22 | TRAINING
A FEW MONTHS LATER
015 MILITARY HQ
The robot is Louis. The robot is Leland. The robot is freaking Ryn and Bryan and everyone else who you hate with a burning passion—
“Come on, zero-five-zero-two, faster!”
Scratch that, Ethan thought, the robot is this guy, this idiotic asshole of a ‘trainer’, who calls you by a code number, which is supposed to… I can’t remember what they call it, but it’s derogatory. The robot is all of them, all these idiotic people who have hurt you in your life! DESTROY THEM!
Another series of punches collided with synthetic fabric, each one more vicious than the last. Ethan allowed the red-hot, vicious flash of anger to consume him, fueling him as he wrecked the machine, this very same machine which returned before him, good as new for another whacking session every morning. Seeing the thing glitch didn’t stop him from firing more attacks either. After all, this was what they wanted, was it not? To see him rage, to see him go mad. To see the others fall into disturbing episodes where they lost all hope, all for the sake of science.
The others—God, Ethan hadn’t seen them for months. Ever since they were dragged into this hellhole, they’d been separated for what the army asshats called ‘individualized instruction’ or something like that. Months, holed up in this dull, miserable place, no contact with anyone but the guards and being made to fight robots and run laps, an improvement expected each time.
Were they okay?
Were they even still alive?
Touch wood, Ethan chided himself, don’t think about that, they surely are. It’s just a matter of whether or not Em’s a broken, empty shell of herself and if Eli’s completely lost his optimism. Eris… will be Eris.
As a finishing touch, Ethan hoisted the robot over his head and flung it at the wall, the crash sickeningly satisfactory as it clattered to the ground, one of its limbs loosened from its socket.
“Training complete,” the feminine AI voice announced. The door swung open, allowing Ethan to finally leave. As usual, the trainer, Zack, left the control panels to meet him at the door.
“Good job, zero-five-zero-two,” Zack said, sounding rather pleased as he slapped Ethan on the back. Ethan so wanted to be able to fling his hand off and throw him to the other side of the hallway, just like he’d done on the first training session—but now, he had to bottle up the negativity, anger and misery and channel it into fighting robots alone. He had to make them think they’d finally killed his spirit and everything pure within him.
But a part of him was concerned—what if they’d already broken him?
What if they’d done it, unbeknownst to him? Mindless obedience wasn’t him. What if it was all for nothing?
“Thanks,” he grunted, grabbing the water bottle and taking a swig as the trainer continued rattling on, “... Aren’t you happy that you’ll finally get to meet your friends!”
Ethan almost spit his water out.
After struggling to swallow for a moment, he lifted his head in shock, “What?!”
The trainer gave him an unimpressed look, “Did you not hear what I just said? The boss man wants y’all to train together before the mission.”
“What mission? And who is the ‘boss man’?”
“You know, the Prime Minister. Now run along to the dining hall and grab lunch. Meeting starts at two.”
The only thing that made Ethan feel slightly better was the food. As much as the military HQ of the city was just another place that housed willing minions of the Project Perfection Committee, they, at least, knew to ensure their cooks understood the meaning of variety.
And so he sat alone, as always, slurping down some decently tasty prawn noodles. From the minimal information he’d been able to squeeze out of Zack and the other tight-lipped guards, they all ate in the same hall, just with different meal timings to keep them apart—a situation that greatly distressed him. What if their ally, the sender of that cryptic note had been mistaken, or even worse, a trickster?
What if it was ultimately still a trap?
Ethan was aware that Leland would probably not kill them off yet, since they were the first successful batch of mutated Error beings. They would probably be around for a couple more years of monthly lab tests and these strenuous trainings, just so the government could see how far they could push things. But what about when they made a new batch of Error kids?
They’d become the old version, replaceable—and if they weren’t modifiable, they’d be eliminated or something—
Ethan turned to the source of noise, to see the other bowl of prawn noodles next to him, hands around them… and the boy whom the pair of hands belonged to.
Instantly, Eli flung his arms around Ethan and pulled him into a hug.
“I missed you too,” he mumbled, almost comfortable in the hug before remembering his own distaste for such displays of affection and releasing the petite boy abruptly— who launched into a big chatter session in 0.1 seconds. “They said we’re allowed to eat together starting today! All of us! We have so much to catch up on, I can’t—”
“It would be good if you could speak at a slower pace, Eli,” Eris spoke in her signature deadpan voice as she set her own bowl opposite him, Em slid into the bench next to her, looking down at her soup.
The pair of bright, glowing blues and Em’s vacant look was an instant reminder to the boys of the fact that Eris was a bugged device… and whatever happened in the time they were apart had done horrors to Em’s mental health. Despite that, Eli decided to initiate a conversation. Acting normal was probably part of tricking the authorities, right?
“So… how’s life?”
Ethan snorted. Em remained silent and in a state of quiet misery. Eli gulped, recognising his oversight and changed his question to, “Uh, sorry. What’ve y’all been doing for training?”
“Just running laps and destroying robots. Eris?”
“Hacking, mostly shooting, but some archery on occasion,” she replied, “What about you, Em?”
“I… only started knife-throwing practice like, one month ago… they ran a lot more lab tests on me,” Em replied slowly, the horror of whatever they’d done to her evident in her body language and making Ethan’s blood boil. “And well, I found out that ingesting what would be toxic for the human body isn’t a viable self-harm or suicide method for me,” her chuckle was low and humourless as the boys frowned.
Eli wanted to say something encouraging, but the memory rushed back into the front of his mind, the fear, the screech of a being neither dead nor alive, the gun in his hand—and all the words he’d been meaning to string up into a sentence fell into oblivion. He wanted to tell them, talk out everything that had happened, ask all these questions.
Are you guys really okay? Do you think we’ll get out of this? Did you see those things? Did you guys have to do what I did? I hope you didn’t.
But he knew he couldn’t start that. It probably wasn’t that helpful for group morale either.
So he looked back down at his soup and the rest of the meal continued in surveillanced silence.
“After one month of training,” the woman who picked them up from the CC—she was called Tess and was, apparently, a high-ranking member of the military—said, swiping across the smart walls of the white-washed meeting room, “We’ve noticed that the four of you have improved tremendously. I’ll give you a moment to look at your stats.”
The loading dots vanished, replaced by four boxes filled with statistics that the kids were quickly captivated by, eager to figure out what the others had been doing throughout the weeks that they’d been apart. Eris, as usual, was brilliant, her SmartGlass brain aiding her in nearly every shooting exercise, on top of other fitness stats that clocked in ninety-and-above percentages.
Ethan’s speed was astounding, with his robot destruction exercise scores surprising even himself. Eli didn’t fall far behind with his simulation room practice and Em, despite her start date being much later, seemed to be rather good with her knives.
After the five minutes were up, the screen blanked out. Tess continued, “Now that you’ve completed a fairly large portion of training, we think you’re ready for a trial run. Nothing too hard, just a quick trip out for you to retrieve some documents.”
“What documents? Why can’t you just have them sent to—”
“Paper documents,” Tess narrowed her eyes at Eli, “... In the wrong hands of a group of people. In order to apprehend these criminals, we require the four of you to collect the evidence before it is destroyed.”
Ethan glared back at the woman. As much as they were supposed to play dumb and submissive at the moment, she couldn’t possibly think they were that stupid. Ethan knew his grades sucked, but he believed there was still the tiniest shred of common sense in his brains. Where there was crime, the police dealt with it. It was rather obvious that they were being used for more shady political power moves.
“Do you mind elaborating?” Eris asked flatly.
“Of course. Oh, another thing—Errors, your friend over here has shown the best performance in cooperating with us. It would do very well for all of you to follow her example,” She gestured to Eris as she walked over to the display panel and clicked on a section of the program.
The Errors instantly found themselves before a list of names—they weren’t very well versed with current affairs, but some names were strangely familiar. It didn’t take too long for Eris to realise that these people were important—government level important.
Which, they understood, had to mean the ones involved with shady business were some kind of inner circle. Not everyone was liked well enough to be in on it.
“Since it’s your first time, this will be simple. Get in, retrieve it, eliminate any possible inconveniences and report back here. We’ve given you four the liberty of choice for who you want to start with,” Tess smiled, her hazel eyes glittering with a streak of malice that had Eli quaking, “After all, you Errors are unpredictable and that’s the strength we’re going to play on. So, choose!”
The Errors exchanged glances—they knew what they were supposed to do, but who to do it—
“Eli? How about you?”
“M-me?” Eli’s eyes widened as Eris deadpanned her question. “Uh, well, I think, uh… ”
The other two watched with tense stares at the boy’s panicky vibes, the words pounding in their minds.
3. Pick - pick option three as target on first mission. C.Wong and D.Chan
“... Number three!”
Ethan felt his fists unclench slowly. Em caught herself before she let out a sigh of relief. He’d remembered. Thank goodness—
Tess eyed Eli with amusement. “Interesting choice… Hmm, yes. Okay, now that the target has been chosen, please follow Vince over there,” she pointed at the guard at the door as the Errors turned to look, “... To get prepared for the mission.”
And so they obeyed. They walked side by side, somewhat reassured yet still tensed, as Vince led them to a room with a glass panel… with Leland Yang sitting behind it, smiling calmly as he sipped on what looked like green tea. The bodyguards stood behind him as usual. “It’s been quite a while since I last saw all of you… how are they?” He turned to Vince, who instantly choked out a reply tinted in a oh-my-lord-the-great-Leland-noticed-me voice, “They’ve been exemplary at training, Sir, and their discipline has also improved tremendously since their arrival.”
Ethan almost snorted. Exemplary? That was the first time someone used that word to describe him and the others. But he kept his firm glare on Leland, who nodded in pleasure.
“That’s good,” Leland’s artificial grin remained as he turned to the Errors, as if waiting for them to talk… only for surprise to now appear on his face. “Nothing? Come on, I’d hate if a bit of military training ruined your rebellious spark. I’m sure you kids are tougher than that, given how you were raised. It wasn’t civil, but it sure was refreshing—”
“Well, if you want a reaction, then screw you,” Em replied with a look of disdain.
Leland almost looked proud as he chuckled, “And there she is. Allowing you four to build natural resistance to your defects and work around it has obviously, well, worked.”
If Ethan was being given a free pass to be at least somewhat rude, he was taking it. “Instead of distracting us from the important mission thing that you want us on, why don’t you cut the crap and tell us what you’re here for?”
“Is it that unbelievable that I’m here to check on you kids?” Leland raised an eyebrow, his blue eyes filled with amusement as he pushed his chair up and stood, “I’ve noticed you seem to over-analyse things. It’s not good, you know. It makes you unhappy and wastes your brain power on something that isn’t even there. Take it from someone who’s been in politics for thirty-plus years. I’ve got to take my leave now… I await to hear about your performance on the upcoming mission.” And with that, he flashed another saccharine grin that scanned from a frowning Eli to a deadpan Eris, until he turned for the door with the bodyguards behind him.
They were given the privacy (or not, considering Eris’ situation) to suit up in what had to be equipment heaven.
Eris glanced at the others—Em scrutinising the selection of blades, Ethan testing out the gauntlet-like thing and Eli craned his neck to read the inventory of equipment flashed on the wall. No one talked, other than the occasional “Do you think we’ll need this?” or “Hey, this one fits you!”
They were scared of her—more precisely, the SmartGlass in her mind.
As far as Eris understood from training, she was still free to her own thoughts; the computer in her brains only received information sent to 0501_ERIS and monitored her surroundings. But nevertheless, she knew it would be wise to censor her thoughts—one could never be too careful.
A normal person would be disturbed, upset at the thought of their lives being monitored so closely and their closest confidants fearful of speaking with them. But Eris? She didn’t mind at all—and as much as she recognised that it was her defect, what made her broken, it was helpful at the moment for her to not care.
To trust that the others knew what they were doing.
She slipped on her gloves and swiftly grabbed the bulletproof jacket off the rack—and turned to Em, who removed her knife from her tongue swiftly, flushing in embarrassment. “Uh, sorry. Do you want me to, uh… poison your bullets?”
Eris shook her head. “I don’t think we need to,” she turned to the boys, “You guys ready?”
“Yup,” Eli called out as he straightened out his jacket. Ethan followed behind, fumbling with his gloves and brass knuckles.
They stepped out of the room, weapons in hand, as the light dimmed and the door slid shut behind them.