long enough for me to wrap my legs around his ribcage, and squeeze. I had him in a classic choke hold, nothing brilliant about that, but I’d twisted that arm behind his back, high so that it torqued his shoulder, elbow and wrist. He grunted. I was pleased.
But with Vincent, he always went in for the kill. I didn’t, I always stopped myself right before it got too messy. That was his point. I let go and pushed him off me. He rolled away, stopping himself and doing a swift but powerful pushup that propelled him to an upward stance. I was also on my feet, on the other side of the mat, wondering if he’d punish me for besting him this one time. I already knew the answer. He would hurt me, and I would take it. But that one action had taken all my reserve energy. The black mat had splotches of shiny red. Blood. His and mine. He looked like hell. I probably did too.
‘Well, well,’ he said softly, at length. He was breathing heavily, his eyes glittering. ‘Wasn’t that interesting.’
Was it? Was I?
In physical training, in general, I always held myself back but I was getting so used it. The first time we did this, it’d hurt. I knew early on, an instinct that I let rule me, told me to play mouse, to not show my cards to soon--whatever those cards may be. Somehow, I knew I wasn't fooling anyone, just maybe myself. But, like Henry, Vincent could take it. I didn’t know why or the how of it, and didn’t even try to understand it but it was just so.
Why Vincent turned the camera off and made the room private had initially worried me. Where Madeline made every effort to get under my skin, Vincent managed by just existing in the same space as me and breathing my air. While my fantasies at hurting him had lessened, I still hadn’t minded seeing how my fist would make an impact, as little ol’ me didn’t phase him a bit, no matter my antics. And he’d preyed on that and I remember our first spar. I’d clocked him good, then he’d clocked me back. With Vincent, it wasn't fun and games. It was brutal.
We’d had our first understanding, not as mentor to recruit, but as two predators and since then, he’d treated me differently, albeit, nothing grand or overt, just a shift in sentiment between us. He saw me an adversary with potential but with one fatal flaw. Whenever I backed off, he always seemed disappointed, and disapproving.
During our first sparring session, I’d been certain that he was trying to kill me and he almost got the best of me until I realized I had to fight back, full throttle, or he’d really hurt me. I also knew that whatever I gave, he gave back equally but I was always the one to retreat first. He was not normal, he and I. That’s when I’d realized we had something in common. It’d been a disturbing realization and it still unsettled me. It also meant that the thin veil of pretending versus fact was evaporating. It’d made me wonder if that's why Vincent had been chosen specifically for me. Not that Section wasn’t specific about everything but in our particular…talents…that it was more or less a necessity. And it made me anxious because what would he put in his reports to Madeline and Operations? How was he betting against me and setting to destroy me?
But to my surprise, and concern, from the reports that were sent to Madeline and Operations, our private fights weren’t for public consumption. Madeline never mentioned it but from my conversations, however brief, with others that bothered with me, like Walter, or from Birkoff’s stumbling slips of the tongue, Operations knew a lot, but he wasn’t god and operatives at a certain level enjoyed a sense of privacy, and had their own games afoot.
I knew what that meant. Vincent was keeping our sparring hidden from Operations and it was likely to serve his own purposes. Nikita had, one time, offered advice, as she said, from personal experience with her own mentor, to ‘keep your enemies close, but keep the ones that wanted to kill you, even closer. And sometimes, they were wolves in sheep's clothing.’. It meant that I had to watch my back with everyone, not just with Vincent, which wasn’t anything knew to me; but now, I was vested in the game whether I liked it or not. I had to start participating or it’d be my own demise. The game of thrones in Section was harrowing and political. It could also get me canceled with little effort. Section wanted me, but I was also disposable if I was worth too much trouble. Defense was important, always having a plan was ideal; having allies within Section was mandatory but extremely difficult. Relationships were not encouraged, on any level.
Nikita's advice was insightful, if not grimly depressing; but considering the rumors circulating her relationship with Michael, which wasn’t exactly aboveboard, I listened with a grain of salt. Still, despite paranoia at every turn, I felt an honesty from her that I felt wasn’t faked. And I was realizing that a lot of operatives within Section were like me, stuck and imprisoned. But we were all scared in what we said, and if it was said, it was always said in hushed tones.
‘You’re still holding yourself back,’ Vincent noted, his breathing now even. His shirt was soaked through but he looked more or less more human than when he wasn’t sweating and being devoid of life.
‘Don’t want to hurt you,’ I finally said curtly. I didn’t mean it. I think he knew it. During this blessed pause, I tried to control my heart rate, which was going haywire. Vincent seemed fully recovered. He was even sweating as much as I was. I felt drenched through.
He looked at me, expressionless. ‘I think we've established that isn't an issue between us. At least for me.’
He was not an easy man to read. I’d heard the various accounts of the type of man he was like. All the upper echelon operatives, such as, say, Michael, were all more mechanical and perfunctory than anything else but some made an effort to not act like it. I guess it took playing a robot to do whatever it was that Operations ordered them to do. And I knew it, at times, it was rather inhuman acts.
All for the Greater Good. Whatever. It was a bitter-sweet concept. An illusion, really. Was there any good? It seemed all so bad.
At the moment, and I felt nearly hysterical and giddy from sheer exhaustion and pain, I thought how ridiculous he appeared, fighting me while wearing suit pants and plain black shirt. Muscles lined his forearms like ropes. Had he pumped more iron, he would have been overwhelming but as he stood there, the fine balance of height and bodily proportions was nearly in equipoise. Under the light, his lightly tanned skin was washed out. Green-blue eyes were deep-set by a slightly prominent brow bridge. That’s what made it difficult to interpret him, facially, it was all in the eyes and most of the time they were hooded. He had a straight nose, otherwise fitting his face but with an imperfection at on the bridge of his nose, which marred his rather strong profile. I wonder how he broke it. I hoped it hurt like hell.
‘You think you can beat me,’ said Vincent, softly, his gaze boring into me. ‘Prove it. I know you can kill. I've seen it. Show me.'
For a long time, the story of my 'rampage' had proceeded me. The reason Section had made an effort to bring me in. I had yet to recall any details though in my dreams, I had all kinds of horrible nightmares. Madeline and tried talking about it once and she'd shown me evidence of that time, but it was so far apart from me since day one that it didn't seem real. I refused to fall for his taunting. I had to learn to stop reacting but mimicking Vincent also wasn't an option.
'No,' I said firmly, breathing heavy. 'I won't.'
'You will. Some day.'
Sweat trickled slowly down my spine, along my jaw, diving off from my chin. I shivered inside my skin. I would kill…again. The idea of it sickened me. I fisted my hands tightly, nails digging the inside of my hands.
‘Hesitation will get you killed, and others who don't need your help,’ Vincent added, getting back into a stance. ‘I can survive hurt, pain isn't anything; but if you keep holding back, when it matters, out in the field, you’ll freeze.’
I was amazed. That had actually been a speech, the most words Vincent had ever uttered to me. He spoke more freely during our sparring, as though he didn’t want anyone else to know he actually knew how to speak but it left me tense and he was getting to me. I stood still, processing his words. ‘And what am I going to be doing on this field you just mentioned? When am I going walk across it?’
He dropped his arms, his expression deadening. ‘Sooner than you’d wish. Sooner than you’ll be ready.’
‘What if I’m not ready?’
He took off his gloves and tossed them aside. ‘It's my job to make sure you don't fail.’
'And if I do?'
He retrieved his jacket and put it on, cool as ice. ‘Row 19,’ he said, moving away toward the door. ‘Plot 95.’