I learned to shoot a gun from the ground up. Cam wasn’t always alone in teaching me this; there were other instructors. One of them was a burly Sergeant named Jesse. He was a man in his 40’s with a receding hairline and a perpetual frown. I respected him, because he was the one who stopped me when I was making ridiculous mistakes. Cam never did that.
Cam’s idea of “teaching me to shoot” was all about being a fast and accurate draw.
Jesse put the horse more in front of the cart.
“A gun is force,” he said. “Deadly force. The power to kill. You’re goin’ to respect that. You respect anything with the power to kill ya.”
We practiced at first in DYNTEC’s indoor range. The first time he saw me holding the gun with the barrel pointed towards myself, he grabbed it and wrenched it out of my hand.
“Keep your finger off the trigger,” he said. He had to get on me about that one several times.
“But it’s unloaded!”
“It’s always loaded.”
“But I just unloaded it. You watched me.”
Jesse said it again, more rough and serious. “It’s always loaded. Even if it’s unloaded, it’s loaded. You get my drift?”
I did; this form of rhetorical contradiction was not unfamiliar to me. I slapped myself mentally for questioning him. But he surprised me by restating himself in plain terms.
“You never point that thing at anything you’re not willing to destroy. Never at anyone you’re not willin’ to kill.”
I knew Cam could hear, but he wasn’t listening. Now every time he moved his pistol I imagined a laser pointer coming from the end, and it moved around the room wildly, glancing across me a few times.
We were dressed the same, he and I, at least during work hours. We usually wore black or gray shirts, like the other DYNTEC agents, long pants and jackets with long puffy sleeves when we had to be outdoors.
I turned out to be a fairly accurate shot. Jesse nodded in approval once he was sure I had the basics down.
“If you can pass the advanced course,” he said, “You can go on to Level Two.”
“Level Two?” Was he saying what I thought he was saying?
“Yes. A real, certified Level Two.”
It must have been the discontent part of me, the part that could never sit still, that spoke next. “I want to do it,” I said.
The advanced shooting range was outdoors. That surprised me, because not many things were held outdoors in the Settlement. This was mostly due to lack of space. The city was tightly packed. It had to be, in order to fit the entire world’s population of 15 million into an area of 20 by 20 miles. In effect, this meant that within the walls of the city, there was little but city.
The range was comparatively a very generous space, on the outer edge of the 1st Southwest District, directly next to the Wall. The 300-foot high outer wall of the Settlement was used as a backstop for some of the targets. I noticed that out here by the Wall, the air smelled a little different. Moist, perhaps. There was a wind blowing inward. I worried about toxins from the outside. The air outdoors was often unsafe to breathe, but we would have been warned if it was a bad day for air quality, so I was forced to shrug it off.
Jesse ran the training course today.
First, we went through a series of simulations. The “simulations” were rather rudimentary, in fact—I was made to hold my hands in ice water until they were numb, then try to load the rifle with stiff and shaking fingers as the clock ticked. I barely hit the targets; my accuracy suffered.
“When you’re in a real situation,” said Jesse, “adrenaline will make it harder to fire. Trust me, I know.”
There were a few other strange ones. The range did have a small building to accompany it; only two stories tall. After our short break, I walked out from the upper story onto a balcony overlooking the targets. They were out there on the gravel yard with sandbags behind them. There was also a crate down below, about twenty yards from the targets, with a rifle on it. Jesse followed me out.
“Your next test is timed,” he said. “On start, you’re going to go down there, pick up the rifle and shoot the targets.”
I eyed the stairs that led from the balcony to the ground. “Okay.” It seemed simple enough.
Jesse stepped back. That should have been my first warning.
He blew the whistle, and at the same time the floor dropped out from under me.
There was a foam bag down there, and I fell into it with a splat. I hadn’t been prepared for that at all—as was certainly the intention. I struggled to sort out my head from my feet. I’d landed on my bottom and luckily didn’t seem to be injured.
The target! I was timed.
I rolled off the cushion and onto the ground, then stood up from my hands and knees. I ran to the rifle, loaded it and fired five shots, one into each target.
“Nice work,” said Jesse, a rare compliment. I flushed. “Stay down there.”
I looked back, and noticed he was coming down with Cam. What could he want me to do that required both of them? Cam hadn’t been involved before, he’d been off doing other exercises at the far end of the range.
Now he and Jesse approached me.
“Your last test today is to shoot the targets again,” said Jesse handing me more rounds, “But this time, Cam and I will be standing on either side of the target.”
At first I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I laughed nervously, but my laugher died as I realized he wasn’t joking. Jesse was giving me a look that indicated that he was absolutely serious.
“Is… is that really…”
“It is necessary. There will be times when you’ll need to aim at targets near other human beings. I don’t want you hesitating. You need to be confident.”
This seemed to fly straight in the face of everything he had said before about not pointing the barrel of a gun in the direction of a person, but I didn’t dare question it any further.
He and Cam moved down range.
“Cam?” I asked tremulously. “Aren’t you scared that I’m going to hit you?”
He smirked. “Come on, Alex. I’ve seen your spreads. I know how accurate you are. You can do this.”
I clicked the cartridge into place. “What happens if I do hit you?”
Jesse looked at Cam.
“I’d do anything for the Settlement, same as you, Alex. It’s okay. Just do it.”
They were standing confidently now on either side of the target, about fifteen feet apart from each other, feet planted, arms crossed on their chests.
“Ready,” said Jesse.
I took aim. I had broken out in a cold sweat. Don’t let my hands shake now.
“Fire at will.”
I couldn’t say it out loud now, but I found myself whispering “I don’t want to shoot you…” under my breath.
I fired into the target dead-center. One, two, three, four, five.
I lowered the rifle, weak with relief.
Cam was already at my side, perhaps as eager to be out of there as I was to be done. He gave me a shrug and a fake punch in the shoulder. “See? I knew you could do it.”
By now I’d realized that “being strangely open with physical contact”, though sometimes required for training, wasn’t a DYNTEC thing, it was just a Cam thing.
Jesse raised an eyebrow as he strode back up range. “It’s good to be alive. Congratulations, you graduated to Level Two.” Then he turned to Cam. “Good job with your first trainee, Cam. That makes you two equal for now.”
He turned back to me. “That means he’s not your boss anymore.”
I allowed myself a small smug smile.
In spite of his dry humor, Jesse was, as always, stone-faced. “You’re ready to start prep for your first mission.”