Alec’s more operational eye scans the crowd packed densely around him, a vast gathering of imps hand-picked from Settlement 209 and the surrounding cities, about five hundred in all. Somehow the Arena hardly seems big enough for them all, even though it is Settlement 209’s premiere sports stadium, built to contain thousands of entertainment-seeking civilians. But today the collapsible bleachers and most other structures have been dismantled, leaving nothing but an expanse of green turf. This is where the Uniters have gathered.
Friends are clustered together, while more outgoing imps introduce themselves to total strangers. Exclamations ring out whenever someone discovers a coworker whose face has been altered by stage two modifications. Cade in particular is receiving a lot of attention for his transformation, which admittedly halted even Alec when he first saw it this morning. Idle chatter saturates the air, thick and unpleasant, like an unbearable bout of humidity.
In Alec’s original occupation, he was trained to think of people as objects, as assets to be protected or scorned instead of as individuals. That mindset has followed him throughout every stage of his life, and to this day, large groupings irritate him to no end. He detests the sociable attitudes that infiltrate even deadly serious situations such as this. For all he knows, there may be intelligent conversations going on somewhere in the Arena, but he doesn’t see it that way. From his perspective, he is surrounded by nothing but stupidity and white noise.
He isn’t the only person who thinks so. Some figures are sprawled out around the fringes of all the activity, looking on with disinterest. He is fairly certain that he’s spotted Lai in this latter category, with her nose jammed in an old-fashioned book as always, her comm streaming a music feed to her ears so that she can block out the world. It’s hard to tell, though, because the Uniters have been made homogenous by their new uniforms.
Alec still feels ambiguous about the uniforms. He praises the concept, as they provide a sense of unity (which is exactly what a group called theUnitersneeds)…but they are very hard to get used to. He has been wearing crisp suit jackets and pants every day for as long as he can remember, and while he knows that his uniform is no less revealing and extends from his neck to his toes, the garment is so lightweight that it’s as if he is wearing nothing at all. The armored fabric resembles sleek black chainmail on the outside, but the texture receptors in his skin inform him that its inside is comfortably soft, though he is unable to properly feel this for himself. Metal arm- and leg-guards complete the ensemble, and a discreet clip rests against his ear, containing an emergency communicator for contact with the other soldiers.
A voice suddenly blasts from the Arena’s sound system, jarring him out of his thoughts. “Attention, everyone!”
The side conversations peter out, and the crowd splits unevenly, allowing six humans to make their way to the center of the field. He recognizes the dark-skinned woman at the front as Lady T, but the people trailing along behind her are unfamiliar. The imps hurriedly arrange themselves into a lopsided donut-shaped formation around her, and Alec takes up a position near the inside of the ring, hoping for a better view. Lai also wriggles her way up to the front. He can pick her out clearly, since she’s at least a head shorter than the next smallest Uniter present, and her familiar face sticks out like a bright silver coin in a patch of grass.
Lady T’s eyes sweep over the crowd. Even without a podium to elevate her, she seems to be far above the rest of them. She taps her ear clip, clears her throat, and announces, “Welcome to your first training session.”
Her voice rolls from the sound system and breaks over them like an ocean wave. The Uniters remain enveloped in nervous silence.
“First of all, I would like to thank each and every one of you for volunteering. As you know, this is perilous work. The ILG must be stopped, and right now conditions in Settlement 211 are rapidly worsening. You all may be our only hope of setting things right again. It makes me proud to know that so many imps are willing to do whatever it takes to fix this. If any of you are still uncertain…allow me to inform you what’s at stake.
“The world has a long, proud history of ripping itself apart. Nations split up and join together and rename themselves, feuds go on for so long that no one can remember how they started or what they’re fighting for, economies rise and fall more often than the tides, and no matter how many problems are solved, people always find something else to fight over. At least, that was how thingswere. These days, we all try to behave more progressively. We quarantine conflicts and try to dampen them before they really start. We use the settlement system to try and keep up an attitude of global unity. We spend less time killing each other and more time thinking, analyzing, trying to understand the world around us. It’s worked fairly well so far. Now the environment is considered to be near-stable, and the class gap is starting to close, mostly because of imps like yourselves.
“But the system is still new and vulnerable. It could be compromised if someone tried to attack it. Someone like the Imps Liberation Group, maybe.”
An uneasy mutter rises from the group like a mist.
“We all knew that society wasn’t perfect,” Lady T continues. “The possibility for another war still existed. And now, after seeing two weeks of unbridled chaos unfold in Settlement 211, I think that the New War is here. And everyone is unprepared. That’s why you’ll all be training in here every day, getting ready for the fight. I expect all of you to progress quickly, thanks to the modifications you’ve been given. But I want you all to realize that at this point,anything can happen. We don’t know very much about the ILG, and that’s the most dangerous part of all.”
If Lady T’s goal was to stop getting everyone to think of this as an inter-settlement party, she has succeeded. The last echoes of the sound system are swallowed by a somber silence. Many of the imps are looking down, while others stare straight ahead with determined expressions. Alec’s face hasn’t shifted one iota. His functional eye continues to move back and forth at a measured pace, while its partner barely twitches in its malformed socket.
“Now, let’s begin,” Lady T declares. “We will start by dividing you into squadrons. This will maximize our efficiency, as different squadrons can target the ILG in multiple fashions, and we can tail them if they split up…that said, there are exactly five hundred of you, so each squadron will be comprised of one hundred people. I am sending your assignments to your comms now. Please check to see which area of the Arena you’ll be meeting in.”
Movement ripples across the crowd as hands plunge into pressure-release pockets. Alec draws out his comm, feeling it pulsate in his hand even as he does so, and finds an unread text feed waiting for him.You have been assigned to Squadron 3, reads the text, just above a map of the Arena with the northwest corner highlighted in green. He makes a beeline for that location and gets caught up in a flock of imps also heading that way. These must be his new group mates.
Lady T’s voice starts up again, only this time it is channeled through his em-comm instead of blasting out of the sound system. “Every squadron has a leader and a second-in-command, who were handpicked for their jobs by me. They were notified of their positions beforehand, and I don’t want to hear any complaints about not being appointed a leader from anyone else. There were still be time to ascend in the hierarchy of the Uniters. For now, please be respectful to your squadron leaders. Squadron 1 leader is Ethl Nicole, second in command Mar Salomon. Squadron 2 leader is Dar Schonoff, second in command Kez Belmonte. Squadron 3 leader is Les Mansen, second in command Ema Mansen…”
So Ema and the newly dubbed Les have managed to secure themselves high rankings. Alec isn’t so surprised. After all, Les was specially modified to be a leader, and Ema will be able to see into the enemies’ heads while keeping morale up. On top of that, both of them are relatively well known, even outside of Settlement 209.
He, on the other hand, is a misanthrope only known for being an android with a damaged eye. Although, come to think of it, if people actually knew who he was hewouldbe famous…but not in a very glamorous way. People wouldn’t be so lenient about snickering behind his back, to say the least.
“Also, a trainer has been assigned to every squadron,” adds Lady T once she has finished with her list of names. “You won’t see them after your training has been completed, but please treat them with the utmost respect. They’re the ones who will be teaching you how to use all of that information in your heads.”
Alec assumes that the trainers are the five unidentified humans who Lady T brought to the Arena today. Sure enough, he sees one of the mystery men standing there was he reaches his designated corner. The man is discussing something with Les and Ema, occasionally fingering one of the many oddly-shaped weapons dangling from his belt. The imps of Squadron 3 flock around him like children surrounding a schoolteacher. This time Alec hangs back, and he notes with some irritation that Lai has wormed her way up to the front again. So she is in his group, as well. Why did Lady T even allow her into the Uniters? An army is no place for a naïve, scatterbrained girl like her.
Finally, the trainer speaks a word to Ema and Les, and they scamper off so that he can take the stage. He gazes around the one hundred imps, who are all standing more or less at attention, and taps his ear clip.
“I hope everyone’s ready,” his voice sounds in Alec’s em-comm. “Because it’s time for the main event to begin. Welcome to your first day of Uniter training.”