Chapter 6: The Deep End

          In a larger room on Level 11, Cam double-tapped a wide pane of glass.

          This was the gym; one of the walls was mirrored and this time there were a few other DYNTEC employees around. Most of them were preoccupied with their own workout routine, doing push-ups, pull-ups, or lifting weights with various levers and pulleys.

          The black pane that Cam had tapped faded into transparency. Within its surface, an interface of lights and lines appeared. Behind the interface was an astonishing number of guns.

          The main display consisted of dozens of short pistols and long-barreled black rifles sitting on a shelf and hanging below on a rack, but there were other types of guns and weapons too, that I didn’t recognize, and a few knives with jagged edges that looked quite terrifying.

          I’d never seen anything like it before, at least, not in real life. I didn’t think I’d ever seen a real gun, let alone a whole case of them.

          “Is this… all of DYNTEC’s guns?” I asked.

          Cam laughed loudly. “No. This is a small fraction of what we own. DYNTEC has enough weapons to subdue the entire city if we needed to. This is the training supply case for Level-Ones. Just scan your Biometric and then pick the one you want from the glass. They’re numbered. You have to—and this is very important—you have to return it at the end of the day after training.”

          I nodded.

          “Otherwise, there are consequences up to and including termination. Level Two’s—like me,” his lips quirked, “can check them out for longer periods. So don’t worry about me, just worry about yourself.”

          I nodded again.

          “So check one out.”

          I looked at him questioningly.

          “Go on then, pick one. How about the little black Rivera down there? Number 42.”

          I held my Biometric up to the screen where Cam had put his. The display powered down and booted up again, and I selected the “42” where the lines on the case overlapped the Rivera.

          There was a small whirring and hissing noise, and then a small trap-door opened under the firearm and dispensed it onto a tray, like a high-end vending machine. Cam reached into the tray, grabbed the gun and placed it into my hand.

          I held it awkwardly on top of my palm. It was heavier than I’d expected.

          “Cam?” I asked, hesitantly. “What am I going to be doing for DYNTEC?”

          He laughed again. “Basically nothing. Don’t worry about it. You’re only a Level One.”

***

          Cam was right. It did take eight weeks of training for me to buff up even a little bit. Even then, I didn’t look that different, I could just run a mile, lift over half my own weight and do ten pull-ups on a good day. I’d also been working on the basics of martial arts; the punching bag had a few good dents in it and I was trying to learn how to fight with a knife.

          When I wasn’t training, I was introduced to the other trainees and agents. Nearly all of them stopped by the gym occasionally, Cam told me—keeping in shape was a part of the contract. If you let yourself go too much, you’d be let go.

          There were other men and women, some older than me, some younger. Most intimidated me at first, but I figured I’d get used to it, and tried to fit in. I was one of them now. The culture seemed fairly competitive. There was no reassignment after being in DYNTEC. I realized, not without apprehension, that I’d never met a former DYNTEC employee. I asked Cam about retirement, and he said it was possible, but most retired DYNTEC employees didn’t advertise their former profession. They could even lie about it if necessary; have their history changed on the Profile.

          “Why?” I asked.

          “Helps you get along better with the civvies, if you really want to mix back in with them.” He shrugged. “We’re not exactly well-liked.”

          “What do you mean?” I was perplexed, I’d never heard anyone say anything bad about DYNTEC.

          “You’re so innocent,” said Cam, and I glared at him. “How about I show you how to do a Profile check,” he said. “You spend some more time doing Profile checks, you’ll learn what people are really like.”

          So I began to flex my powers as well. Every morning after physical training, Cam would provide me with a list of suspicious persons – so I got that bland desk after all! – and I’d read through their Profiles. I had a backdoor, too, so I could see everything the general public couldn’t see, and read all of their private messages too. At first it was a weird feeling.

          I never interacted with the targets; that would have been worse. Conversations through the Profiles are like being on the wrong side of one-way glass. Most of the time people don’t notice the glass is there. It’s only uncanny when something starts moving on the other side.

          “The system generates these lists automatically,” said Cam. “Just mark the ones you think might be Detractors. Thumbs up or thumbs down. You used to be an Educator. You know what the criteria are.”

          And Cam was right, too. Under the clean and polite public cover, people who’d been flagged by the system tended to be very lacking in the “social graces” Cam had described. And there was a lot worse than that too; sometimes just straight-up crime. It was a lot like grading papers, except with the awkwardness of reading people’s personal communications.

          Some of them were obvious, such clear obscenities regarding the Administrators and DYNTEC. I was shocked that people could talk this way about them—and well, about me. Wasn’t I a DYNTEC employee? Wasn’t I working to keep them safe from criminals? The first few times, the system showed me these conversations almost devoid of context and I flagged them without hesitation.

          Some of them were obviously Detractors. Any time somebody talked about wanting to leave the Settlement, I knew they were spreading ideas that could lead to the extinction of mankind. We had to wait. We couldn’t go out there and leech even more resources off the Earth. Detractors were unbelievably selfish people. Just for a look outside the Wall, they’d doom humanity.

          Some were less obvious.

Hi dear, Jamie isn’t feeling well today, she has a stomachache again. I don’t know what it is.

          Maybe it’s those cupcakes she had at school for the last two days in a row, do you think they made a bad batch?

          If they did they wouldn’t tell us, we all know what the damned food labs are like.

          This one, I had to think about. They only cared. They were concerned for their daughter. And not even in an unhealthy way—they just wanted her to survive, wasn’t that the goal? And what if something bad had come from the food labs? I had used to work there. It was only a remote possibility, I told myself – so much that the Lab Heads were justified in saying it was impossible. There was no way this had happened to their daughter. So why were they thinking of it? Because they were predisposed negatively toward the food labs? Sure sounded like it. They hated the place where all our food for the survival of everyone was made and grown.

          But… I kind of did too. Hated working there, anyway.

But that is just the way life is, nothing anybody can do about it. They were talking the way Detractors would talk. They deserved one negative mark, perhaps they would learn from it. I wasn’t hurting them; I told myself, they wouldn’t be brought up for review unless they had many violations.

          I pushed down my feelings and gave them a violation.

          There was an indoor pool on the tenth floor of the Central building.

          “You need to learn how to swim,” said Cam.

          For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine why. In all my time in the Settlement I hadn’t encountered any body of water larger than a bathtub. The very existence of a pool was an unimaginable luxury.

          He gave me two separate days to go down and “learn how to swim,” and when, on the third day, I still reported no success, he came down to “teach me how to swim”. He came out of the men’s locker with a pair of loose shorts and a white towel.

I had my hair pulled back in a slick ponytail, and stood barefoot on the edge of the pool. “Okay… show me,” I said, skeptical that he’d be able to show me anything that I hadn’t already tried.

          He responded by pushing hard with both hands against my back.

          In an instant, my feet were out from under me. I landed in the deep end with a hard smack, and flailed out wildly. Water was all around me. Water was under me. So much water. It was on top of me too—the world submerged into deep echoes. My eyes squeezed shut by reflex. There was water in my nose—in my mouth, as I had tried to scream. I clamped my lips together, but the chlorinated pool water burned my throat and lungs, and I found myself trying to cough only to gulp more. It had only been seconds, but I was drowning. Oh, Earth, I was drowning. I kept flailing, but I was sinking—sinking—I was going to drown in water barely higher than my head— but my feet were the wrong way around.

          One of my hands, trying desperately to grab anything, hit something solid.

          It was Cam.

          He was in the water too, and righted me by the arms until he’d pulled me up to the surface.

          I hated him.

          My sinuses were still burning as I coughed and desperately tried to use what air was left in my lungs to expel the water. I breathed in raggedly a few times, and then coughed some more. “I hate you.”

          “Good. Great. Whatever.” Cam was treading water. “I thought you might just be afraid of the water. That wasn’t so bad, now, was it?”

          “Are you kidding me? That was effing* terrible.”

          He was holding on to me by the shoulders to keep me afloat, and I was weighing him low in the water. I resented the fact that he was touching me, but I also knew that if he let go of my arms, I’d be headed straight to the bottom.

          “Well, you can talk now, so you must be all right. I’ll bet if I did it again you’d handle it a bit differently, huh?”

          “Screw you.” I splashed water in his face.

          We spent the rest of the day learning how to swim.

The pool still unnerved me. The bottom looked close, but it was so far away. I could drown. Die. I knew Cam would save me if it came close to that, but he didn’t exactly give off a reliable bedside manner.

After we got out of the pool room, and I was back in my normal clothes, my hair drying off, Cam came back from the men’s locker, now in a white shirt. “I know you’re angry,” he said.

I gave him a dry look.

“That’s not surprising. Go ahead and hit me.”

“What? Come on.” I was bemused. I might have been angry, but even in the water, I hadn’t been inclined to do anything more than splash him.

He spread his arms. “Well, go on. Do it. Punch me in the face. It’s the perfect time. You won’t get another chance like this.”

I was once again speechless. I dropped the towel I’d been using for my hair. “Are you serious?”

“I am, actually. You’ve never punched anyone in the face before, have you?”

“No.”

“That’s why DYNTEC wants you to do it. Gotta have a first time.”

I curled my fingers experimentally into a fist, feeling a prickle along my arms that caused me to flinch. “You want me to hit you… because DYNTEC wants me to be able to hit you.”

“You have a mental block. How are you going to learn fighting skills if you don’t overcome it?”

“Fine,” I sighed. If DYNTEC wanted it, I might as well get it over with. I walked up to him and gave my fist a test swing for trajectory. Cam appeared to brace himself but didn’t move.

I moved again slowly through the swing. Yeah, that would do it. I held my hand right up to his jaw. I began again, but despite having a good start, something inside me made me stop inches away from his face.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

I swallowed. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I said.

“It’s only fair,” said Cam. “What I did to you today was worse, and I’m going to do worse than that to you in the future. Don’t feel bad about it. It’s a part of your training.”

The near-drowning had been a part of my training too. I’d learned how to swim. It had worked. I tried to bring back the anger of a few minutes ago, but it wouldn’t come.

          Mildly and unenthusiastically, I punched Cam in the jaw.

          I could tell that I had still made a little bit of a dent, but he at least had the decency not to act like he was in pain. “That was pathetic,” he laughed, after getting himself to rights. But he didn’t ask me to try again, and I caught him rubbing his chin when he thought I wasn’t looking.

That night I went home even more sore than I had been after the weight training. I rubbed my arms and legs all the way down to the first floor and through the sublevels until I reached my own tenement building.

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